Bureaucratic miscues keep woman out of her home

URBAN CHRONICLE

February 08, 2007|By ERIC SIEGEL

Like hundreds of East Baltimore residents, Sara Tiller has been displaced from her home.

Unlike many of her neighbors, however, Tiller has not been uprooted by the large redevelopment north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex.

Rather, she was forced to move because the home at 1029 N. Washington St., which has been in her family for six decades, was damaged by a fire in a vacant house next door owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

That was more than six months ago.

Since then, Tiller, a 74-year-old retired psychiatric assistant, has lived first in a hotel, and then in one apartment and then another as repairs to her home were delayed by a series of break-ins.

She and her daughter, Brenda Ransom-Davis, who lives with her, say they have paid thousands of dollars in expenses that have not been reimbursed.

And Tiller still can't go home - not yet anyway.

Last month, city housing officials dispatched workers to repair the back of Tiller's house damaged by the break-ins that Tiller and Ransom-Davis say were not covered by Tiller's insurance. Officials also pledged to pick up the cost of any lodging not covered under Tiller's insurance policy.

That provided some solace - but not much.

"This is one great big mess," says Tiller. "I'm sick of it. I'm still living out of boxes."

Tiller's tale is a saga of one woman's woes and a municipality's miscues. And it is one laced with cruel irony: Her side of the block, in the second phase of the east-side redevelopment project, is slated for preservation.

Jack Shannon, president and chief executive officer of East Baltimore Development Inc., says that only a handful of residents within the 80-acre boundaries of the project have had to move because of emergencies like Tiller's.

"It's a difficult circumstance, but it has been the exception rather than the rule," he says. "How long we can continue to say that, I don't know. ... We have to continue moving ahead with the project with all deliberate speed."

Tiller spent her teenage years in the house, which her parents bought in the early 1940s; she moved back in 1990, after her parents died. Her daughter moved in with her two years ago, after Tiller had a triple bypass operation.

Tiller and her daughter say they complained not only about the Housing Authority property at 1027 N. Washington St., which has been vacant since the last tenant moved out in August 2005, but also about a house at 1031 N. Washington St. that has been vacant for years and that the city acquired two years ago.

Housing department spokesman David Tillman says records show that the handful of recent complaints about 1031 were fixed quickly. But he acknowledges that a complaint that people were going in and out of 1027 was not addressed for months because the inspector did not realize that no one was supposed to be living there.

More to the point, Tillman concedes that the department's procedures calling for electrical power to a house to be turned off after it becomes vacant were not followed.

"It's rare, but it happened," says Tillman. He adds that there have been four fires in the last two years in the 1,400 vacant houses around the city owned by the Housing Authority, which the agency is in the process of selling or conveying to groups like East Baltimore Development.

Unfortunately for Tiller, one of the fires occurred at 1027 N. Washington St. on July 31. The fire started in the electrical wiring in the third floor, according to a report by the city's Fire Department. The report notes that third-floor ceiling fixtures were partially taken apart, exposing wiring, and that the house was empty except for a refrigerator that was plugged in and operating.

Tiller, who was home when the fire started, at first thought the odor she smelled might be coming from the demolition across the street. When Ransom-Davis came home for lunch and saw the smoke, she told Tiller to call 911 and get out of the house.

The blaze caused fire, smoke and water damage to Tiller's roof and upper two floors. Compounding the problem were the break-ins and thefts of copper pipes, aluminum siding and downspouts, and a downstairs mantel.

Workmen found human waste on the floor. Among the still-unresolved issues: the replacement of a refrigerator damaged by mold because it wasn't cleaned out after the fire.

Tillman says when the housing department learned of Tiller's continuing problems, from a letter Ransom-Davis sent late last year, it moved to provide what help it could.

But Tiller, who is still several weeks from being able to return to her home, isn't mollified. She is frequently moved to tears by her situation and says her daughter is "at the stage where she's breaking down crying," too.

"What I'm angry about is how the city is responsible," she says. "I have to go through all this because of something the city negelected."

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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