In search of housing court remedy Nightmare: City task force pushes four bills to combat widespread housing abandonment.

February 01, 1997

ANYONE WHO has dealt with the housing court in Baltimore City knows it is a nightmare. One judge, working half-time, is trying to handle an avalanche of complaints. Because of incessant postponements, many cases are never resolved. Thus the housing court does not have the muscle that it ought to have as the adjudicator of criminal cases.

An unusually broad-based task force of city interest groups -- including landlords as well as community activists -- is now asking the Maryland General Assembly to make the system more workable. "If we don't get proper enforcement, we won't get the kind of city we deserve and want," said Ruth Wolf Rehfeld, a member of the Substandard Housing Task Force.

The panel's main recommendation is a complete overhaul of the city housing court so it could handle criminal as well as civil complaints, including injunctions and receiverships. It would also collect outstanding taxes and liens. The task force wants to have two full-time judges who are interested in housing issues on the court.

The task force also seeks a reform in the appeals process and proposes to streamline and change a variety of code enforcement practices. These efforts have won the support of most, but not all, city delegates and senators.

As the number of vacant and abandoned houses has skyrocketed in the city in recent years, it has become increasingly evident that the current housing court system does not work. However, because it is part of the state court system, no reform is possible without the approval of the General Assembly.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III estimates that the number of vacant houses in Baltimore exceeds 16,000, a figure that many activists characterize as low. He says authorities would want to take a like number of complaints to housing court but cannot do so because the court already is too overwhelmed with existing cases.

The changes proposed by the task force would not be cheap. Yet unless some action is taken -- even at the additional cost of several hundred thousand dollars -- the city's vacant housing crisis will only worsen.

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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