City mails out mistaken letter to homeowners

Residents upset by missive labeling them landlords

August 20, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The letter seemed as routine as any delivered to Abe Glaser's Park Heights condominium. At first glance, it indicated nothing more than an outdated, bureaucratic missive from city government.

"Ordinarily, I would have put it in with the junk mail," Glaser said. "But when I read on, it bordered on harassment."

The letter from Baltimore's housing department bluntly told Glaser that he did not live in the Park Heights Avenue condo that he has owned since 1986. It called him a landlord and indicated that failure to register as such would result in criminal charges, steep fines and a lien on his house.

It turns out that the letter, and possibly thousands of others delivered this week, was a mistake.

"City government irritates me pretty good," said Glaser, an 85-year-old retired pharmacist who lives in his condo with his wife of 37 years.

City government's routine annual effort to register new Baltimore landlords has scared many homeowners such as Glaser, a city official conceded yesterday.

Each year, the city's Department of Housing and Community Development sends out approximately 19,000 letters to landlords who, according to city law, must register detailed contact information in case problems arise with rental properties they own but do not occupy.

This year, city officials mailed an additional 16,000 such notices to landlords who they believed had never before registered.

Many of the letters, dated July 12, landed in mailboxes this week of people who are not landlords and who live in the homes they own.

People such as Glaser.

"It's ridiculous," he said.

The letter delivered to Glaser and others who live in their homes states: "The land records of Baltimore City indicate that you own residential property located in the city that you do not occupy."

The letter then states that Glaser must register with the city, at a cost of $30 per unit, by Sept. 30 - or else.

"Failure to comply with this ordinance is a criminal misdemeanor subject to a maximum fine of $500.00 per day," the letter states. "In addition, all registration fees, penalties and interest constitute a lien against the property."

The letter would not have bothered Glaser so much if the phone number provided to correct such errors had worked.

Glaser said his son and a friend also received the letter by mistake. He said one friend's entire condominium complex received the letters.

Glaser said his son called the phone number and was directed to waste management. A call yesterday to the number resulted in a dozen rings that ended in silence.

The Baltimore housing department's Web site admitted yesterday that its property registration division was "currently experiencing an overwhelming response to recent mailings related to the registration of non-owner-occupied properties."

The site issued an apology and stated that the department had made changes to the phone system to "better accommodate the call volume."

A second call to the number late yesterday, however, ended in a greeting indicating that the phone number's mailbox could not receive any more messages.

Glaser said he felt harassed by the letter and the phone system.

"It's typical of the local administration," he said.

Julie Day, director of the housing department's code enforcement legal section, apologized for the inconvenience to Glaser and others who have received the letter in error. She said they should write "owner occupied" across the top of the letter and mail it back.

The housing department's Web site, www.baltimorehous ing.org, also offers visitors a "statement of owner occupancy" that they can print, fill out and mail back.

Day said the mistakes were part of a well-intentioned effort to get more landlords registered. For the first time this year, landlord registration also requires proof that their rental properties have been certified as compliant with lead poisoning prevention laws.

The 19,000 registration renewal letters go to landlords who, in total, own approximately 28,000 properties. The 16,000 letters were added after the city conducted a broader search of property records aimed at including more landlords to try to strengthen citywide compliance with lead-safe rules.

She said the most mistakes have occurred with condominium complexes.

"I don't have an explanation," Day said. "I give a heartfelt apology to those who live in condos and got this letter."

Day said other mistakes appear to have stemmed from errors in property records from the state Department of Assessments and Taxation.

She could not say how many people had incorrectly received the letter but indicated that a third of the 500 people who called yesterday claimed to be victims of the mistake. It is possible that thousands of people mistakenly received a copy.

Day said other callers had questions about the new lead poisoning requirements. She said the agency had received 200 new registrations since the letters had been delivered two days ago.

"This is all about making our neighborhoods strong," Day said. "I would consider it a success - with an apology to those who got the letter in error."

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