Because we all need a little more poetry in our lives…

The House with Nobody in It: Joyce Kilmer

Abandoned home, Baltimore County, 2013

Abandoned home, Baltimore County, 2013

Whenever I walk to Suffern along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I’ve passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house, the house with nobody in it.

I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn’t haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn’t be so lonely if it had a ghost or two.

This house on the road to Suffern needs a dozen panes of glass,
And somebody ought to weed the walk and take a scythe to the grass.
It needs new paint and shingles, and the vines should be trimmed and tied;
But what it needs the most of all is some people living inside.

If I had a lot of money and all my debts were paid
I’d put a gang of men to work with brush and saw and spade.
I’d buy that place and fix it up the way it used to be
And I’d find some people who wanted a home and give it to them free.

Now, a new house standing empty, with staring window and door,
Looks idle, perhaps, and foolish, like a hat on its block in the store.
But there’s nothing mournful about it; it cannot be sad and lone
For the lack of something within it that it has never known.

But a house that has done what a house should do,
a house that has sheltered life,
That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife,
A house that has echoed a baby’s laugh and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when it’s left alone, that ever your eyes could meet.

So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can’t help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.

Six Years Today!

Six years ago today I started a little project…something to keep me busy and focused after being laid off from my job. I had no idea how long the project would last, and I had no idea where it would take me — but I was compelled to push forward. I remember there were days during that first few months — I didn’t even have the money to take the bus across town…so I would walk. And walk. And walk. East side to west, and back again.

Fast forward six years and I’m still at it. Slow and steady progress has been made, thanks to all of you!  The project continues to move in different directions, but the goal remains the same: my commitment to making sure our residents have the ability to make their neighborhoods safer and stronger, and the ability to feel a sense of ownership and pride in those changes. Nor will that ever continue. This is your city, folks — let’s keep making Baltimore stronger and better, one vacant at a time. Together.

Thank you all so very much for your support, your help, and your kindness. I look forward to another six years of success, accomplishments, laughs, and hijinks.

xoxo,

Carol Ott

11 S Conkling Street: Major Code Violations

Update: As of January 12, all code violations have been fixed, and the tenants now have heat.

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Property Address:  11 S. Conkling Street, Baltimore, MD 21224

Property Owner: 2042 Kennedy Avenue, LLC, Baltimore, MD 21224

Managing Member/Resident Agent for 2042 Kennedy Avenue, LLC: Anthony E. Kelley, 504 S Newkirk Street, Baltimore, MD 21224 (Company is not in good standing with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation)

City Council District and Contact: District 2, Brandon Scott

State Senator:  William Ferguson IV

State Delegates:  Pete HammenLuke ClippingerBrian McHale

Thanks to one person (Reader SF), the owner of this property has been cited for 24 separate code violations by Baltimore Housing. The home is occupied as a rooming house (some would say flophouse), with people living in the unfinished basement, in dangerous conditions. The tenant who was living in the cellar filed a rent escrow complaint with the District Court of Baltimore City, but the complaint was dismissed. Unfortunately, this is a story we hear far too often — our District Court judges need to pay more attention to these complaints, and take these cases seriously when the tenant has documentation to back up their claims. Nobody should be forced to live in uninhabitable dangerous conditions, only to be told by a judge “Too bad.”

The code violations are as follows:

  • Hallway at top of basement steps: Defective floor
  • Basement steps: Area lacks proper protection
  • Basement steps: Defective stair riser(s)
  • Basement rear wall: Defective wall
  • Throughout basement: Illegal extension cords
  • Basement rear ceiling: Defective electrical fixture
  • Basement front: Multiple defective electrical outlets
  • Basement front: Defective water pipe
  • Dining room wall: Defective electrical outlet
  • First floor kitchen: Defective floor
  • First floor kitchen ceiling: Defective ceiling
  • First floor kitchen: Fuse box missing
  • First floor kitchen: Windows or doors not weatherproof
  • First floor kitchen: Defective door hardware
  • First floor kitchen: Defective electrical outlet
  • Rear second floor bathroom: Window glass cracked or missing
  • Rear second floor bathroom: Defective toilet
  • Throughout second floor bathroom: Defective walls
  • Rear basement: Cellar being used as habitable space

The owner, an LLC, has been given 30 days to correct all violations, and has also been ordered to stop allowing people to live in the cellar. You can read the violation notice, in its entirety, by downloading this PDF file.

This is just one of hundreds of unsafe, unhealthy homes I heard about in 2014. Our elected officials need to do more to hold these property owners accountable. Many times the residents won’t complain out of fear of retaliation and being evicted (link opens a PDF) — but this resident complained, and most likely — she and her family will have to move. Why should our most vulnerable residents bear the burden of unsafe and unhealthy housing when we have laws in place to stop property owners like this one? Hold these folks accountable, and demand that our state and local government enforce the laws intended to protect residents from unsafe housing.

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.

 

Year-End Wrap

Posted from Housing Policy Watch:

Blighted vacant homes in BaltimoreAs 2014 draws to a close, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight some of the work that’s been happening over the past year. You can support this work by going here and making a tax-deductible contribution that will be matched by the Warnock Foundation.

A total of 263 posts were written, between this website and the Housing Policy Watch project’s website.

Of those posts, we managed to highlight a total of 234 blighted nuisance properties, and updated you on 25 properties that were written about over the years. 18 of those properties were or are in some stage of the receivership process. Other issues that we pushed to the forefront in 2014:

  • Affordable rental housing for working families
  • The failure of our city and state property records
  • Strengthening Maryland’s housing laws to allow for honest property owners to shine, while ridding us of the financial and personal burdens of dealing with the bad ones.
  • Highlighting historically significant properties, and properties that have stories behind them that are worth sharing.
  • Showcasing well-done rehabs, giving encouragement to those who want to own and rehab properties within the bounds of the law.
  • Sending more viable properties to Baltimore Housing, in order to move them into receivership.

A few other 2014 highlights:

  • Three projects were started in other cities to draw attention to lax code enforcement and nuisance properties, bringing the total number of BSW-inspired projects to seven nationwide.
  • Completed two neighborhood maps (crime and property transfers), showing property ownership types in relation to areas of high crime. Work continues on the citywide map, and we’ve added a second neighborhood to the neighborhood mapping project.
  • Assisted neighbors with 37 nuisance properties, resulting in citations and cleanup efforts through referral to city agencies like Baltimore Housing and DPW, and community groups.

You can read about the upcoming work we’d like to accomplish in 2015 here and here. None of this work could be accomplished without all of the residents who email and leave comments on both websites, send photos, call about nuisance properties, share our work on Facebook and Twitter, and of course — donate. Your financial contribution is so important to keeping both of these projects alive, and right now your donations are being doubled by a matching fund from the Warnock Foundation, allowing for even more accomplishments in 2015. Please donate today!