Last family in a lost neighborhood On Baltimore's Port St., homes topple as landlord battles housing officials

October 18, 1998|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Billy Warsaw awakened to the sound of rattling glass and focused his one good eye on the swaying light fixture above his bed. Even before his two stepsons came running into the bedroom, he knew something was terribly wrong.

"Muriel!" Warsaw yelled for his wife. "Get up, girl! Something is going on outside!"

Warsaw rolled out of bed and hobbled to the window with all the speed he could muster from his 64-year-old frame -- just in time to see the big yellow crane boom sweep by and annihilate a row of abandoned houses across the narrow divide of Port Street.

"Hold it, hold it, hold it!" his wife yelled, as she ran out the front door in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. "You're not gonna knock down this house with us in it, are you?"

Three months later, the Warsaws are the only family left in the shattered 1100 block of N. Port St. in East Baltimore.

They reside in a battered brick box crawling with vermin at the end of an alley pocked with craters and strewn with debris. Heroin addicts skulk across the blacked-out terrain at night.

By day, children from nearby Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School play in rubble bristling with syringes.

"It's what I imagine hell would look like," says Muriel Warsaw, 50. "It's like living in hell."

Caught in the whirlpool of an epic struggle between Baltimore's biggest low-rent landlord and a cadre of young city housing lawyers intent on harpooning negligent property owners,the Warsaws are guppies in this bleakest of neighborhood tales.

At the helm stands Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who is embarking on one of the largest demolition campaigns in city history as a last-ditch effort to clear Baltimore of about 40,000 derelict dwellings -- a wall of empty rowhouses 90 miles long.

In his path bobs Stanley Roch-kind, whose portfolio of more than 1,000 units makes him the biggest whale at the bottom of the housing pool and the largest private owner of vacant properties in the city, housing lawyers say.

Part banker, part landlord and part folk hero, he is a man of almost mythical stature in the city's poorest quarters -- benefactor, father-confessor and scourge all rolled into one.

Entangled in the complex legal fight between the city and Roch-kind's dozens of corporations are people such as the Warsaws and 350 elementary school children besieged in a slum neighborhood that local residents call "Zombieland" -- a decades-old narcotics market.

For Rochkind owns Port Street, or most of it, court records show. And parts of Biddle. And some of Bradford. And a few addresses on Chase.

The little brick schoolhouse is surrounded by Rochkind's holdings. For residents and school officials desperate to lift the pall that hangs over this part of the city, he is the man to see.

Rent is in the mail

Rochkind stands at the corner of Biddle and Port streets in a rumpled white shirt, black mourning suit and fedora, his arms open wide, the picture of gray-bearded beneficence.

"Mr. Stanley!" one woman calls from her second-floor window. "The rent is in the mail."

"How you doin', Mr. Stanley?" a passing man asks, lightly patting the landlord's back.

"What's up, Mr. Stanley?" a teen-age boy calls from the other side of Biddle.

Says Rochkind: "Do you hear that? They love me! These are my people. I'm the only guy in this whole rotten city who is trying to help the neighborhoods.

"I get no loans, no grants, no subsidies -- not a nickel -- to help me do any of this. And I have to deal with the drugs, the crime, the theft, the vandalism. Those are not things I created.

"But all I'm getting is abuse from the housing department."

Rochkind then leads a tour of his neighborhood, pointing with disgust at the flooded foundations of adjoining houses demolished by the city, one of which is leaking into the basement of a unit next door that he just repaired for $30,000 under a court order.

That order, issued in May, requires Rochkind, his partners and subsidiary companies to repair or demolish 150 houses by the year 2000 or face contempt-of-court charges. And it represents a turning point in his long, uneasy relationship with the city.

Accustomed to years of negotiating deficiency notices and neighborhood complaints with officials of the Department of Housing and Community Development, Roch-kind bitterly contends that he is being shut out of City Hall.

Commissioner Henson, for example, has refused to meet with him since taking office in 1993.

Says Henson: "For me to meet with him would be a waste of my time and the taxpayers' time. This is a man who, literally, was used to getting his own way around here. And talking to him over the years has accomplished absolutely nothing. Those days are over."

Instead, Rochkind's properties have begun to show up on demolition lists, and his name is being stamped onto lawsuits with increasing regularity. In addition, records show, he has more than 230 outstanding violation notices.

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