Reporters for The Sun witnessed six property seizures stemming from ground rent between early summer and late fall.
Some played out matter-of-factly. Once deputies from the city sheriff's office determined that nobody was home, workers hired by the new owners popped out the door locks and replaced them within minutes. The crew could then empty the house and pile its contents in the street -- so long as cars could get through.
In the 2600 block of Mura Street in the East Baltimore community of Berea, electric candles still shined in the front window of the vacant rowhouse, and an Easter wreath hung on the front door as the ejectment crew arrived on the morning of July 26.
Strewn throughout the rooms were personal mementos, from bowling trophies to religious icons to two ticket stubs from an evening showing of Scary Movie 4 three months previously. The unpaid ground rent was $252, though fees and other costs boosted the bill to $2,118.67.
In three cases, deputies told occupants they had to get out immediately unless they could work out something with the new owners.
On a hot August morning on North Brice Street in the Midtown-Edmondson area, one family lost a rowhouse adjoining the one where it lives. Minutes later, an elderly man told a child about to put his tricycle away in the seized house: "You can't put it in there. It ain't our house no more."
The actions of some ground rent holders upset some traditional investors, such as Cantori of the Knott Foundation.
Cantori says that the foundation relies on the income from ground rent -- about $200,000 a year -- to help pay its operating expenses, but that it is redeeming or selling dozens every year and writing some off as uncollectible.
Property records show that the Knott Foundation -- among other charitable and religious groups -- sold ground rents to investors who filed ejectment lawsuits. It typically has sold those leases for their redemption value under state law -- for example, a $90-a-year rent sold for $1,500.
Cantori calls the rise in ejectment actions and seizures "unconscionable." He says the foundation sold ground rents because they were delinquent and wanted to "get them off the books" after failing to collect the rent through normal procedures. He says he didn't know that the new owners had sued to seize the properties.
Court records give only part of the answer.
Fred Nochumowitz, acting as trustee for some family ground rent holdings, filed suit against McNeil in April 2002, asserting that her ground rent -- $96 a year -- was more than six months behind. McNeil admits that she let the debt slide, but only did so because she was sick. Later, she said, she couldn't afford the legal fees added to her bill, and didn't realize she could lose her house.
McNeil, 59, said she is disabled and suffers from high blood pressure, which she keeps in check by taking seven pills a day. She says she suffered a stroke after her daughter died.
McNeil never tried to defend herself in court, though court records show she was served with legal notice of the suit. She says she couldn't face going to court.
A judge handed over her rowhouse to the Nochumowitz trust. Property records show that the trust sold the house about a year later for $15,000 to Lauren Montillo, who specializes in rehabilitating city properties for resale as rentals.
Montillo, who has bought at least 22 properties from Nochumowitz family interests, says she chose not to rehab the house and evict McNeil, so long as she paid her $550 a month in rent. "I don't have the guts to throw her out," said Montillo. "I have a little bit of a conscience."
Says McNeil, "It would mostly kill me" to move.