Crumbling houses, a mountain of debt

Housing: Efforts to raze blighted Baltimore rowhouses are threatened by owners who can't afford to pay property debts.

May 16, 1999|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Nathan Moore's feet are falling apart. Racked by a rare orthopedic disorder, the 52 tiny bones that carried him across the frozen ground of Korea and the sizzling tarmac of an air base in Vietnam are separating inside his shoes.

At 67 years old, the retired Air Force master sergeant can barely carry a bag of groceries -- much less climb a ladder to fix a slumping corner rowhouse he owns on Chase Street.

"I'm done," he says wistfully. "I'm not half the man I used to be."

Three heart attacks and a stroke haven't helped. Nor has the recent news that he owes the city $14,369 in back taxes on the boarded-up vault of worries that he abandoned in East Baltimore in 1989. He also faces a court order to fix the house by September -- at a cost of some $35,000 -- or face the possibility of a jail sentence for contempt.

His case illustrates a cruel dilemma confronting the city housing department as it gears up to dispose of 40,000 vacant rowhouses that have spread blight, crime and despair across wide swathes of Baltimore.

More often than not, city officials tracking down neglectful owners for prosecution are finding that their quest for justice leads to a senior citizen -- or a cemetery plot.

"It's heartbreaking," says Sandra Baker, an assistant state's attorney who prosecutes slum housing cases. "And it's happening to me at least two or three times a week now. I look up as the defendant comes into the courtroom, and it's somebody who looks like my grandfather."

And that sad scenario is about to become more common.

This month, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign a law that would give the city unprecedented authority to seize decrepit houses and reduce them to rubble.

The bill swept through the General Assembly after an article in The Sun in February revealed that convicted felons -- from drug dealers to bankruptcy frauds -- have been buying up the properties at bargain-basement prices as low as $3,000 and using them to shelter their profits.

Not only would the new law make it easier to divest criminal landholders of their portfolios, it also has the potential to clear hundreds of acres in the inner city for new parks, housing, business development and parking lots.

But the large number of elderly and deceased owners poses a daunting problem that city officials are only now beginning to fully grasp.

Here's why:

The inventory of 40,000 vacant houses available for demolition carries more than $100 million in unpaid taxes and other city debts -- such as boarding fees, water bills and emergency repair charges -- that must be paid before the land underneath them can be used by anyone.

"Until the debts are cleared from the books, nobody can take claim to the property and put it to a new use -- and that includes the city itself," said Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. "But the problem we're running into is that a lot of the owners are in no position to make the payments, especially the ones who are dead."

The obvious solution, Henson and other housing experts say, is for the city to forgive the debts.

Easier said than done, according to Finance Director William Brown.

"City and state law does not allow us to do that, at least not in any kind of expeditious way," he said. "There are some situations where we can forgive the bills, but there's a process involved, and each house has to be handled on a case-by-case basis."

Further, city revenue collectors facing a $31.5 million budget shortfall over the next two years -- and the possible elimination of 600 workers from the city payroll -- are reluctant to relinquish their claim to such a large chunk of uncollected taxes.

"So we end up in a stalemate," Henson said. "At the same time, I have members of the public screaming at me to do something about the problem of vacant houses, and they don't particularly care that the cause of the problem is a 70-year-old man who can't afford to pay his bills or fix his own problem."

Says Baker, the prosecutor: "It's my job to enforce the housing laws. But as a human being, you hear these elderly people tell their stories in court, and it just tears you up sometimes."

She heard one such story March 30, when a decorated military veteran hobbled into court on two failing feet to face charges of being a slum scofflaw.

It was Nathan Moore.

Born and reared on Caroline Street in East Baltimore, he married his neighborhood sweetheart when he was 17 and promptly enlisted in the Air Force. Trained as a military policeman, he went off to war in Korea, then to Okinawa and ultimately to Vietnam.

"Everywhere I went, I was the first black something or other," he said with a laugh. "First black MP in one unit, first black load master in another, first black member of an ambassadorial staff. It was hard sometimes, but it was a good life."

Discharged in 1974, he returned with his wife, Shirley, to a Baltimore that bore little resemblance to the memories of his youth. The freshly painted backyard fences and scrubbed white steps were fast becoming things of the past.

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