Putting the squeeze on problem landlords

Violations: Baltimore's housing department hires private investigators to track down owners of properties that fail to meet city codes.

September 03, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Take Sam Spade, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie's Angels. But hold the fedora and trench coat, the crazy car chases, the high-heeled sprints after bad guys.

What you've got left, city officials hope, is the answer to Baltimore's housing woes.

In an unusual move, Baltimore's housing department has hired a handful of private investigators to track down owners of problem properties so they can be cited for code violations, taken to court, forced to fix up their houses or, in some cases, stripped of them.

"Everything we do here starts with the ability to find property owners," said Eric Letsinger, deputy housing commissioner for code enforcement. "We actually haven't done a very good job of it."

Until now, housing inspectors, paralegals and lawyers with the department have been responsible for finding people whose properties don't meet the housing code. But the city staff lacked the time and the "investigative skill set" to do it right, Letsinger said.

"It's a mindset; it's the hunt," Letsinger said. "Our inspectors aren't necessarily wired that way; our attorneys aren't necessarily wired that way."

As a result, he said, housing employees have sometimes wasted time and money by sending violation notices to the wrong address, even filing lawsuits against property owners who turn out to be dead.

"We have been issuing notices for month after month, violation notice after violation notice, to a property owner whose name is Dave Tillman, but we haven't been sending it to the right Dave Tillman," Letsinger said, jokingly inserting the name of the housing department spokesman in his example.

All that is supposed to change now that there are a few gumshoes on the case.

One of them is Charles Darden, 37, who once nabbed a guy who specialized in filching $500 faucets from Home Depot. Darden was a district investigator for the chain.

Another housing PI is Thomas Waugh, 32, who was a city police officer for seven years before an injured knee forced him to retire.

While they aren't hunting for the offenders behind Baltimore street crime, the investigators say, they are making the city better by finding the owners of unsightly and often dangerous properties. They make $30,000 to $35,000 a year.

"I think they say there are 17,000 vacant houses in the city, and a lot of these owners don't want to be found," Darden said.

Darden and Waugh have been on the job for five weeks. A third investigator, Daniel Mudgett, started two weeks ago.

Darden and Waugh have tracked down 200 property owners, uncovered a fraudulent sales scheme and inspired a little lore among otherwise unglamorous housing bureaucrats.

"They do say things like, `Drop a dime,'" Letsinger noted.

Neither Darden nor Waugh admits to using that kind of classic crime-fighting lingo in the course of hunting housing-code violators, whose offenses can range from failing to cut high weeds to having a building in danger of collapse.

They do their job in a way that would make for pretty dull television. Most of their work has been done by computer.

They start by searching electronic records - most of which are available to the general public. They comb property transactions, motor-vehicle and corporate records, criminal cases, civil lawsuits and wills for clues to a person's whereabouts. If that doesn't work, they look up neighbors, relatives and former tenants, and ask for their help.

"We dedicate our time to doing this every day," Waugh said. "We have the time to be able to call 10 wrong numbers before we get the right person."

As experienced investigators, Darden said, "we might take a link that a paralegal or an attorney might not run with, like to contact a relative."

In some cases, Darden and Waugh say, the people they have tracked down did not realize they still owned the properties.

Some fell behind on house payments and moved out when their mortgage companies threatened to foreclose. But the lenders didn't follow through with foreclosure, since that would have made the companies responsible for upkeep.

About half the time, the investigators have found, the owners are the stereotypical "slumlords" with multiple, problem properties used as rentals. The single-property owners are sometimes elderly people who moved in with relatives or into a nursing home, where they can be difficult to find, Darden and Waugh said.

Several other cities have started hiring retired police officers, FBI agents or other investigators to track down property owners, said Larry M. Gant, an associate professor with the University of Michigan's Center for Urban Innovation.

"I think using PIs to track down absentee owners is a wonderful idea," Gant said. "I think even though it seems a little heavy-handed, the response is, `Look folks, you know who you are. We're going to try to use ever scrap of information possible, every resource possible to find you and to get you to be responsible for taking care of the abandoned housing.'"

Henry Olsen, executive director of Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation, agreed.

"Anything that can help reduce the waiting time to turn abandoned property into useful property is helpful," he said. "It sounds like an innovative approach to solve a real problem."

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