Family faces loss of home over suit

City ground rent case is among those pursued against deceased homeowners

Sun Follow-up

December 15, 2006|By Fred Schulte and June Arney | Fred Schulte and June Arney,Sun reporters

Vernon Onheiser broke down in tears as he and his two teenage sons heard that they were scheduled to lose their Canton home today over a ground rent lawsuit filed against his parents, who died about 10 years ago.

"I don't know what to do," he said yesterday. "I don't know where to go. I don't have nowhere else. Nowhere. Nowhere."

The Onheiser family began moving some belongings out of the house even as Baltimore Circuit Court officials said yesterday that they are re-examining how they deal with ground rent lawsuits involving property whose owners have died.

It was unclear late last night whether the ejectment would go ahead as scheduled. Onheiser said City Councilman James B. Kraft had reached agreement with the ground rent holder's attorney to grant an extension until Jan. 5. But neither Kraft nor the attorney, Heidi Kenny, could be reached for comment, and Onheiser said Kraft hadn't been able to tell Sheriff's Department officials about the apparent extension.

The case stands as an example of how Baltimore's arcane ground rent system can ensnare property owners. The Sun reported in a three-part series this week that more than 4,000 lawsuits have been filed in Baltimore City over the past six years over small amounts of unpaid ground rent, seeking either the homes or fees that can total thousands of dollars. In more than 500 of those cases, ground rent owners were awarded the right to take possession of the house.

Onheiser's case is one of at least 10 ground rent lawsuits filed against deceased homeowners by entities associated with or represented by Kenny. In each of those cases, Kenny has submitted records of the homeowner's death to judges as evidence that her firm was doing enough to locate the defendants.

"I do not think it's appropriate to be sending notices to dead people," Judge Evelyn Omega Cannon, who is in charge of the Circuit Court's civil docket, said in an interview yesterday. She emphasized that she was talking about those types of cases in general. "I didn't know this happened, and in my view it should not happen."

She declined to specifically discuss Onheiser's case or any of the others.

Onheiser stood on the brink of ejectment over an unpaid ground rent bill of $24, though the lawsuit contends that there are also back property taxes of more than $6,000. The rowhouse in the 500 block of S. Milton St. was valued at $161,000 earlier this year. There is no mortgage on the property.

One court record indicates that Onheiser was served a copy of the lawsuit shortly after it was filed in 2004 by Neighbor Saver LLC against Onheiser's parents. Joseph and Mary Onheiser died in the mid-1990s but were still listed in property records as the legal owners of the house. But Vernon Onheiser contends that he never realized there was a suit and said that he didn't know he was going to lose his house until a reporter for The Sun told him yesterday.

The lawsuit was filed by Kenny, who is listed in state corporation records as Neighbor Saver's resident agent.

In a telephone interview, Onheiser's sister, Patricia Haggan, said that the ground rent bills usually came to her and that she paid them. But she said she hadn't received a bill in about two years.

"I'm devastated," she said. "I'm really devastated. How can I get this stopped?"

Neighbor Saver bought the ground rent for $400 in July 2004, about a month after Kenny set up the firm based out of her office, records show.

In November 2004, it filed suit in Circuit Court against Joseph and Mary Onheiser. The lawsuit gave the defendants two choices - forfeit the house to Neighbor Saver or pay thousands of dollars in fees to keep it.

The suit demanded a $700 attorney fee and $300 for a title search, the maximum fees permitted under state ground rent law, in addition to the $24 in ground rent. Neighbor Saver also tacked on $6,652.34 for property taxes it contends are owed and other service fees, bringing the total bill to $7,831.34.

It's not clear from the court file how Neighbor Saver obtained the right to collect the property taxes. But investors frequently buy liens from the city that give them the right to collect the back taxes along with 18 percent annual interest. Ground rent owners say they sometimes pay delinquent property taxes to protect their investment from getting caught up in a foreclosure action over taxes.

Shortly after the suit was filed, a process server arrived at the Onheisers' Formstone rowhouse and left a copy of the lawsuit with a man who identified himself as Vernon Onheiser, according to court records. Onheiser told The Sun yesterday that he has no recollection of that.

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