Arwell Court townhouses sold at auction

Va. businessman buys 24 run-down properties

Step toward cleaning up area

February 13, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

An auctioneer sold most of the run-down, boarded-up townhouses belonging to Arwell Court's largest landlord yesterday, marking a major step toward cleaning up one of Anne Arundel County's most dangerous streets.

Businessman Mark Woods of Chantilly, Va., bought 24 of Mohammad Zuberi's 30 townhouses on the Pioneer City street known for drugs, blight and gunshots. He paid about $7,000 for each, a small fraction of what they were listed for when Zuberi bought them over the past three decades.

The sale fell short of the $216,000 needed to pay off one of Zuberi's main creditors, Warfield Condominium Association No. 3, which governs Arwell Court. Warfield originally scheduled the auction five years ago, but Zuberi filed for bankruptcy protection a day before the sale, which stopped the auction.

"I'm just happy. I'm really happy," said Warfield attorney Kathleen M. Elmore. "I think we have found a really good person who will come in and clean the community up."

Built as affordable housing in a waterfront county that offered few such communities, Arwell Court Arwell Court's 134 units initially attracted investors and new residents. Landlords counted on soldiers at nearby Fort Meade and people with Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers as a solid tenant base.

But drugs dealers soon infiltrated the community, and many owners who could afford to sold quickly. Zuberi bought many of the units - in addition to the 30 homes on Arwell Court, he owns about 30 others throughout Pioneer City - but has allowed them to fall into disrepair.

Woods could end up owning all 30 of Zuberi's Arwell Court units. Warfield bought three to start the bidding but intends to sell them, and Elmore said the banks are likely to foreclose on the remaining three, which Woods could buy in a bank foreclosure sale.

Woods, who said he has experience managing affordable housing in Virginia and Washington, learned about the sale when he saw an ad in the newspaper for some of Zuberi's other properties in Pioneer City.

Originally, Woods was working with Lt. Col. James Dickey, a Woodbridge, Va., entrepreneur who had a contract with Zuberi to purchase each Arwell Court unit for $40,000. But Woods decided to go it alone when Dickey didn't settle by Monday's court deadline.

Woods paid a $1,000 deposit for each unit and will pay the rest within 10 days of the court's certifying the sale, which is expected to take six weeks. Woods also must pay the mortgages on each of the properties, which range from $12,000 to about $20,000.

"It has a lot of upside potential," Woods said of Arwell Court. "If you come in to a place after it's been at the worst it can be, you can only do good."

1,000 violations

Most of Zuberi's units are boarded up and vacant, the result of a Health Department lawsuit that pointed to more than 1,000 violations, including rotting wood, peeling paint, and plumbing and electrical problems. One unit has an underground storage tank that the Maryland Department of the Environment says is leaking.

Zuberi's attorneys declined to comment.

At yesterday's sale, auctioneer Robert H. Campbell, dressed in a cowboy hat and boots, tried to keep the mood light, reminding the shivering crowd that Will Rogers once said: "`Buy land. They ain't making no more of it.'"

But many who watched felt a twinge of sadness that the promise of Arwell Court as a middle-income community had ended this way.

"You see someone build an empire, and then it just dies," said Stanley Ruddie, who owns three properties on the street.

Then and now

Ruddie remembers his first Fourth of July celebration at his Arwell Court townhouse 22 years ago. He went into the back yard, fired up the grill and was greeted with loud music from several boom boxes. He said that what was then an "OK neighborhood" is now a "war zone."

Zuberi has said over the years that finding good tenants has been difficult. By 1990, Fort Meade forbade its soldiers from renting on Arwell Court. Recently, the Anne Arundel County Housing Commission ruled the street's landlords could no longer accept Section 8 vouchers.

About two years ago, in hopes of stemming the blight, Warfield's directors asked the Health Department to survey all properties on the street and cite every owner with violations. Most corrected the problems. When Zuberi didn't, the county took him to court. After months of legal wrangling, Zuberi agreed to board up his properties and sell them.

Working with Woods

Health Department supervisor Clifford Ruehle, who attended numerous court proceedings concerning Zuberi's properties, said the county is interested in working with Woods.

"I feel sorry for Mr. Zuberi," Ruehle said. "But at the same time, I'm glad we're getting some resolution to this."

Woods understands that the properties need substantial repairs, and he said he doesn't expect any problems working with the health inspectors.

"Health departments tend to be very reasonable," he said. "They tend to get involved only when the landlord is not reasonable."

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