Holding the line against blight

Vacant: North Rogers Avenue, where neighbors worry over and guard an abandoned house, symbolizes a citywide problem -- and a possible solution.

January 29, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

For the past couple of years, William Baker has been part custodian and part constable for the house next door to his neatly kept home in Northwest Baltimore.

He has shooed off vagrants and potential vandals and tried to spruce up the yard of the vacant property at 3803 N. Rogers Ave. -- a 2 1/2 -story wood-frame house that is a mass of peeling brown paint and sagging gutters.

"We cut the grass sometimes. We get the leaves up. We try to keep it halfway decent," said Baker, who has lived in a brick duplex next door in the Howard Park neighborhood for 40 years.

His efforts, he knows, are less than halfway successful.

"It's been an eyesore," Baker said yesterday afternoon, acknowledging the obvious as he stood on the front porch.

Baker spoke just hours before Mayor Martin O'Malley made the problem of abandoned properties part of his third annual State of the City address, officially unveiling an aggressive program to take control of up to 5,000 vacant houses in the next two years. The mayor's program would focus on the blight that has left so many inner-city neighborhoods in tatters.

A related program, funded in part by a grant from the Abell Foundation, would address the problem of vacancies in the "outer-ring" neighborhoods on the city's perimeter.

Like Howard Park, these neighborhoods are stable middle- and upper-middle-class enclaves; like the 3800 block of N. Rogers Ave., where the house next door to Baker's is the only abandoned property on the block, vacancies are the exception, not the rule.

Still, the city has identified more than 300 such properties in about two dozen neighborhoods, including 38 in Howard Park, an area that straddles Liberty Heights Avenue near the city line, where the vast majority of residents are African-American and one out of six are age 65 or older.

The idea behind the housing department's Neighborhood Conservation Program is to attack blight one house at a time before it overwhelms more neighborhoods.

At 3803 N. Rogers Ave. yesterday afternoon, besides the visible problems with the house, a large pile of brambles and tree limbs lay in the back yard. Two mailboxes were overflowing with fliers. And the front porch had a half-empty bottle of Tropical Fantasy Pina Colada Caribbean Cocktail and an empty pint bottle of Wolfschmidt vodka.

But unlike other vacant properties -- in the outer ring as well as the inner city -- there were no boards on the doors and windows.

Efforts to reach the owners of the property -- Bernard Young Jackson and Joan Meads Jackson -- were unsuccessful yesterday.

But a city housing official said the two have told the department that they want to fix up the house, though no building permits have been issued.

"They have stayed in touch and communicated their intention to rehab the property," said Michael Braverman, director of code enforcement for the Department of Housing and Community Development's legal section.

An administrative hearing is scheduled for next week on an abandoned building notice for the house that was first issued in 1998 and reissued in September, Braverman said.

"A determination will be made about whether the department can work with the owners," he said. "If not, the case will be turned over to legal enforcement."

The Jacksons bought the property in June for $31,500, records show. The seller was a Randallstown man who bought the house that same month from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for $21,000, records show.

HUD had taken over the property at foreclosure three years before, records show.

Built in 1923, the property was valued by state tax assessors a year ago at $70,380, about equal to its sales price in the late 1980s.

A Northwestern District police officer familiar with the area said he does not recall any problems with the property.

"As far as I know, that doesn't ring a bell," Officer Charles Dickens said.

Most of the district's problems with abandoned properties are in the vacant rowhouses along Park Heights Avenue south of Belvedere Avenue, where dealers stash drugs and junkies shoot up at night, he said.

In areas such as Howard Park, "it's mostly kids going in," he said.

But that's scant solace to residents of the 3800 block of N. Rogers, who worry that the vacant house at 3803 will drag down the neighborhood.

"We're all concerned," said Ray Chance, 49, an iron worker and sound engineer who lives across the street from the house.

"Look at that, it looks so bad now," he said from the doorway of the one-story brick single-family home where he lives with his wife. The house, bought in 1991 for $66,000, is now valued at $80,880, property records show.

"I see it deteriorating. They put some cheap paint on it, it fell off," he added. "You're working hard trying to keep up your property, and here's a place going downhill."

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