Landlords fined for not listing properties

City steps up search for unregistered owners to aid in citing violations

March 19, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Cracking down on Baltimore landlords who own about 14,000 unsightly vacant buildings is a daunting task for officials at the city's housing department, in large part because they don't know who owns all the empty shells.

The city has started getting tough on owners who do not pay $15 to register their properties each year, serving them criminal summonses and bringing them into District Court.

Housing officials have collected about $7,000 in fines from the initiative and estimate they will garner another $12,000, said Assistant State's Attorney Julia A. Day, who works for the department.

The Department of Housing and Community Development has always charged negligent building owners with failing to register their properties when it cites them with other code violations. But this is the first time in recent years it is targeting unregistered owners.

Officials are bringing the biggest offenders - the ones who own more than 12 unregistered properties - to court.

"Lawyers are calling me and saying, `What's going on?'" Day said. "They're getting the message. That's part of the reason we're doing the cases at the same time."

If all property owners were to register with the housing department, Day said, it would be easier for the city to find them - and cite them when necessary.

About 6 percent of the city's 230,000 units are vacant, causing one of the most obvious signs of urban blight.

The city has identified 600 properties that are not registered with the housing department and is using everything from computer programs to a private investigator to track down their owners.

"One of the biggest impediments to aggressive code enforcement is locating property owners," said Michael E. Braverman, director of code enforcement for the department's legal section. "We're finding violators and bringing them into court, but I shouldn't have to do that. They should register on their own."

The defendants are charged under Article 13, Section 309 of the City Code, the property registration law.

Although the violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500-a-day fine, the owners are being charged only once for each address. And several who own dozens of properties have plea bargained and been fined $1,000 - the penalty for two violations.

That is drastically less than what they could be charged. A property owner who does not register a building could be charged $182,500 in a year - $500 for each of the 365 days.

In court last week, the state fined three owners $3,000 for not registering about 85 properties. The state turns over the money to the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.

Woodlawn resident Conway Bailey, who did not register 42 rowhouses, was fined $1,000. Bailey, 54, said he started buying properties in 1996 after retiring as a corrections officer.

"I was surprised, very surprised there was a fine," Bailey said. "I'd never heard of this before. It was just ignorance. I'm a new investor, and I wasn't aware until now that I had to register them."

In addition to the 42 properties he was in court for, he owns another 13 that were unregistered that the housing department did not detect. He has since paid $825 and brought them all into compliance, he said.

Once property owners register with HCD, they get annual renewal notices. But new owners must find out on their own that they need to register and usually learn from their real estate agent.

"You have to do your own research," Bailey said as he sat in District Court room No. 5. "I'm talking to people and telling them to register so they can avoid this."

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