The vacant brick rowhouse at 2037 Orleans St. looks like many of the 16,000 abandoned homes that beset Baltimore. The front door is covered with plywood. The weedy backyard is strewn with trash.
But this empty house stands out in one notable way: It's owned by Police Maj. Melvin T. Russell, commander of the Eastern District — a man who has seen firsthand how blight has damaged East Baltimore and whose job makes him a role model in the community.
"I'm an advocate against these people," Russell said Monday, referring to owners of run-down vacants. "Unfortunately, I find myself in the same predicament I'm against."
The sorry state of his house stems from his ill-fated decision in the mid-1990s to rent it to tenants who turned out to be destructive, he said. Insurance payments left him unable to afford major repairs.
The house has sat vacant for at least seven years, he said, and in 2006 the city slapped a notice declaring it unsafe or uninhabitable. Department of Public Works records show work orders for boarding the house in June 2006, January 2007 and April 2008, records show.
"I'm sure everybody has their own story, but this is not a situation where I'm turning a blind eye, turning my back, just because I can," Russell said. "There is a reason why it has not been brought up to par, and it's simply financial."
He added: "Do I feel bad about it? Absolutely. … If somebody wants to come up with a viable solution, I'm all ears."
Matt Gonter, a Patterson Park neighborhood activist who tracks housing in East Baltimore, said Russell "should be setting an example for the rest of the people in the city."
"Vacants attract crime," Gonter said, "and he's in charge of the Eastern District. Why does he have this? During the housing boom, he could have unloaded it."
Vacant houses abound in Russell's district, which stretches west to east from Guilford Avenue to Erdman Avenue and north to south from 25th Street to Orleans Street.
The danger of vacant houses was spotlighted anew in October, when, according to authorities, a 13-year-old girl was raped inside a gutted shell on North Caroline Street after being shoved inside by an assailant. That house is less than a mile from the empty property Russell owns on busy Orleans, which divides the Eastern and Southeastern police districts.
Russell, a 32-year veteran of the department, bought the three-story Orleans Street house in 1982 and moved in. By 1994, Russell's family needed more space, so they moved out. Rather than sell in a down market, he decided to rent the rowhouse.
Russell says that police raided the house at least twice, and during one raid, officers noticed junk mail addressed to him. They asked about his ties to the house, which is in the Middle East neighborhood, and said his tenants had damaged the place.
Russell managed to secure an eviction after an ordeal that he said lasted more than a year. But squatters then broke into the house, and someone set a fire that charred the third floor.
"By the time I got into the house," he said, it "was just totally destroyed — holes in the walls, ripped up."
His insurance company paid him just over $2,000. He plowed it all back into the house but, he says, "clearly it wasn't enough. Since then the house has been waiting for more funds to be restored."
Russell's property, assessed at $57,200, is hardly the only vacant on the block, just east of Johns Hopkins Hospital, although homes on either side of his are occupied and appear well-tended.
On Monday, his house didn't appear secure. Out back, although a ground-floor door looked solidly shut, an easily accessible door on the second floor was open to the elements and intruders.
Russell said he has relied on former neighbors to call him about problems. He inspects the house "a couple times a year" and found the second-floor rear door secure at last check. Hearing it's now open, he said, "I need to take care of it."
Meanwhile, the backyard is full of trash, along with a family of feral cats. Russell said he used to have a fence, but it was knocked down.
Over the years he's tried to keep the yard clean, he said, hiring workers and doing some of the work himself. The city has issued citations, and he's paid them. "I'm responsible for that; I understand," he said.
While Russell said he intends to reseal the house and clean up the yard, he doesn't have a long-term plan. Selling isn't a realistic option, he said, and he and his family still hope to fix it up.
While his experience hasn't changed his dislike of vacants and irresponsible owners, he says it has provided him a different perspective. "I certainly sympathize with other homeowners who I like to think have a decent heart," he said, adding that his long struggle "gives you more of an insight."