Boarding crews boost efficiency

Backlog: More than 2,300 vacant homes have been sealed during the past year.

August 15, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Herbert Burroughs hauled an armful of plywood boards along a squalid East Baltimore alley recently, sidestepping trash bags, brushing past discarded mattresses and ducking under weeds the size of trees. A Rottweiler greeted him with thundering barks from behind a locked gate as an emaciated stray white dog whimpered near a sagging rail fence.

"Get out of here," Burroughs said to the stray, the same ribs-bulging mutt he had earlier chased out of the vacant Montford Avenue rowhouse that he had come to seal shut.

Stray dogs are just one of several distractions that keep Burroughs and his fellow city workers from getting bored with boarding up vacant houses like 1610 Montford Ave. They also encounter prostitutes, vagrants and drug addicts who illegally reside in the empty shells and who must be ousted or risk being sealed inside.

Still, over the past year Baltimore's boarding crews have prevailed over such hindrances to accomplish a feat that their boss, Thomas Palardy, has not seen in his 18 years with the Department of Housing and Community Development: They've eliminated a formidable backlog of thousands of requests to seal vacant houses

"They fought the rain, the snow and the dogs every day to get the job done," said Deputy Housing Commissioner Eric Letsinger. "They stayed focused on the mayor's and the commissioner's goal of getting rid of our service backlog to make our neighborhoods safer and our government more responsive."

Last fall Letsinger doubled Palardy's three-person boarding crews from two to four.

Residents are often frustrated that the city does not respond faster to 311 complaints about vacant houses. But the process leading to boarding a house takes time: Housing inspectors must verify vacancy before notifying property owners and giving them time to fix the problem.

"Our job is to get property owners to take care of their properties," Letsinger said. "We don't want to be property manager to 16,000 vacant properties."

City response

When property owners do not respond, the city's boarding crews are sent in to seal the doors and windows. A lien - $45 per sealed opening - is placed on the house that must be settled before the boards can be removed.

In July last year, the city had a backlog of 2,300 work orders.

Letsinger said the crews eliminated the backlog at 3:23 p.m. June 10, which is when Palardy alerted him by e-mail that the last work order had been completed. The crews were rewarded with tickets to an Orioles game.

In the past, the crews had tackled each work order chronologically and, often, according to political pressure to satisfy constituents. That often had them racing to all corners of the city fixing one house at a time.

Letsinger decided to attack the orders according to geography, allowing crews to knock off all the work orders in the same area at one time.

In addition, the crews began to affix the boards more securely to prevent vagrants from tearing them away and, in turn, causing repeat visits by city workers. The crews also double-boarded each entry, screwing the first boards in with square-head screws that require a special tool to remove.

Anyone with a Phillips screwdriver could undo the old screws, Palardy said.

The second level of boards is affixed with industrial-strength glue and more special screws.

Palardy said the boards are so firmly attached that firefighters now use chainsaws rather than pry bars to remove the boards when vacant houses catch fire.

"We do have issues when boards get pulled off and people go in," said Daniel Ellis, executive director of the Penn Lucy Action Network. But he said that those are usually older boards and that the city has responded quickly to reboarding requests.

"They come out and fix them quickly," he said.

For the 12 months ending June 4, Palardy said, his crews used 13,362 sheets of plywood throughout the city. The city buys the boards through a $90,000 contract with the P.T. O'Malley Lumber Co., which is not affiliated with Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Palardy and Burroughs said crews often have to deal with vicious dogs that live in the vacant houses. Palardy said he was once chased out of a house and onto the roof of his car by a pit bull. He also said that there have been rare occasions when a vagrant has been sealed inside a house and had to be extricated later by firefighters.

After the backlog

Since eliminating the backlog, the boarding crews have been reduced to two teams again. The other workers are now turning their attention to the task of cleaning overgrown vacant lots.

"While cleaning and boarding will never be the answer to Baltimore's vacant housing problem, prompt and efficient property management makes all our neighborhoods safer," Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said.

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