For contractors, riches from ruin: Wrecking : The city's drive to shore up neighborhoods is worth millions for a handful of demolition businesses.

April 07, 1997|By John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner | John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF Also contributing to this article: staff writers Ronnie Greene, Walter F. Roche Jr., Scott Higham and Brenda J. Buote; electronic news editor Michael Himowitz; news researchers Jean Packard, Paul McCardell, Dee Lyon and Susan Waters; electronic news assistants Angela Gaddy, Laura Barnhardt and Genice Owens.

On paper, Pless B. Jones looked like a man in trouble - besieged through the early 1990s by an ugly divorce, lawsuits by creditors, threats from the IRS and a protracted bankruptcy.

But in 1995, Jones and companies connected to him managed to pump nearly $16,000 into Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's re-election campaign and a year later funneled $37,700 into national Democratic Party coffers.

And all during the time his company was pleading poverty to a federal bankruptcy judge, records show, his companies were collecting more than $7.2 million from the city housing administration.

Today, the 48-year-old demolition contractor is back from the brink of financial disaster, thanks to his role in a $20 million campaign to tear down rundown buildings while increasing the amount of tax dollars that go to minority businesses.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III has paid contractors to demolish 1,500 units of city-owned public housing with dynamite, bulldozers and wrecking cranes during his four-year tenure. But he also has engaged in a less spectacular drive on Baltimore's side streets and alleys to topple more than 1,000 privately owned, decayed dwellings - and now vows to wreck another 1,000 this year alone.

Baltimore's housing chief refused requests for an interview but said in written statement: "No city in the country has made more progress in the last few years in ridding itself of substandard properties."

But the vacant lots left behind are actually fueling the neighborhood blight that Henson's Department of Housing and Community Development has been trying to curtail, an investigation by The Sun has found.

The reason: Bills for the demolitions are passed on to property owners, many of whom are dead or too cash-strapped to pay them. So the city attaches the debts to the land itself, barring anyone from buying it until the demands are satisfied.

The unpaid bills are now acting as an impenetrable paper barrier around as many as 5,000 vacant lots in the city. And they have driven many owners to abandon their stakes - leaving postage-stamp plots to become dumps.

Henson is vowing to expand their number by 20 percent in a single year. If he succeeds, he will have taken down more houses since 1993 than his predecessors did in the eight years before he arrived.

This wrecking binge has been a wellspring of cash for a small circle of contractors, who have had a virtual lock on the work since Henson took office.

L In his letter to The Sun, Henson dismisses this as "a myth."

But an analysis of building permits and other records shows that Jones and Randolph Phipps have received more than 60 percent of the $4 million that Henson's housing department has paid contractors for demolition work over the past three years.

Henson's housing authority has also spent spent millions more to tear down public housing projects. The commissioner would not release public housing payment records sought by The Sun.

But sources and the limited data available show that $4.4 million of the $8 million spent to demolish two public housing projects - Lexington Terrace and Fairfield Homes - went to a separate corporation formed last May by Jones and Phipps. A housing department spokesman, however, said the figure was less - about $3.1 million.

The two have been paid millions not only to tear down buildings, but also to brick up the walls of houses that are left behind to keep them from keeling over after adjoining dwellings are ripped away.

The program has been so lucrative that these firms now do little work in Baltimore that is not billed to taxpayers. And first among them is Jones' P&J Contracting Co. Inc.

"It's true that he's done very well in his demolition contracting for the city in recent years," says Jones' attorney, Robert Fulton Dashiell. "And I'm sure it's one of the things that sustained his business through his bankruptcy reorganization. But that should not suggest that he's done anything improper."

Local housing advocates and urban planning experts say Henson's push to knock down old, abandoned hulks is plainly a good idea. They point out that the exodus of nearly 300,000 residents has left behind as many as 40,000 decaying houses that would cost more to fix than they're worth.

But the advocates and experts also agree that his crusade to knock down an average of four dwellings a day from now until Christmas is unfocused and proceeding at a reckless pace.

"There doesn't seem to be any overall plan or policy guiding the program," said Dr. Sandra Newman, a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute of Policy Studies. "The city is reacting to a crisis one case at a time, which has very little impact on the crisis itself."

Rather than leveling whole blocks of dilapidated houses, the housing department is toppling them one at a time and leaving behind worthless lots wedged between equally worthless houses. Because most are no bigger than a bowling alley, they are too small for any practical use and are unlikely ever to be claimed.

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