Outrage sparks housing bills

Delegates target criminals' role as city slum landlords

'Got to do something'

February 19, 1999|By Jim Haner and Matthew Mosk | Jim Haner and Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Amid an outpouring of concern over drug dealers buying up slum houses in Baltimore, city and state lawyers are preparing legislation that seeks to give officials broad new powers to seize private property.

Two bills expected to be introduced soon in the House of Delegates would attack the city's rampant blight by making it easier for prosecutors to confiscate houses owned by criminals and by bolstering the city's authority to seize 40,000 abandoned dwellings.

With millions of dollars in urban-renewal projects pending in the city's worst slums, the stakes are high.

So are the hurdles confronting supporters, who concede that they will likely face a constitutional challenge in the courts if the bills pass.

But the hopes of housing activists and city officials ran high this week when outrage swept through the legislature after an article in The Sun on Sunday called the attention of lawmakers to how convicted felons have come to own scores of houses in East Baltimore.

It focused on George A. Dangerfield Jr. -- a 29-year-old convicted cocaine dealer who allegedly plowed his drug profits into 127 slum rental dwellings.

City lawyers say he is also among the largest owners of abandoned houses in Baltimore, and they are seeking to have him jailed on charges of illegally evicting tenants.

"It about sounds like the Wild West," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat, in an interview.

"There's no law in Baltimore. Somebody's got to do something about it."

City officials "should be here in Annapolis asking for immediate assistance," echoed Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

"We need to do something -- now," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, pointing to the Dangerfield case as further evidence of the breakdown in Baltimore's criminal justice system at a conference of the state's top judges and prosecutors Wednesday.

D. Robert Enten, a lobbyist representing bankers and landlords, two groups with major interests in the coming confiscation debate, said reaction in Annapolis was so swift and furious that he has not had a chance to consult with his clients.

"We haven't even seen a bill yet, and some people are lining up to support it," he said. "Certainly, the story was alarming. Nobody has a bigger investment in these neighborhoods than we do, except the people who live there.

"But no problem that involves the Constitution has a simple answer."

The Maryland Bankers Association, which made $23,000 in political contributions last year, is likely to have major concerns with any measure that gives the city a free hand to dispose of abandoned houses as it sees fit -- because of fears that the industry would sustain mortgage losses.

And the Baltimore Property Owners Association, which represents some of the city's largest landlords, may resist a broad confiscation law on grounds that it is bound to strike innocent parties.

The bills also fall into one of the most thoroughly litigated bodies of law in the annals of the U.S. Supreme Court and come before a state legislature with a history of jealousy guarding private property rights against government encroachment.

But activists for the poor and city lawyers argue that Baltimore is facing an unprecedented plague of abandonment that requires new -- perhaps extraordinary -- remedies.

In short, they say, the city is collapsing under the weight of its wrecked rowhouses, many of which were built as low-cost workers' dwellings more than a century ago.

If placed side by side, they would constitute a wall of hulks about 90 miles long, stretching from the Inner Harbor to Washington and back.

Burdened with more than $100 million in unpaid taxes and interest, laced with toxic lead paint and asbestos, and well-documented as the epicenter of Maryland's illegal drug trade, most have lost any value, says Anne Blumenberg, a poverty lawyer who oversees the Community Law Center.

"This kind of legislation would be doable because the property has such little value," she said. "They don't have a normal mortgage. No one wants to deal with them and the problems feed on themselves."

New property category

Denise Duval, chief prosecutor in the city housing enforcement unit, who is helping to write the proposed legislation, said the heart of the bill would be the creation of a new property category: the abandoned house.

To fall under the law, a house would have to be unoccupied for an extended period, boarded, in such bad condition that it is uninhabitable, with two or more years of unpaid taxes on it and an owner who failed to reply to a city rehabilitation order.

Once a judge deemed those criteria to have been met, the city could seize the property -- subject to a final court challenge, in which the owner could argue that the city should pay for the property.

`Doing him a favor'

"The fact is," Duval said, "no owner in his right mind is going to show up in 99 percent of [these] cases because we'll be doing him a favor.

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