Category: In The News

1318 Druid Hill Avenue: Historic Blight

Property Address: 1318 Druid Hill Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21217

Property Owner: Janice Stanton Hines, 3339 Charleston Street, Houston, TX 77021

City Council District and Contact: District 11, Eric T. Costello

State Senator: Shirley Nathan-Pulliam

State Delegate:  Keith Haynes

The current owner of this home (a lawyer, no less) was jailed in Michigan, in 2010, for stealing $800,000 from her mother, who was 95 at the time. She was released in August of the same year, after repaying the money. In 2011, she sued family members, but the case was dismissed for failure to pay the $175 filing fee.

1318 Druid Hill Avenue is the former home of Henry Sythe Cummings, one of the first two African-American men to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Law. He lived in the home from 1911 until 1917, when he suffered a stroke and died. He was also the first African American Baltimore City Councilman. His legacy should be preserved, including this home — it’s a shame the out of town slumlord owner probably won’t be back to make needed repairs.

Sorry for the lousy photo, but there was no way to get a good shot, due to the overgrown tree in front.

1318 Druid Hill Avenue

1318 Druid Hill Avenue

Let’s Talk About Trash

…because as Baltimore residents, that’s what we do. I’ve never discussed garbage more than after I moved to Baltimore in 2000. It’s a constant struggle and source of frustration — if you belong to your neighborhood’s Nextdoor, you probably see the same complaints over and over again, as I do. One of my neighbors constantly described the goings-ons by one family he dubbed “The Trash Heaps” — lest you think he was simply being unkind, let me assure you, he was being dead-on descriptive. That house was a nightmare and a constant source of emails in my inbox. They no longer live on my neighbor’s street, and God bless whoever gets them as neighbors…I hope you really like the sight and smell of a lot of garbage.

Trash in Pigtown, West Ostend Street, June 22, 2015

Trash in Pigtown, West Ostend Street, June 22, 2015

Now, according to the Baltimore Brew, the City wants to implement a pay-as-you-go scheme for trash collection. You may think this is a great idea. You may wonder what took them so long. You may be so thrilled you’re beside yourself, reveling in the glee that comes with city-provided trash cans and a pay-as-you-go trash pickup scheme. Or, like me, you could shake your head and wonder why on earth our City government doesn’t stop to think that perhaps asking people to pay as they go…for anything city-service related…is a bad idea. Hint:  They probably won’t pay.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re a pretty decent sort. You pay your taxes, put out your trash in a bin with a lid, and don’t make a general nuisance of yourself to your neighbors, regardless of the kind of neighborhood you live in, or your income level. You’re just the kind of person my dad referred to as “good people”. Yay you!  And you’re thinking “This is a great idea. Now our trash collection will be more streamlined. More efficient. Less trash in the streets.”  My dear reader…”streamlined” and “efficient” + Baltimore City government…do you see where I’m going with this?

O, Irony!

BELIEVE can outside a vacant.

Lest you think I’m in the business of slamming the good folks at DPW, think again. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years, and I couldn’t ask for better trash collectors. They actually are efficient. And nice. My trash can is always placed back onto my patio after they haul the contents away, and I’ve never lost a lid yet. The only time I lost a trash can in those 15 years was shortly after Martin O’Malley came up with his limp “BELIEVE” campaign and we were all given a trash can with that word emblazoned on the side. Oh I believed, alrighty. And my trash can was promptly stolen the day after it arrived, never to be seen again. I believed, (for a hot minute) and then I had to haul myself to the Home Depot to buy another darn can. It should have been a sign, I tell you.

The simple fact of the matter, however, is that many people –regardless of race, gender, socio-economic blah blah blah — just people from all walks of life, believe me, do not know how to properly dispose of their trash. Or they’re too lazy and/or cheap to do so. I used to watch one of my neighbors (a lawyer, mind you, with a slightly low-rent TV law firm) throw his household trash next to the corner trash can (and not even on trash collection day!), on the ground, and la-di-dah his way to work. For months, years, this went on, until he and his wife moved away.  Meanwhile, the Section 8 folks down the street faithfully put out their cans (with lids!) every Tuesday night and didn’t make a mess (I still think half the block blamed them and not Mister Lazy Lawyer.)  They still live in the neighborhood, thankfully.

Trash dumped on West Ostend Street in Pigtown, June 22, 2015

Trash dumped on West Ostend Street in Pigtown, June 22, 2015

The point of this post is to illustrate that my neighborhood, like so many across the city, have long become dumping grounds. And not just by rogue contractors, waste haulers, and homeowners who are doing a rehab and don’t want to pay the dump fees. We’ve long been a dumping ground by the very residents who might live next door. Across the street, and we’re tired of it. Implementing a pay-as-you-go trash collection scheme might work in some neighborhoods that don’t already have a trash problem. And that’s great. But for those of us who do — it’s going to result in more illegal dumping, more trash, more rats, and might just be the incentive for many of us who have stuck it out, to leave.

It’s a bad plan, and will end up being punitive towards those residents who do follow the law and dispose of their trash properly. As with most things in Baltimore, it boils down to a lack of enforcement and punishment that actually acts as a deterrent. I would urge everyone to contact their City Council representative and ask him or her to squash this bad plan, which only amounts to yet another tax on our city’s struggling middle class.

More Dumping at Carroll Park

I went for a walk through Carroll Park today, and as I usually do, I ended up walking along the rail tracks behind the mansion. It’s an interesting view of the park and the surrounding neighborhoods. You can see 611-661 S Monroe from the rail tracks, too.

Some would have you believe that nobody uses Carroll Park, and it needs “saving”. As someone who lives a block away, I can assure you — this is anything but true. Most days the park is filled with people using the ball fields, the soccer fields, and the basketball courts. The skatepark and playground are used often, too. The adjacent charter school, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, uses the playground for the kids at recess — which is a great idea. Carroll Park is also home to a large music festival in September, bringing hundreds of people to the neighborhood. My neighbors use it, too. It’s a great place to walk, and I usually see moms and seniors as I’m walking through. It’s also home to the Mt. Clare Museum — a beautiful piece of Baltimore’s history. It’s certainly not a dying park, or in need of any “saving”. It’s a treasure to my neighborhood, and is well-used by people across the city.

However — with all that said, it’s also being used by trash dumpers, and this certainly is something that needs to be addressed. The Baltimore Brew did an article and a follow-up on a recent dump site that was found closer to the golf course (yes, Pigtown has a golf course!) Today on my walk, I came across this dump site:

Construction debris left adjacent to Carroll Park

Construction debris left adjacent to Carroll Park

Of course there's a toilet. There's always a toilet.

Of course there’s a toilet. There’s always a toilet.

And even more construction debris.

And even more construction debris.

My guess this was a rehabber who didn’t want to pay to dispose of waste properly, or pay to get a Dumpster (or permit for a Dumpster. Much easier to dump it somewhere and make it someone else’s problem. Walk a few yards further, and under the Monroe Street bridge, you’ll find yet more garbage that someone foisted off on our community:

Trash under Monroe Street bridge, adjacent to Carroll Park

Trash under Monroe Street bridge, adjacent to Carroll Park

More garbage under Monroe Street bridge

More garbage under Monroe Street bridge

And even more garbage dumped under the Monroe Street bridge.

And even more garbage dumped under the Monroe Street bridge.

As you can see, this area has become a haven for illegal dumping — something I believe the City will work to correct, particularly if residents keep on top of it and make it a priority. One suggestion would be to cut off access from the side street that leads into the rail yard — possibly by a fence that has a gate just wide enough for pedestrian or bike traffic.

Cutting off access to the dump site area by cutting off this street would not prevent access to pedestrians and bike riders, if done correctly.

Cutting off access to the dump site area by cutting off this street would not prevent access to pedestrians and bike riders, if done correctly.

People who engage in illegal dumping should know that our neighborhood knows you’re doing this, and we’re staying on top of this — so think twice before dumping your garbage in Carroll Park, or any city park. If you can’t bear the cost of doing business the legal way, please take your business (and your garbage) elsewhere.

What’s Your 2015 Housing Resolution?

Reposted from Housing Policy Watch:

People make much of the idea of “two cities” in Baltimore — one, affluent and white, and the other is usually labeled as poor and black. This view leaves out the third group: the folks, black and white, who earn around the city’s median income of $40,000 or so, and have solid potential to be upwardly mobile over the long term. You know — the working families who don’t consider themselves rich or poor, just…somewhere in the middle trying to get by. They don’t qualify for housing assistance, and even if they did — they probably wouldn’t apply (who has the time to hold down a full-time job, run a household, raise kids or take care of elderly parents or an ailing spouse, and commit to the arduous process of applying for social services?), and there isn’t a whole lot of moderate-income housing for them anyway.

It’s not like I’m saying anything I haven’t said a million times before, and won’t keep saying  — but I have to wonder why, in a city with so much potential safe and affordable housing — we have so little of it.

One of the reasons is the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This is the agency in charge of setting what they deem a “Fair Market Rent (FMR) for every Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Our MSA includes Towson, Columbia, and all the other wealthy suburbs in between. The idea is to set the FMR at a level that would allow low- and very low-income renters who receive Section 8/Housing Choice Vouchers to move from their neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into areas of prosperity (and higher rents). This is problematic on multiple levels:

  • Most poor people, through either a lack of means or a desire to stay near jobs, family, and other support systems, don’t actually move far away if at all. It’s hard to leave family support and friends, particularly if a low-income family relies on family and friends for childcare and/or transportation. Also, many wealthier suburbs (and even wealthier city neighborhoods) don’t have adequate or reliable public transit, making it hard for low-income families to access jobs, childcare, doctors, or shopping.
  • Because the FMR is based on a geographic area that includes wealthier suburbs, the FMR is unreasonably high in many of our moderate- and low-income neighborhoods. To ask someone earning the median, or just on either side of the median, to pay $1250 a month (approximate FMR for a two-bedroom house or apartment in the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson MSA) without housing assistance in many of our neighborhoods drives out the stabilizing force that moderate-income working families bring. It also drives away their current and future tax dollars, and consumer spending.

Many of our city’s neighborhoods, despite news and other reports to the contrary, are either stagnating, or they’re becoming even more concentrated areas of poverty, as more prosperous neighborhoods receive development projects and other attention from the State and City governments. (See concentrated poverty map again, to reiterate this point.) Oftentimes, this is due to investors snapping up cheap and foreclosed homes to flip and turn into Section 8 rentals. In Pigtown, one LLC flipped one block of homes to another LLC, for around $19,000 each, further destabilizing home prices. Inexplicably, one of the homes is now on the market for $174,000, when many homes on surrounding streets are on the market for far less. How long before this block of homes is turned into Section 8 rentals, if they don’t sell? Turning them into rentals those with moderate incomes could afford would be the better course of action — it would add stability to a floundering neighborhood, and could potentially raise property values as these renters turn into buyers.

From a 2003 National Housing Institute/Shelterforce article:

During the past decade, speculators saw an opportunity in Patterson Park – and in the loopholes of the voucher program. They found they could snap up vacant rowhouses for as little as $10,000, give them a fresh coat of paint, pass Section 8 inspection, and start to rake in vouchers worth $700 a month, much more than the rentals would be worth on the private market. As groups of out-of-town investors got in on the deal, Section 8 families flooded into as many as 700 of Patterson Park’s rowhouses. The neighborhood became visibly poorer and shabbier as the landlords ignored maintenance. “The people buying here were not experienced property managers,” Rutkowski says. “They were accountants and lawyers in the suburbs.”

While Patterson Park has improved considerably since 2003, it still struggles with investor-owned low-income housing. Something that could have alleviated current and past problems — mixed-income housing, and the stability that moderate-income earners bring to the table.

Some encouraging news was reported in this morning’s Baltimore Sun: One development near the biopark in West Baltimore will have 20% of its planned units set aside for moderate- and low-income tenants. Whether this plan comes to fruition or not — that remains to be seen.

Making affordable housing for working families a top priority of City and State government needs to happen. Our city cannot afford to be divided in three — it needs to come together to find real solutions that aren’t tied to nice-sounding theories and campaign contributions. Solid investments in our neighborhoods, a commitment to making Baltimore a liveable city, and reworking of HUD’s FMR would be a great start. Let’s make this happen in 2015 — together.

City Drops Ball, Citizens Go Public on Facebook, City Says “Don’t Do That”.

Residents in one Baltimore neighborhood have been complaining about one house for months. 311 calls, online complaints, emails to Councilman Curran’s office — and nothing was done…until the residents banded together on their neighborhood’s Facebook group, as reported by the Baltimore Brew.

For months, the residents of the home were dumping human waste into the alley, and leaving buckets of waste at the rear of the property. Neighbors filed multiple 311 complaints, called and emailed their councilman — all the things you’re supposed to do, as a good neighbor, to no avail. I happened to read about all of this on the neighborhood’s Facebook group, and sent an email to Baltimore Housing. Fern Shen of the Brew wrote about the issue, and inspectors were quickly dispatched to the property, where inspectors found more than they bargained for. As a result, the residents of the home have been moved out, and the house has been deemed uninhabitable by Baltimore Housing, and will be secured.

What irks me, however, are the statements made by Alli Smith, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods and Christine Muldowney, a staffer for Councilman Curran.

“I’m glad this issue was resolved eventually. In the future, if you need assistance with issues in the neighborhood, or need to know which agency can resolve a certain issue – the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods is a great resource and you can contact your neighborhood liaison directly,” said Alli Smith, deputy director of that office, writing on the Facebook thread.

“Yes, direct contact is best since there is no guarantee that a city liaison of Mayor or Council will see it,” agreed Christine Muldowney, a staffer for 3rd District Councilman Robert Curran. “I just accidentally saw post here.”

While I agree the initial complaint shouldn’t be on social media, I strongly disagree that these neighbors shouldn’t have complained publicly, using the tools available to them. Isn’t this what social media is for? And what about all of the residents’ 311 calls and emails to the councilman’s office? Why did they go ignored until the issue was made public by the Brew?

This isn’t the first time a resident living in squalor was ignored until it was made public. I’ve personally written about three, and there are many I didn’t write about — didn’t need to, since the issues were resolved through Baltimore Housing. You can read about one of the worst cases I wrote about here.

Many kudos to these residents, and to the Brew, for taking the initiative to get this issue resolved. Hopefully this story encourages more residents to band together, using all the tools available — including social media, to make their communities better.


Support City Council Bill 13-0293

Posted from Housing Policy Watch:

Introduced in the Baltimore City Council by Councilman Henry (District 4), this bill would expand the definition of vacant houses, giving Baltimore Housing the ability to levy fines against blighted nuisance properties faster, and impose harsher penalties against owners who did not comply. (Source: WBAL)

Many of our vacant structures are owned by absentee landlords, banks, or holding companies that have no plans to fix the problems — and have allowed these homes to fall into disrepair. Expanding the city’s ability to fine these owners and hold them accountable should go a long way towards cleaning up some of our blighted neighborhoods.

Two things that also need to happen before January when the bill goes to a vote, in order for this to be a success:

  1. The bill, once law, needs to be enforced. That could mean a line-item increase in Baltimore Housing’s budget for additional qualified housing inspectors.
  2. If these properties are sold at a municipal tax sale when the owners don’t pay the fines, there needs to be strict vetting of the people purchasing the homes, as to not further the chain of irresponsible ownership.

If the city is prepared to do these two things, let’s support this bill and make sure it becomes law. Contact your City Council representative and let them know you want this to pass — and let them know you expect there to be a clear plan for disposition of the properties, once seized.

For City Council district contact information, go here.

Digging into the Backstory: Part One

In the process of doing research into Baltimore’s history, particularly its housing history — one comes across some peculiar, lurid, or just plain interesting news items.  This one, in particular, caught my eye:

News clip from 1895 about Baltimore's slums and brothels.

News clip from 1895 about Baltimore’s slums and brothels.

The text reads as follows:

“That was not a pleasant duty that the ladies of the Social Purity League took upon themselves in Baltimore on Tuesday night, but it was one in the performance of which they learned a good deal about the seamy side of life, and the information they obtained will give them subjects for sermons for years to come.  Baltimore is notorious for its brothels, said to be under the protection of the police, who have been accused of blackmailing the inmates, and of course the more brothels the greater the revenue of the police blackmailer, and he is not going to do anything to suppress them. It required a great deal of courage for those good women to dive into the Baltimore slums, and it is hoped their visit will do a great deal of good.”

How bad were the slums of Baltimore in the late 1800s?

Some demographic information, extracted from a report released by the US Congress in 1894:

25,000 people were counted in a “slum census” conducted in Baltimore.  (The study was also done in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago).

Of those 25,000 “slum dwellers”, almost 41% of them were foreign-born, and close to 20% of them were unable to read or write.  In the slum areas of the city, there was 1 saloon for every 105 residents, about double the number as you’d find in the rest of the city. It’s interesting to note that in Baltimore, the average number of people residing in any one slum dwelling was 7.71.  In New York City, that number skyrocketed all the way to 36.79.

Source:  Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, PA), October 17, 1895
Source: The National Tribune (Washington DC), August 2, 1894, page 4