Fate of neighborhoods in landlords' hands

City Diary

April 10, 2002|By MARK MILLER

TO REHAB or not to rehab?

That was the question for our fledgling real estate firm after our elderly tenant's son died (who would have thought a 79-year-old mother would survive her 50-year-old son?) and she moved to Prince George's County to live with her daughter.

Mother and son had lived in the West Baltimore rowhouse since January 1993.

He died in July and she moved in August, vacating a house that needed lots of work.

Living on a modest fixed income, the woman could not afford to maintain the house, and it showed.

It needed painting, of course, but also much more. Some walls needed patching, the roof leaked, the baseboard in the kitchen was shot, the linoleum was broken and cracked, the rear addition sagged and windows needed replacing.

The claw-foot bathtub, a relic from the Teddy Roosevelt administration, was caked with gunk. And then there was the lead paint issue, something we didn't have to deal with in 1993 because lead inspections were not yet required by law.

Whether to rehab is a question many landlords with rental property in the inner city ask themselves.

With city residents leaving at the rate of about 1,000 a month, with crime, drugs, vandalism and the potential lawsuits over lead paint, what's a landlord to do?

Some of us liquidate, board our properties, pay the taxes and utilities (or not pay them) and get out. Others might all but give their house(s) away, selling cheap to other investors who think they can make a go of it. Still others take the plunge, pour required capital into a house and hope for the best.

We chose the latter option.

Why? Our Ramsay Street house is on a good block, relative to the area. Other than a boarded house across the street, the houses are occupied, many of them tenant-owned. Drive-by shootings and other street violence fueled by the drug trade have failed to dislodge these hardy and determined, albeit graying, urban dwellers.

Yes, the house needed work once we regained ownership, but it was structurally sound. The furnace and electricity worked, the plumbing was intact and the tiny patch of backyard was garbage-free, all thanks to the previous tenants. Although poor, they had respected the property, as would-be homeowners tend to do. So we saw potential in this 130-year-old house, even though some of the blocks surrounding it appeared barely above life support.

Our trusty workman did his thing, painting, scraping, sanding, caulking, nailing -- doing what small, independent contractors usually do. He painted the interior, installed a new baseboard, laid down shiny linoleum and shored up that sagging addition. He made the place livable and, we thought, attractive to some perspective tenant.

We also got the roof re-coated, something longtime neighbors told us hadn't been done in nearly 20 years.

We called in a local window factory to replace the rotting, lead-paint-infested, sash-and-rope-type windows. Old windowsills, a potential lead hazard for young children and thus a hot spot with lead inspectors, can reek with lead paint.

We advertised and spread the word among neighbors: house ready for immediate occupancy. We screened more than 20 calls before finding our tenants. They will sign a six-month lease with an option to buy. Both the adults work, earning a combined monthly salary that exceeds the monthly rent. So things are off to a good start.

Hopefully, these tenants will prove an asset to this neighborhood that needs all the assets it can get. Terms like "empowerment of the community" and "strategic planned development" ring hollow in this once-proud, blue-collar corner of Baltimore.

The factory and railroad jobs that once sustained this place dried up like the ancient streambeds beneath its streets.

The gentrification that turned Federal Hill and Canton into chic urban showcases hasn't happened here.

Where are the community development corporations?

Currently, we're it, landlords such as ourselves.

Today's writer

Mark Miller is a free-lance writer and photographer who self-published Baltimore Transitions: Views of an American City in Flux in 1998. Johns Hopkins University Press published a second edition in 200. Mr. Miller lives in Cockeysville.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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