Eviction looms for city church

Congregation being forced out after failing to reach deal with new landlord

October 19, 2005|By ALEC MACGILLIS | ALEC MACGILLIS,SUN REPORTER

Bringing an unusual property dispute to an abrupt end, a grass-roots evangelical congregation is scheduled to be evicted tomorrow from the former police headquarters building in Southwest Baltimore that it has occupied for the past year.

The group, which goes by the names Metro Ministries and Charm City Church, signed a $1,500-per-month lease in May 2004 for the former Southwestern District headquarters, a hulking 120-year-old brick building at the corner of Pratt and Calhoun streets that had stood vacant for years. The group, a multiracial mix of low-income local residents and suburban believers led by a charismatic minister from Linthicum, set about renovating the decrepit 17,000-square-foot building to turn it into a church and community center for the impoverished surrounding neighborhood.

But in December, the group learned from its landlord that the city had accidentally sold the building twice at tax auctions, and that the landlord had been persuaded to sell his interest in the building to the second owner, a tax lien company.

The company, Virginia-based Mooring Tax Assets Group, which hopes to sell the building to a housing developer, tried for months to persuade the group to leave the building, offering $50,000 in compensation for the work the congregants have put into the building.

The church has resisted, saying its renovations are worth far more than that, arguing that Mooring must honor the lease the church signed with the other owner, and making the larger case that it has the right to keep the building because its plans would benefit the neighborhood.

The dispute now appears to be drawing to a sudden close. After the dismissal of several court filings by the church, Mooring has obtained an eviction notice. Barring any last-minute development, a sheriff's deputy and eviction crew will arrive tomorrow to change the locks and clear out the furniture and other equipment with which the church group has outfitted the building, said Mooring's lawyer, David Daneman.

"For whatever reason, they've refused to face the music," Daneman said. "They need to behave themselves like rational people, and they're not. They're being irrational."

Mooring has offered to let the church continue renting at the same rate it was paying the other owner, with an option to buy after two years. But the two sides are far apart on a purchase price - the church has offered $125,000, saying Mooring could take an additional charity tax write-off because the church had agreed to a $350,000 lease-to-buy price with the other owner. Mooring estimates the building - which it bought from the city for about $5,000 in 1999 - could be worth as much as $600,000.

The pastor, Mike Kemper, said it's unclear whether the offer of $50,000 is still on the table, but that the group has been reluctant to take the money because "of the principle at stake."

Kemper estimates that the work the group put into the building is worth at least $250,000. Volunteers shoveled out piles of bird droppings and cleaned and repainted walls. They used Kemper's ability as a Home Depot employee to obtain marked-down materials, plus donations from members of the church, to replace 50 windows, the roof, ceiling tiles, doors, plumbing lines and lighting fixtures.

The group installed donated video arcade games and table tennis tables, exercise equipment and computers, and was hoping to add a small machine shop to train teenagers in trades. Dozens of congregants attend biweekly services, which include music and crafts for children, and distributions of food and clothing.

Kemper said the group has been so set on staying that it has no place to move its belongings.

"We don't even have time to pack stuff up, let alone have a place to put it," he said. "It's crazy. We have no place to go. Our goal was to stay there, to make it our home and serve that community."

Church members had threatened to force the authorities to drag them from the building, but Kemper said there was no plan for a face-off. The group held a rally Sunday night and was planning a vigil tonight. "I just want to know if they have the conscience to do this," he said of Mooring.

Daneman said Mooring's conscience was clear. "My client is not doing anything wrong here. They're trying to take the high road," he said. "They have gone above and beyond the call of duty."

alec.macgillis@baltsun.com

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