Senate OKs bill to clear city houses

Officials would get power to demolish abandoned property

`A tremendous chance'

Critics fear some would be forced from their homes

April 03, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Legislation promising to sweep Baltimore clear of about 40,000 boarded-up rowhouses -- inner-city eyesores that have given cover to drug addicts and dragged down property values -- passed the Maryland Senate yesterday, virtually ensuring final approval.

The bill offers city housing officials unprecedented power to seize and demolish abandoned property. It has passed the House of Delegates, and needs only minor adjustments before it gains final approval and is sent to the governor to be signed.

"It is a tremendous chance for us to remove the houses that have been dragging down our city," said Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a Baltimore Democrat whose block of Druid Hill Avenue has five boarded houses.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said as soon as the law takes effect in October, he will start training his staff to use the new powers and begin an ambitious, decades-long process of opening fresh ground for development.

When the effort reaches full steam, he said, his office will be overseeing the demolition of 2,000 houses a year. In some cases, he said, entire city blocks will fall.

That goal has frightened some. Critics said they are worried that elderly homeowners, who have stayed put as their neighbors died or moved away, would be forced from their homes and into undesirable rental houses.

"There's a lot of unease," said Barbara Samuels, a housing expert with the American Civil Liberties Union's Maryland office. "There's just no way to know what the full scope or impact of this will be."

Samuels' concern from the beginning has been a provision of the bill that gives the city power to confiscate every house on any block more than 70 percent abandoned. Residents on those blocks would be paid for their homes and relocated.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he added a safeguard requiring that the city report to his General Assembly subcommittee every year.

"We will scrutinize how this is carried out to make certain people are protected," Rosenberg said. "I expect the city's housing officials will consult with residents and neighborhood groups to address the legitimate concerns the ACLU had."

Overall, Rosenberg said, he views the bill as a powerful remedy for an ailing city. He said it will begin to address problems raised in a Feb. 14 article in The Sun that described how drug dealers and other felons have taken over blocks of slum housing in East Baltimore.

The story charted the rise of George A. Dangerfield Jr., a 29-year-old convicted drug dealer who bought more than 120 rundown rental dwellings on his way to being named one of the city's 10 worst scofflaw landlords.

The day after the article appeared, Rosenberg and Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, said they consulted housing officials for ways to address the woes of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Lawmakers rallied support from a wide range of interest groups, including several that typically recoil at efforts to chip away at property rights, such as banks and major landholders. Those groups supported the proposal, saying it might be a key to preserving their investments.

"We need to know the city's going to remain a viable place to do business," said Samuel Polakoff, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore and a major city landholder. "We are in survival mode now. Our hope is that this bill will do something to help."

Henson said the measure will make it easier to take hold of houses that have no clear owner. Baltimore's population has dropped by 365,000 since 1965, and in the process about 10,000 houses have been abandoned.

Many owners died without passing the homes on to relatives. Others left the properties empty. Today, most have little value and would be costly to bring into compliance with the building code.

"For the most part, we're talking about houses where the owners left in the 1950s and eventually lost touch or passed away," Henson told lawmakers during hearings on the bill. "Now the houses are literally falling apart and taking neighborhoods with them."

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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