Frances Chase sat on her front stoop as the bulldozer rolled up.
Six days earlier, a neighbor called her while she was at work to tell her about the yellow signs posted on her home and the vacant rowhouses on either side of it, announcing that the properties were condemned and set to be demolished. “The public is warned to keep away,” they read.
Chase, 65, scrambled to figure out how soon and how to fight it, but ended up only having a few days to move decades of belongings. Some possessions — purses hung on doorknobs, storage bins and furniture — remained inside as the crew tore her house down Sept. 23. She’d lived in the home she owned on the 1900 block of Hollins St. for 26 years.
“I’m just really lost," Chase said the day of the demolition.
Baltimore officials have broad legal jurisdiction to raze properties deemed uninhabitable or potentially dangerous, said law and housing experts. When inspectors believe an imminent threat exists, the city can use emergency condemnation. The notices can indicate that a property’s land, structure or equipment, such as its furnace, plumbing or electrical wiring, is unsafe.
The city’s rush to tear down homes considered structurally unsound or potentially hazardous comes as Baltimore works to reduce the number of abandoned properties throughout the city, an initiative that has cost millions of dollars but not significantly curbed the blight. Police have found drug activity, dead bodies and other crimes in long-neglected homes. And they can be dangerous; in 2017, a home collapsed, killing a man parked in his car at the curb.
Emergency demolitions are rare — and almost never involve owner-occupied homes, said Tammy Hawley, a city housing department spokeswoman, in an email. They usually involve natural disasters or perhaps a contractor error, she said.
The problems with Chase’s home were too dire to wait to address, she said.
"Unfortunately, things [had] deteriorated to the current state which has now warranted the current action,” Hawley said.
But more than a year and a half earlier, after Chase applied for financial help with home repairs, a housing department technician called the home’s condition poor and potentially deadly after inspecting it, according to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun in a public records request.
“At this point the home is not in livable conditions,” a housing rehabilitation technician wrote in an email to a supervisor in February 2018, describing collapsing floors and crumbling walls.
City officials did not heed the warning — “Let’s do the roof to stabilize the property,” the supervisor replied — and paid nearly $10,000 to rehabilitate her roof in 2018, records show.
“There was clearly an effort to keep Ms. Chase in her home by helping with improvements,” Hawley said. "Without the roof investment, things would have deteriorated even sooner.”
Responding to community complaints about the state of adjacent vacant houses, Hawley said, inspectors returned to the block Sept. 17.
“I’m mortified at how quickly this unfolded.”— Owen Jarvis, director of legal services at St. Ambrose
According to a copy of the emergency condemnation and demolition notice, inspectors looked at Chase’s home and condemned it and the others the same day. The inspector cited stress cracks in the rear wall, perhaps aided by a tree pushing against the house, as the reasons for the condemnation.
Chase’s home, built around 1900, had not been cited for any code violations or with any legal notices. Baltimore officials had issued prior code violations for the houses on either side. Documents show that the adjacent properties were abandoned and contained failed and collapsed framing and had portions of their roofs missing.
After issuing a notice of condemnation, the city sent a structural engineer to determine whether Chase’s home could be salvaged, Hawley said.
Exterior walls exhibited “bowing and failures throughout," according to a structural assessment completed by KCI Technologies Inc. on Sept. 18. The home also possessed severe termite damage, hazardous flooring conditions, moisture in the basement and cracking in the walls, according to the assessment. The city said Chase’s son and daughter were present at the time of the inspection.
The demolition crew showed up five days later.
After the condemnation notice went up, Chase and her daughter, Shane Williams, reached out to the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center for help understanding the notice, which didn’t list a demolition date, and received mixed messages about how quickly it might occur.
Owen Jarvis, director of legal services at St. Ambrose, confirmed that the city gave him conflicting answers, which he relayed to the family.
“I’m mortified at how quickly this unfolded,” said Jarvis, noting that the lack of clear notice or communication to the homeowner deeply troubled him.
Councilman John Bullock, a Democrat who represents Chase’s neighborhood in Baltimore’s 5th District, said the department might have been motivated to raze all five homes on the block for the sake of convenience.
“It’s more advantageous to do the whole row,” said Bullock, adding that vacant properties have long dogged his district. “I haven’t seen anything like this before.”
Bullock and housing policy experts said the city does not take emergency condemnations lightly and often looks to them as a last resort.
Carol Ott, the tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, said there might be increased urgency among city officials to prevent another home collapse tragedy with so much aging and neglected housing in the city.
“The fact that she’s wedged between two vacants puts her home in jeopardy in a myriad of ways,” Ott said. “It’s Russian roulette. You could be totally fine, or in five minutes, your house collapses.”
Chase watched the demolition team tear down her home, but her daughter drove her away from the scene when it became too hard to bear.
“Normally we have time to plan those actions out with a homeowner prior to the demolition. In this case, the whole block demolition was an emergency demolition."— Tammy Hawley, a city housing department spokeswoman
Neighbors Dora Hunter, 83, and Robin Diggs, 59, looked on across the street. Plumes of dust floated around as the two shouted to talk.
Hunter said she saw Chase go inside one last time that Monday morning to retrieve some belongings before the demolition began.
“It’s shocking,” Diggs said. “It happened so fast. She didn’t receive no notice.”
Chase and the city disagree on the extent to which the city initially offered to help her, though Williams said her mother was now in the process of becoming a homeowner again. About a week after the house came down, the city offered to relocate Chase to a mortgage-free home, Williams said, but would not cover the title or inspection fees, which amount to about $1,400.
While Hawley could not discuss specifics, she said the city was working to finalize Chase’s relocation and “settlement is imminent.”
The Evening Sun
Such property emergencies generally excuse the city from having to provide compensation, said Audrey McFarlane, a professor at University of Baltimore School of Law. The city’s responsibility to protect the public trumps its legal liability to reimburse a property owner, she said.
But, McFarlane added, “it seems like they kind of engaged in a waste of money by repairing the roof."
Williams said she’s relieved her mother will have a new place to live but questioned the city’s motivations for helping her.
“She would be left with nothing if we didn’t open our mouths, I’m sure of that,” Williams said.
Hawley said the city needed to act fast.
“Normally we have time to plan those actions out with a homeowner prior to the demolition,” Hawley said. “In this case, the whole block demolition was an emergency demolition, so the engagement followed the demolition rather than preceded.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Catherine Rentz and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.