The new lords of the land


A small number of investors who own many Baltimore ground rents often sue delinquent payers, obtaining their houses or substantial fees

December 11, 2006|By Fred Schulte and June Arney | Baltimore Sun reporters

Paul W. Nochumowitz describes himself as a bail bondsman who takes home $14,000 a year and is bankrupt.

Still, he and his wife, Amie Sue, own a $1 million high-rise condominium on Florida's Biscayne Bay as well as a home in Baltimore County. This year, Miami Beach was the setting for Amie Sue's 50th birthday party, complete with family, friends, her New York hairdresser, a triple-decker cake with sparkler candles and a troupe of ballroom dancers.

The party and other, large expenses show that the couple maintain a "lavish lifestyle" even as Paul Nochumowitz says he cannot pay his debts, contends the trustee overseeing the personal bankruptcy case that Paul Nochumowitz filed last year.

That lifestyle, the trustee's lawyer maintains in court papers, is financed in part by businesses related to ground rent -- Baltimore's arcane system of leasing the land under thousands of houses.

The Nochumowitz family is one of a few groups of investors who have bought large numbers of ground rents and frequently exercised their power under state law to sue delinquent bill payers, seeking either their houses or fees that dwarf the amount of rent.

Entities associated with four groups of individuals and families, including the Nochumowitzes, have filed more than half of the nearly 4,000 ground rent lawsuits brought since 2000, court records show. They also account for a majority of the more than 500 cases in which ground rent owners won legal right to the houses, though an unknown number of those homeowners reached settlements to regain their properties.

These family groups stand out from among the hundreds of charities, foundations, retirees and other small investors who through the years have rarely tried to seize houses.

R. Marc Goldberg, a Baltimore attorney and ground rent owner who is a member of one group that often files lawsuits, says rent owners are acting within their rights to sue homeowners who fail to pay them.

"Being in a business where somebody else has to lose in order for you to gain is a tough business to be in," said Goldberg. Jay A. Dackman, a lawyer who is among the most frequent filers of ground rent lawsuits, suggests that rent owners are entitled to their gains because of the risks and "unknown issues" they face in taking control of aging and deteriorated Baltimore property. For those same reasons, he says, the ground rent business is not likely to appeal to someone looking for a conventional job description.

"Most people involved in this business are very interesting people," he said. "You have to be a certain kind of person to be involved in all of this. There are so many wrinkles."

The Nochumowitz name appears on more ground rent lawsuits than any family name -- more than 500 filed from the start of 2000 through last month. The plaintiff may be Paul and Amie Sue, or trusts overseen by Paul's 86-year-old father, Fred Nochumowitz. By winning the cases, family businesses have gained the right to take possession of about 160 houses, nearly one-third of the total for all ground rent holders during that period.

The Nochumowitzes run their various real estate enterprises from a branch office of Big Boyz Bail Bonds on East 25th Street in Baltimore, according to property records.

Over at least three decades, Nochumowitz family interests amassed a portfolio of at least 3,600 ground rents, property and court records show. It is not possible to determine exactly how many ground rents they own, because there is no central registry of rent holders.

The family's businesses take in $50,000 a month in ground rent and are managed by Paul Nochumowitz from the bail bonds company partly owned by his wife, the trustee's lawyer asserts. Lawyers for Paul Nochumowitz and for other family members vigorously deny the trustee's allegation that Paul Nochumowitz secretly owns, manages and makes all decisions for the ground rent businesses.

Paul Nochumowitz would not comment for this story, citing the bankruptcy case. Neither would his wife nor his father.

A rehabber who has done business with Paul Nochumowitz, Lauren Montillo, calls him "a stand-up straight guy.

"He loves Baltimore. He's like me -- born here and I'll die here," Montillo said.

The Nochumowitzes acquired blocks of ground rents, often at bargain prices, from sources as diverse as estates, banks, an evangelical college in Texas and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charity that helps low-income people find housing.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Amie Sue Nochumowitz began to share legal ownership of ground rents with her husband. Separately, more than 1,000 were placed in trusts created beginning in the late 1980s with Fred Nochumowitz as trustee. That's a relatively common practice for the intergenerational ground rent owners, several of whom said they consider it smart estate planning.

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