City targets landlord in new tack to rid apartments of drugs, guns

July 27, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

After years of trying to stanch drug dealing and gun violence at the Pall Mall Apartments in Northwest Baltimore, the city is trying a new approach: It is going after the landlord.

In a rare move, city housing officials decided yesterday to revoke the 31-unit building's multifamily dwelling license, saying they had determined it had become a "drug nuisance."

From early last year through March, police records show, officers made scores of arrests at or near the apartments and seized 383 vials containing cocaine or heroin, and several guns.

It had gotten so bad, police said, that when they left their cruisers unattended, drug dealers shot out the windows and slashed the tires. Officers nicknamed the apartments "The Ranch."

The license revocation is one of many legal tactics city officials plan to use as part of a recent collaboration among prosecutors, housing officials and police that seeks to dislodge criminal activity in troubled neighborhoods, city officials said.

In this case, they targeted the apartment building's out-of-town landlord, Allan S. Bird, for not doing enough, they say, to shore up security at the drab four-story building, where residents receive federal housing subsidies.

Revoking the license means the tenants probably will have to move. City officials said they would work with the property manager to help the residents.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano called yesterday's decision a "wake-up call" for negligent property owners in Baltimore. "We are going to use every tool in the box to protect our residents and keep neighborhoods strong," he said. "Be responsible or be gone."

City police say drastic measures are needed at Pall Mall, in the 4300 block of Pimlico Road.

Some tenants and nearby residents said they are pleased that the city is taking steps to address problems at the building, which, they say, spill over into the rest of the neighborhood.

Over the past eight months, police say, four people have been shot, one fatally, on the apartment property.

"Usually, when I'm coming home from school, I have to say `Excuse me' because the hallways are always crowded with drug dealers," said Santasia McCullough, 17, who has lived in the building since she was 6 and plans to attend Towson University in the fall. "They think they own the building, and half of them don't even live here."

Stuart L. Sagal, a Towson attorney who represented Bird at an administrative hearing Friday, did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday. At the hearing, two police officials characterized the apartments as a drain on the city's crime-fighting resources.

"The only way to rid this area of the problem is to demolish," said Northwestern District Deputy Maj. Mary Eilerman.

Sagal argued that the property manager, RPS Management Co. - a North Las Vegas, Nev.-based entity owned by Bird - hired a local security company months ago to discourage drug trafficking and has made security improvements, such as adding a fence.

He said the city would act unfairly in revoking the license and noted that of the dozens of arrests on the property since last year, three were of tenants at the building.

"This is a train going downhill, and it violates due process," Sagal told Jemine Bryon, deputy executive housing director, who chaired the administrative hearing last week.

Mayor Martin O'Malley defended the decision by city housing officials.

"We will not tolerate absentee landlords who won't take responsibility along with us to rid our neighborhoods of drug dealing and drug violence," O'Malley said. "Now we need to do everything we can to relocate the good people who've had the misfortune of having to endure the conditions at the Pall Mall Apartments."

It is unclear how much money Bird was collecting from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the form of Section 8 vouchers for Pall Mall tenants.

Bird owns five other apartments buildings in Baltimore, all on the west side of the city, according to property records.

In a 1997 news release announcing a crackdown on "bad landlords," HUD listed Bird as one of the worst landlords subsidized by the federal agency. Bird collected $25 million a year in federal housing assistance for 104 properties across the country, and 43 failed physical or financial inspections, the department said.

It could not be determined yesterday how many properties Bird or his companies own nationwide. Bird could not be reached for comment.

Baltimore officials said yesterday that they expect HUD to turn over Section 8 vouchers of Pall Mall apartment residents. The city would use the money to move qualified tenants to other buildings.

HUD officials were unavailable for comment late yesterday.

Yesterday's decision was effective immediately, and tenants will have to find new places to live "in the near future," according to David Tillman, a housing department spokesman.

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