Liens paper dream home Nightmare : Elizabeth Frazer was full of hope when she picked up a rambling house to renovate for $6,600 - until city bills started coming in for a stabilization job.

April 06, 1997|By John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner | John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Living in a struggling West Baltimore area, Elizabeth Frazer thought she was helping to revitalize the community - and getting a bargain in the process - when she offered $6,600 three years ago for a big abandoned house she planned to make her home.

Little did she know that neighbors' complaints had drawn high-level attention from City Hall, which was about to spend $18,000 for cosmetic repairs on the sagging heap. Or that she would later confront a city government seemingly more interested in collecting money than in getting the house fixed and occupied.

"It's been a nightmare," says the 49-year-old Social Security analyst, standing in the shadow of 4132 W. Forest Park Ave.

The lone eyesore on the block, Frazer's house of horrors will cost her $30,000 before she can begin renovations - a job expected to cost another $40,000 or more.

Frazer's nightmare began on a pleasant May day in 1994 when she and her brother, Isreal Fludd, submitted the successful bid for the house.

Two months later, the city Department of Housing and Community Development boarded the house and cleaned the property for $1,675 - then paid a contractor another $16,850 for a new porch, new roof, new front door and demolition of the garage.

Frazer was never warned of the impending work or given a chance to do it. But when it came time to collect for work, the city went after her, not the long-gone owner.

Frazer was told she had to pay the $18,525 plus interest before she could get title to the house. She was tempted to walk away and forfeit the $6,600 she had already shelled out. But she recalls getting a chilling message from the city: "If we didn't pay, we would be subject to legal proceedings."

So she pleaded for mercy. And she found sympathy at the housing department, which agreed that it "would be a hardship" for Frazer to pay. The Board of Estimates dropped the bills in January 1996.

But tax collectors discovered a technicality. Auction records listed Fludd - not Frazer - as the buyer. That's when City Hall sympathy dried up.

"I regret that we were unable to assist you," Dennis F. Taylor, a housing department official, wrote Frazer last May, blaming city lawyers for halting the deal.

So, the liens were revived.

"That was like a slap in the face," Frazer says.

Fearing a lawsuit, Frazer struck a deal last summer. She agreed to pay $18,575.32 by Sept. 15, 1997, and $5,000 in back taxes. In return, city lawyers agreed to forget $6,000 in interest and penalties.

Three months after Frazer began making payments, the city threw her another curve, filing a suit to acquire title to the house.

Asked to explain the suit, Carolyn Espy, a city lawyer who signed ZTC the deal with Frazer, responded, "You have to talk to the housing [department] people" who hire their own lawyers for such work.

"We have no knowledge" of the suit, said Zack Germroth, a housing department spokesman.

But Geoffrey L. Forman, the lawyer who filed the suit, said he had acted on instructions from the housing department, which subsequently told him to drop it. "I guess it was a mistake," he said.

Fludd and Frazer aren't neophyte investors. Between them, they own nearly two dozen city properties, most purchased in recent years. Fludd, who works nights at a Locust Point supermarket, maintains them.

Nevertheless, this house, a quarter mile from the Forest Park Golf Course, has soured them on investing in Baltimore.

"I never thought the city would take and do you like that," says Fludd, 56.

Adds Frazer, "Now, when I deal with the city, it's just a matter of trying to get my head out of the lion's mouth."

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