City gets tough on vacant houses 10 sites to be sealed in metal systems to keep criminals out

July 28, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Acknowledging they are losing the battle to keep crime out of vacant rowhouses boarded with plywood, Baltimore officials are turning structures into iron fortresses -- sealing entrances with metal planks to force illicit activity outside where it can be seen by police.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has put together a list of the 10 most notorious abandoned rowhouses routinely used by drug dealers, addicts, rapists and arsonists.

Vacant Property Security, a Delaware-based company that specializes in sealing unoccupied or abandoned houses, will cover windows and doors with thick metal sheets that are bolted into the building frame. The city plans to announce the program and provide the list today at a news conference.

"It would be easier to bulldoze the side of the building than to pry these things off," said Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the city's housing authority.

The company doesn't sell its product, but rents the system on a weekly basis. The cost depends on the number of doors and windows, but a company official said it costs about $100 a week to seal a typical two-story Baltimore rowhouse.

Germroth said the city will rent 10 systems and rotate them to different houses, the idea being that a rapist or drug dealer using a vacant property will quickly move to another location -- and be arrested in the process.

Officials acknowledge that criminals could return once the metal comes down, but Germroth said they hope the "disruption of a crime trend" will solve the immediate problem. An estimated 27,000 dwellings are vacant in the city.

One of the houses targeted is on West Baltimore Street across pTC from a housing complex for the elderly. It has been used by prostitutes. "As fast as we put boards up, the boards would come down," Germroth said.

Vacant rowhouses are a constant problem for communities, whose residents often complain they are turned into drug dens.

Two months ago, a serial rapist attacked three women in the basement of a vacant house in the 1300 block of N. Calhoun St. This month, a 77-year-old man who lived in the only occupied home in the 1600 block of Llewelyn Ave. was charged with shooting a teen-ager in the back as he tried to flee through a vacant house across the street. The city bulldozed the block two weeks ago.

A demonstration model for the new system went up last week in Cherry Hill at a long-vacant rowhouse in the 2600 block of Carver Road. Police said drug dealers had thwarted several raids and returned to do business despite numerous arrests.

The two-story house now looks like a bank vault, with metal sheets protruding from the windows and the heavy metal door firmly secured. The only way in is to use a numerical code.

"Compared to putting up plywood boards, it's a little expensive," said Douglas DiJulio, the regional manager for Vacant Property Security, which has clients in Philadelphia and Chicago. "But plywood doesn't protect anything."

Residents who live on Carver Road said they were pleased with the new devices. "You could put that up on all the houses and we wouldn't have to worry about nothing," said Linda Johnson, 36, who lives two doors away.

Neighborhood children playing nearby complained that the vacant house had attracted drug addicts and dealers. "I think it will be good because it will stop the drug abuse," said 10-year-old Brenayia Manigo.

Boarding homes with metal might seem a novel approach, but DiJulio said the concept has been common in Western Europe and Great Britain for the past decade. He said his company has been around for three years and protects 500 vacant houses in Chicago each week. The company has rented systems in Philadelphia and Prince George's County.

Most of his business is with government agencies, said DiJulio, but private groups also have shown interest. In Chicago, for example, he said public housing is being torn down and turned over to private developers, who use metal contraptions to protect their homes in the midst of construction.

"It sends two messages," DiJulio said of his security innovation. "This is not an abandoned property covered with plywood. This is a home. It is valuable. The other message is, don't bother this house."

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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