U.S. attorney offers to lead drive on criminal landlords

Baltimore office `is ready and willing to be the hammer'

February 17, 1999|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Following revelations that convicted felons own at least 200 rowhouses in East Baltimore, Maryland's chief federal prosecutor said yesterday that she would convene high-level meetings with city and state officials to coordinate an attack on criminal landlords.

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said that a 1996 agreement between her office and city prosecutors to cooperate on confiscating houses and other assets owned by drug dealers had been "little used" since then and was "clearly in need of restating."

Her comments followed an article in The Sun on Sunday that recounted the rise of George A. Dangerfield Jr., a 29-year-old convicted cocaine dealer under federal indictment as the central figure in a drug operation that invested its profits in a slum rental business.

"Am I concerned -- deeply concerned -- that Mr. Dangerfield has been allowed to own 127 houses and get away with manhandling his tenants at will?" Battaglia said.

"You bet I'm concerned. It was a hard story to read. My heart goes out to the people who have had to live in those neighborhoods under those conditions.

"But this is a problem that's harder to solve than it looks. It's not insurmountable, but it's going to take a lot of people sitting around a big table to figure out what piece of it each of us can handle. If need be, this office is ready and willing to be the hammer. That's what we're good at."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, himself a former prosecutor, said yesterday that he was equally distressed by tenants' accounts of rough treatment at Dangerfield's hands, adding that the story "put a new face on an old problem, the proliferation of slumlords in our city."

"We're facing a crisis of some 40,000 vacant houses, owned by all kinds of negligent owners," the mayor said. "And our major barrier has always been that our state laws are extremely protective of their rights -- even in cases where they simply abandon their properties and stop paying taxes, even in cases of proven criminal ownership."

Schmoke said he was heartened to hear from several state delegates yesterday, pledging their support to change those laws.

"For some reason," he said, "this story affected people in a way that we haven't been able to in three years of lobbying."

In interviews, a range of experts pointed out several broad areas ripe for legislative reform:

Current state law does not permit city prosecutors to seize property from convicted drug dealers or other felons unless they can prove it was purchased with drug profits, that the defendant is the only owner and that the city is willing to accept all liability for past and future injuries to tenants from lead paint, asbestos and other hazards in a house.

To take possession of a house, a government agency, nonprofit group or individual buyer must pay off any outstanding tax bills. The city's housing stock is burdened with more than $100 million in such debts. As of last April, Dangerfield's houses were saddled with more than $50,000 in unpaid taxes and interest.

In the case of abandoned houses owned by absentee landlords and others, state law requires that city officials go through a grueling two-year foreclosure process -- during which they must spend thousands of dollars to track down all parties who may have a claim or ownership right to even the most decrepit property. These expenses often cost taxpayers more than a house is worth.

Worse, Deputy State's Attorney Sharon May said, the city prosecutor's office is so swamped with a backlog of criminal cases that it has only one lawyer assigned to research the property holdings of more than 4,000 drug defendants a year.

"If the idea is that we now have to research every drug dealer to see what they own -- or conversely, that every convicted slumlord should be researched for some kind of drug connection -- that's an enormous undertaking," May said.

"We currently don't have an adequate staff to deal with even 1 percent of that problem. And what do you get on the other end? A state law that is extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive to satisfy. And even if you win, you get all the debts and liability of a slum house."

Throughout the day yesterday, city, state and federal officials mulled these and other issues illustrated by the Dangerfield case.

Not the least of their concerns is a $35 million urban renewal campaign about to be launched on the east side that will buy and renovate or demolish more than 1,000 rundown rowhouses over the next few years. Standing in its path is the largest concentration of slumlords, tax cheats and felon property owners in the city.

Said Schmoke: "Everybody I've talked to today -- from the U.S. attorney to the police and housing commissioners -- are willing to take on this problem. What we need is for the state legislature to give us a few tools. Give us a chance."

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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