Landlord in the maelstrom

Obstacle: A man who owns 30 houses on Arwell Court is considered key to saving the neighborhood.

September 23, 2002|By Rona Kobell and Laura Barnhardt | Rona Kobell and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

For nearly a decade, residents and officials have battled Pioneer City's largest landlord over trash, crime and blight - with little success.

In their bid to clean up Arwell Court, one of Anne Arundel County's most dangerous streets, they have pursued Mohammad Zuberi through state and federal courts, through nuisance claims, liens and bankruptcy.

The latest push: a lawsuit by the county Health Department, based on more than 1,000 alleged code violations on Arwell Court that include rodent infestations, rotting wood and malfunctioning plumbing.

But little has affected Zuberi, who owns 30 homes on Arwell Court - and more than $3 million in property holdings across the region, according to the Columbia resident's 1998 bankruptcy filing.

"To say that he is the biggest problem over there is not to overstate it," says Anne Arundel County Assistant State's Attorney Thomas J. Fleckenstein. "An absolutely, astronomically enormous problem."

In Pioneer City, Zuberi is not the only landlord accused of neglect; two other Arwell Court property owners face Health Department lawsuits. Even his harshest critics acknowledge he is not solely to blame for problems on Arwell Court - a street so troubled, officials at nearby Fort Meade won't let soldiers spend housing allowances there and federal officials won't redeem rent subsidies there.

But many say that without pressing Zuberi, it will be impossible to improve the community, which looks more like West Baltimore than western Anne Arundel.

"You can't keep up the neighborhood when you have one street with 30 houses that keeps going down," says longtime Arwell Court property owner Robert Farmer.

Zuberi, an engineer-turned-real estate entrepreneur, owns about 70 properties in all of Pioneer City and about 15 other properties in the region, bankruptcy court records show.

Although he declared Chapter 13 personal bankruptcy in 1998 - he has since converted it to a Chapter 11 reorganization - those properties remain his primary income. His residence in Dorsey's Search, Columbia, is assessed at $270,000.

Denies it's his fault

Zuberi says the county unfairly blames him for Arwell Court's problems.

"I've been a landlord for 30 years. Nobody's ever made a claim against me," he said in a recent interview.

Zuberi says he takes care of his tenants "just like they were my own family" and fixes problems promptly. "If I don't, I don't get the rents, do I?"

Lengthy legal battles suggest otherwise.

In 1995, the state filed a nuisance claim against Zuberi for failing to screen tenants, many of whom were selling drugs. But by the trial date, the evidence had "unraveled," according to prosecutor Trevor Kiessling Jr., and the case was settled with Zuberi admitting no wrongdoing and promising to screen tenants better in the future. Though neighbors say they were demoralized, Zuberi says the state "cleared" him and its case was weak from the outset.

In 1996, when Zuberi wouldn't shorten a fence that was higher than neighborhood rules allowed, he was sued by Warfield Condominium Association No. 3, which governs the street. He lost the trial, and a judge ordered him to pay the association's $23,000 attorney's fees. He shortened the fence, but court papers show he never paid the fees, now part of the bankruptcy case.

In 1998, after Zuberi stopped paying Arwell Court condo assessments, the association took out liens on his properties. But just before the foreclosure sale, he filed for bankruptcy. In court records, he lists $3.6 million in assets and $3.2 million in liabilities. Warfield remains one of Zuberi's largest creditors, with more than $80,000 in claims.

In the recent health department lawsuit, Zuberi agreed to create a list of all necessary repairs with health inspectors by mid-July and fix them by mid-October. But officials say he skipped several appointments. And when inspectors completed the list, Zuberi declared few items violated health standards. He also says the code is ambiguous and few of the alleged violations affect life and health.

A week of mediation was fruitless; a district court hearing on the repairs is expected to begin in November. This month, county attorneys served Zuberi with another lawsuit claiming he owes close to $200,000 in civil fines for failing to comply with orders to make repairs.

Drugs seized

Police are concerned, too, because several drug seizures on Arwell Court were at homes that Zuberi rents out.

"He's the biggest property owner, and we can't get him to work with us," says county spokeswoman Pamela Jordan, who knows Zuberi from her years in the zoning office.

"If he were a more engaged landlord, and more concerned with improving the quality of life in the community, I think there would be a big difference."

Zuberi says he has worked with the county and has even offered to help the county's office of law update the health code. "Where they said there was rotting wood, I changed it," he said. "Where there was peeling paint, I painted."

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