Back of vacant house

The rear of a vacant house at 825 N. Caroline, marked with "X" on the left, where a 13-year-old was raped in October. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / December 2, 2011)

The vacant rowhouse at 825 N. Caroline St. has long been an open-and-shut case for the city. Opened up by somebody — vandals, junkies, homeless people, whoever — and then shut by public works crews. Then opened up again.

It was inside this home that police say a 13-year-old girl was raped Oct. 17, after being yanked into the unsecured building and thrown into the dusty basement. A 48-year-old man was charged last month in the attack.

The city has made several attempts over the years to keep people out of the East Baltimore property: A crew from the Department of Public Works boarded up the house in July 2008, when it was city-owned. Workers resealed it in January 2010, only to return later that year for an open window, days after a developer took title.

The most recent re-boarding occurred in October, right after the attack. By last Friday, the plywood on the front door was already loose. The owners have permits to rehab and say they're optimistic.

In a city with 16,000 abandoned buildings, securing vacants is a never-ending quest. So far this year, Public Works says it has boarded up 5,236 vacant houses in Baltimore, charging private owners for labor and materials. The city estimates the annual cost of boarding at $1.2 million.

Many houses are repeat customers.

"We've had properties that we boarded and literally the next day we'll get another service request," Public Works spokeswoman Celeste Amato said. "There are properties boarded repeatedly over time. That is not unusual."

Besides depressing values and leading to more blight, vacant houses are nuisance magnets, officials say. People break in for a range of reasons. Some want a place to sleep or use drugs. Some are looking to steal copper wire. Others, as the October attack showed, use vacants as cover for crime.

Last year Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched her Vacants to Value initiative, aimed at streamlining the sale of city-owned property and using stiff fines to pressure owners of vacant properties to sell or rehab buildings. But the huge number of abandoned homes means it will be difficult for the city to make a major dent anytime soon.

By Baltimore standards, the 800 block of North Caroline is far from the worst, even with eight of its 12 houses sitting empty. A housing tower for the elderly rises on a grassy parcel on the west side of the street. Rental townhomes unfold to both the north and south, and there's a Save-A-Lot supermarket in a nearby shopping plaza. The Johns Hopkins medical campus starts just two blocks to the east.

Shirley Medley, a retired custodian who worked at the National Aquarium, has rented on the block for about eight years. "You're not living what you would call peacefully," she said, sitting in her tidy living room as her 17-month-old great-grandson tottered about.

In one respect the vacants don't bother her, she said, because she's often inside. But she said they cause big problems: Rats are a nuisance out back, made worse by weeds and trash behind the vacants. Homeless people set up housekeeping for a time in one vacant. Someone lit a fire in another.

Nothing, though, has been anywhere near as terrible as the rape at 825 N. Caroline, she said.

According to police, the 13-year-old girl was walking home about 9 p.m. when she was shoved into the house. Because the building has no floors, she fell several feet to the cellar, losing her glasses. Her attacker jumped down and threatened to kill her if she kept screaming, court records show.

Alvin Ray Wright, who was charged with the crime after investigators made a DNA match, is accused of punching her in the face and ribs, according to court papers. Doctors who treated the girl noted a loose tooth and bruises on her legs and knees in addition to injuries related to the sexual assault.

After he raped her, the attacker climbed a wooden board to get out of the home and fled, charging documents state. The girl escaped by stacking items to reach the ground floor.

The girl ran up to Medley's 23-year-old granddaughter on the street and asked for help. "Her mouth was busted up, bleeding," Medley recalled. "Her hair was full of dirt and dust. She was a total wreck. She was just shaking and trembling all over."

According to Medley, before the rape happened the city had ignored calls to the 311 nonemergency line about the house being open. "It takes a tragedy to get something done," she said. "Several people have called; I was one of them."

Housing inspection records, though, show only one call to 311. "Responded to 311," a housing inspector recorded Oct. 19. "Property boarded while I was upon the premises."

The block has been a relatively quiet spot in the midst of a violent neighborhood.

Four people have been fatally shot this year in a two-block radius. Crimes committed a block to the north include two acts of shoplifting, a purse snatching, an armed robbery, an assault with a gun and two car thefts.

But police report few crimes on the 800 block of N. Caroline. "It's just not one of those areas that has been a great concern to us," said Maj. Melvin Russell, who commands the Eastern District.

Russell said while vacant rowhouses tend to breed crime, the fact they're empty offers up fewer potential victims. He also pointed to the elderly housing across the street. "The seniors are pretty watchful," Russell said. "They hang out in the court."

The major said no drug groups or gangs have claimed that stretch of North Caroline. "There's nothing really entrenched there," he said, though crime stats show the corners on the periphery to be busy in terms of police calls for trouble.

Data on 911 calls provided by city police going back to January show one family disturbance, two robberies (one armed, one unarmed), a car theft, a disorderly and four drug complaints.

Russell said his officers reported that the boards on the vacant Caroline Street rowhouses appeared secure a few days before the girl was attacked.

The Department of Public Works uses only plywood for boarding, spokeswoman Cathy Powell said, unlike the public housing authority, which uses cinder block as well. Powell said plywood's advantage is that it's easier for police or firefighters to remove in an emergency.

Keith French, a partner in Kona Properties LLC, which acquired 825 N. Caroline from the city last year, said the company is "vigilant" about trying to keep its properties secure. The company owns 44 vacant houses that as of July had been deemed unsafe or uninhabitable, city records show. Many are what French called "development projects waiting to happen."

"We're constantly going behind people and reboarding, [fixing] broken windows, trying to keep properties in a state where people can't get into them," French said.

"This is a tragedy," French said of the rape. But he said he doesn't think the house was sitting wide-open — a view buttressed by police accounts. "We're on those type of things," he said, speculating that the assailant might have removed the plywood board and been lying in wait.

French said construction on the block would start soon to bring the homes back into use as affordable housing. Kona Properties acquired four houses there as part of a larger property swap with the city. Last month it applied for construction permits at two. A permit for 825 was issued Thursday, and one for 827 is ready to be issued, Porter said.

Michael Braverman, deputy housing commissioner, said he is optimistic about the block's future, based on Kona's planned improvements and other changes, including rehabs now under way on two houses owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

"This thing only works if you can assure whole block renovations," Braverman said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com



Number of vacant houses boarded by city crews



2011: 5,236

2010: 5,772

2009: 4,610

2008: 6,632

2007: 6,617

2006: 6,166

2005: 4,567

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts