Gesture to homeless mom, sons

Owners of house say they rented to three, tenant wouldn't leave

The Landlords

East Baltimore Fire

May 23, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Around the corner from the charred remains of lives lost or forever changed, a man and his wife -- owners of the house on Cecil Avenue where six people were killed and seven others injured in an early-morning blaze yesterday -- sat in the gloom of their living room and wondered.

What if Oliver and Margaret Carlest had never met Deneen Thomas -- a woman they say showed up at their door one day last fall with her handicapped son, saying they were homeless?

What if they had never agreed to rent her the rowhouse they owned a few steps from their own home in the 1000 block of E. North Ave.?

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday incorrectly reported that code violations had been found in a house involved in a fatal fire. In fact, Michael Braverman, a city housing official, said no violations had been found in the house at 1903 Cecil Ave. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

What if Thomas had moved out when the Carlests warned her that they needed to make repairs? They say she refused to pay the $60 rent after October and did not return certified letters they sent her warning of possible eviction.

"Right now I don't even know if she is alive or dead," Margaret Carlest, 60, said of the tenant.

"This is a day I wish I had never seen," said her husband, Oliver Carlest, 64.

"What happened here is a tragedy to everybody in the neighborhood," said the husband, who wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. "My family, my friends, my neighbors: everyone is suffering."

The Carlests said they found out about the fire from their grandchildren, who were on their way to school when fire trucks pulled onto the normally quiet street, one where on warm nights adults sit outside playing pinochle while their children ride bikes.

And while Margaret Carlest said she stopped by the fire scene to check on her renters and neighbors, her husband said he didn't have the physical or emotional strength to move from his sofa.

"I can't go there," said Oliver Carlest, a slight man who bought the house at 1903 Cecil Ave. for his daughter Sasennia Carlest and her children about a decade ago.

After Sasennia Carlest moved out of the house several years ago, it sat empty until Thomas showed up, the family said.

"She just came around and people started to feed her and her children," said Margaret Carlest of Thomas and her two young sons, one of whom used a wheelchair.

The Carlests said they felt sorry for Thomas and her children, especially the boy in the wheelchair, and offered to let her stay at the Cecil Avenue house.

They wrote up a month-to-month lease agreement, a copy of which was reviewed by The Sun, and both parties signed it.

City records show that the rowhouse was not registered as a non-owner-occupied dwelling, according to Michael Braverman, the city's deputy commissioner for code enforcement. Failure to register such properties and pay a $30 annual fee is a misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $500 or a civil citation carrying a fine of $100, he said.

But according to the Carlests, they had no intention of taking on a long-term renter. They only wanted to help a single mother and her boys.

"She was homeless," said Margaret Carlest. "My husband felt sorry for her and her sons."

Braverman said the house also had outstanding housing code violations.

Again, the Carlests said they were aware of problems with the house but Thomas' situation seemed desperate.

"We knew the house wasn't right, but we wanted to help her," Oliver Carlest said, referring to repairs the house needed.

The Carlests said they sent multiple letters to Thomas trying to get her to pay rent and agree to let them in to make repairs but she refused to answer them. They said that when they went to her door she was never home.

Oliver Carlest said he was shocked when he finally got inside the house a few months ago to discover that "30 to 40" people appeared to be living there.

"I found people sitting in that corner and that corner and that corner and that corner," he said, pointing to the four corners of his own living room. "It was like there was a convention."

The Carlests said they only agreed to let Thomas and her sons live at the Cecil Avenue house but were aware that Thomas' daughter and the daughter's baby also stayed there at times. They said they have no idea how many people were staying at the house at the time of the fire.

As for overcrowding at the house, Braverman, the city deputy commissioner for code enforcement, said the zoning code generally allows four unrelated adults to live together or an unspecified number of people related by blood, marriage or adoption.

However, he said, the code specifies that the number of people in a unit "shall not create conditions that endanger the life, health, safety or welfare of the occupants."

The Carlests said they did everything they could to get Thomas out of the house.

In April, Oliver Carlest filed a civil claim against Thomas. After a hearing April 24, District Judge Nathan Braverman found a landlord-tenant relationship between Carlest and Thomas and ruled in favor of Thomas. Notes in the court file indicate that "$60/month is the agreed rent."

"The judicial system failed us -- it didn't allow us to have her thrown out," said Oliver Carlest.

Sitting in their living room, husband and wife on separate floral print settees, the Carlests stared at the television, which blared reports of the fire and lives lost.

"All these lives had to be destroyed, but for what?" asked Margaret Carlest to no one in particular. "Just 'cause you wouldn't do what you were supposed to do?

"It tears my heart apart."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Julie Bykowicz and Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

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