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Lawsuits filed over mural project intended to shame Baltimore landlords

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemCourts and the JudiciaryNPR

A Baltimore woman who has gained national attention for a project intended to publicly shame those who own vacant houses in the city now faces two lawsuits from one of those owners.

Brian Spern, an attorney representing the two business trusts that own 539 N. Longwood St. in West Baltimore and 4727 Old York Road in North Baltimore, filed the property damage tort claims earlier this month. The sole defendant is Carol S. Ott, who has run the Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog since 2009 and partnered earlier this year with a group of street artists who paint murals on the vacant homes.

Spern and another representative of one of the properties did not return requests for comment on Saturday.

Ott teamed up with a street artist who goes by the name "Nether" for the Wall Hunters project. Ott, who has chronicled nearly 1,000 properties on her blog over five years, researches the ownership and local government representatives for the vacant properties. The information goes into a QR code placed prominently on the side of the building so anyone walking by with a smartphone can scan and download it. Street artists recruited by Nether have put up more than a dozen murals without the permission of the owners.

The North Longwood Street mural features an image of a neighbor fed up with vacancy while the Old York Road mural shows a pharaoh's headpiece, a cotton field and fire.

Ott says her intention with the project to encourage the owners to "clean up" their deteriorating properties. The city estimates there are 16,000 vacant properties in Baltimore, which can attract fires and crime, drag down nearby property values and be dangerous when if they collapse.

The lawsuits, filed in District Court in Baltimore, claim that Ott entered the properties and "caused a mural to be erected." Spern further alleges that Ott acted with actual malice and intent to cause the damage, and that she admitted on her Facebook page that she told the artists which properties to target. Based on contractor estimates, the lawsuit asks for $2,500 per house to cover the costs to repaint the buildings, plus attorney fees.

While Ott says she's gotten unkind emails from some of the owners she highlights on her blog, this is the first time she's been sued by one. She said she has not been deterred from her housing advocacy work and expects she will prevail when the matter goes to court in March.

"He alleges that I vandalized his property — it's just simply not true," said Ott, who added that she was out of town when the mural on North Longwood Street was painted. "I think it's nothing but a big nuisance lawsuit."

Representatives for NB2 Business Trust, the listed owner of 4727 Old York Road, have disputed Ott's characterization of the ownership of the property. Ott labeled the building as owned by "a Stanley Rochkind controlled entity," a reference to a local businessman who has been targeted in hundreds of lead-paint lawsuits.

The NB2 representatives claimed that Rochkind did not own the property, but state tax records show Rochkind and his wife lent money to a family trust that financed 4727 Old York Road, 539 N. Longwood St., and dozens of other local houses through an indemnity deed of trust. NB2 Business Trust and SS3 Business Trust, the listed owner of the North Longwood Street house, are also among dozens of trusts and limited liability corporations listed on the indemnity deed of trust.

Ott, a Pigtown resident who has been profiled by national media outlets like NPR, The Atlantic and CBS News, said the two houses in question were badly deteriorated at the time that the murals were painted.

"They've both been vacant for quite some time," she said. "It's not like the people just moved away."

cwells@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cwellssun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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