Drug lords, speculators and housing in turmoil

Needed crackdown: Legislation is just first step in saving city renewal threated by slumlords.

February 23, 1999

FEW IMAGES in recent reporting have been more powerful than Jim Haner's description in The Sun of a convicted drug lord who cruises East Baltimore on rent collection days in a midnight-blue Rolls Royce shadowed by a squad of armed bodyguards.

"Don't tell me about the law," the 29-year-old man reportedly barked while evicting a tenant from one of his more than 120 rental properties. "As far as you're concerned, I am the law."

The Feb. 14 Sun article has triggered a flurry of activity in the Maryland General Assembly. One bill, drafted by Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, would make it easier to seize the properties of a drug kingpin after second conviction.

Another bill, advocated by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, would broaden the definition of abandoned properties and accelerate time-consuming condemnation proceedings.

Both measures are long overdue. They would give authorities badly needed weapons with which to attack contemptuous drug lords who are buying rundown properties and using them as stash houses and shams to launder dirty money.

Drug lords are only one portion of the city's real-estate problem, however. The major part involves noncriminal speculators, who hang on to deteriorating properties they cannot manage, allowing them to become vacant and vandalized.

As properties lose value, owners stop paying property taxes. While arrears and liens accumulate, the city has no workable mechanism to address the situation.

As a result of the huge out-migration of middle-class households over the past decades, Baltimore's population has become increasingly poor. Once-viable neighborhoods have been deserted and homeowners replaced by tenants who barely pay the rent.

Baltimore has an estimated 40,000 abandoned houses, eight times more than just 12 years ago. Most are contaminated with lead paint or are burdened with other code violations that make them unsalable.

The vacant house issue has been studied to death. What is lacking is the political resolve to develop creative solutions.

However deficient the laws may be, they have not been effectively enforced. This is what is needed now: a commitment to begin assaulting Baltimore's housing problems in a systematic fashion.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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