Last resort rends lives

Homes: The thousands of evictions ordered each year in Baltimore are anything but routine to the tenants.

May 27, 1999|By JIM HANER | JIM HANER,SUN STAFF

As swift and sudden as lightning, disaster struck yesterday at the corner of Willard and Lombard streets, shredding Gerrell Shorter's small world right before his eyes.

As the anxious 4-year-old looked on, beefy men in T-shirts and ball caps tossed his purple Barney doll into the gutter. Next came his bike. Then his basketball. Then his clothes. An hour later, the entire contents of his mother's rented rowhouse at 2400 W. Lombard were dumped outside on the pavement.

"Where we gonna live?" Gerrell asked a concerned neighbor, his voice trembling. "What we gonna do?"

They are questions that get asked a lot -- thousands of times a year, in fact -- as the city's well-oiled eviction machinery spits out one family after another. In the southwest corner of Baltimore yesterday, eight households were emptied onto the sidewalk by sheriff's deputies enforcing court orders on behalf of landlords.

Branded as the villains in this unrelenting parade of tears, many rental property owners are just as trapped as their tenants in Baltimore's collapsing slum housing market. Prevailing rents are barely enough to cover mortgage and repair costs. Housing inspectors and lead paint lawyers lurk as a constant threat.

"It's a bad business to be in," says Howard Haynes, a paint-spattered contractor whose portfolio of 15 houses has dwindled to four in the past decade under a barrage of foreclosure and housing court actions. "Don't let anybody tell you different."

Sitting in his battered white pick-up, Haynes watched from the curb as another ordinary tragedy unfolded at the house he owns on Lombard Street. Suddenly, a hand flashed through the open driver's side window. "You're gonna die!" screamed Gemini Hanson, 24, slapping her landlord across the face. "God is gonna send you straight to hell!"

"Amen, sister!" called out one neighbor as deputies moved in to restrain Hanson.

Of the 21 fractured and boarded houses on the block, only one is occupied by a homeowner, tax records show. The rest are controlled by investors and corporations -- some in Bethesda, Randallstown and as far away as East Orange, N.J.

Most of the residents are renters, and more than a few are living day to day under the threat of eviction for failure to pay back rent, hemmed in by abandoned warehouses heaped with trash, old tires and busted concrete.

"We all got the same problem," said Lakesha Bryson, 28, who lives on the other end of the block with her three children in a decrepit house owned by a convicted drug dealer. "You think we'd be living here if we had enough money to live somewhere else?"

Back at the truck, Haynes produced a pale blue court order authorizing him to evict Hanson, her sister, Tara Gross, 22, and little Gerrell for failure to pay more than $3,000 in rent since they moved in last year. The sisters say they poured all their money into the rundown house to make it barely livable.

"It's never easy," Haynes said. "No one wants to put a family out on the street. You put out somebody's kids, you feel it in your heart. But what am I supposed to do? I'm in the process of losing my mortgage because I can't pay my bills. It's hopeless."

Just then, a long white van pulled up on the corner, and out stepped a giant of a man who sent fire and brimstone pealing down the block.

"Does anybody believe in God here?" roared the Rev. Clyde Harris, pastor at large for the New Song Community Church on nearby Gilmor Street. "Because God is looking down on us right now! He sees this! I ask you, in his name, is this justice?"

Harris is Hanson's uncle and a board member of the Sandtown chapter of Habitat For Humanity, which has built more than 100 houses in West Baltimore for low-income residents. "I wouldn't let a dog live here," he said. "But no one person has caused this. It's years of neglect you're looking at. And it's happening to a particular race -- African Americans. All this stuff, all these personal possessions, it's another life in ruin."

Then he turned and set his eye on Gerrell.

"No child should have to witness something like this."

Pub Date: 05/27/99

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