IN his nationwide search for a housing commissioner, Mayor Martin O'Malley should insist on an individual who has a battle plan for two dire neighborhood problems:
How to deal with owners, large and small, who ignore city codes and let their property deteriorate horribly.
How to stop the city government from spreading neighborhood decay through its neglect of derelict properties it controls.
In many areas of Baltimore, these are huge, interconnected problems. Why should a private property owner heed codes when city properties next door are in violation and have been for years?
This situation got out of hand early in former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 12-year administration, when housing code enforcement was largely abandoned in a disastrous cost-saving move. That action, unfortunately, coincided with an economic downturn that produced large-scale abandonment of rowhouses by private property owners. As a result, many previously stable inner-city areas are beyond recovery.
The longer decay is tolerated, the worse it gets. An example: North Calhoun Street, between Edmondson Avenue and Lanvale Street, overlooking the Harlem Park public school.
Abandonment has shot up on the block in the past two years. It has spread from two adjoining rowhouses, which were vacant and full of trash two years ago and remained so yesterday.
State assessment records list one of them, 625, as belonging to Larry Donald Gilley of Pasadena. The other uninhabitable wreck, 623, was bought in June 1996 by James Cleveland of Dundalk for a whopping $58,121.
The city condemned both properties in August, but nothing has happened since.
Recent Sun articles have focused on reasons for abandonment. Reporter John O'Donnell has written about how speculators flip marginal problem properties to insolvent homebuyers, who soon face foreclosure. Last Sunday, reporter Jim Haner detailed how an unscrupulous landlord, using a drug dealer as a front, controlled an empire of decrepit houses and insulated himself from code enforcement.
Some of the worst culprits are now being prosecuted.
But overall, the Sun stories have shown that the current regulatory systems are wholly inadequate. In a well-run city, lead-filled heaps shouldn't be rented or sold without the city insisting on abatement. And would-be homebuyers should be protected against gouging based on fraudulent appraisals.
Baltimore isn't a well-run city; too often it's a playground for drug-dealing slumlords. The system must be reformed and toughened so that uncaring speculators can be prosecuted more easily.