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A demolition team tears down five adjacent properties on the 1900 block of Hollins Street including the home of Frances Chase.

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott demanded answers from the city’s housing commissioner after learning that a West Baltimore homeowner’s row house was torn down with six days’ notice.

In a letter addressed to commissioner Michael Braverman, Scott said that while he understands Baltimore’s “severe issue with blight,” he was taken aback by the department’s handling of the woman’s property, which underwent city-funded roof repairs the prior year even though it was flagged by one housing technician as “not in livable conditions.”

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Scott inquired about the condemnation process, the city’s protocol for dealing with emergency demolitions and details about the assistance housing officials are providing Frances Chase, the homeowner of the property on the 1900 block of Hollins St., where she lived for 26 years.

“In Baltimore, a city that has a severe housing stability problem, we must make every effort to help citizens stay in their homes,” Scott said in the letter.

Scott also asked for the number of short-term demolitions that have included occupied homes in the past. The city tracks condemned properties in an online database, but does not distinguish the vacant homes from the occupied ones. It also does not specify which condemnations were designated as emergencies.

In a previous email, housing department spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said emergency demolitions rarely take place or involve occupied homes, but the housing department did not provide The Baltimore Sun with a specific number of such cases.

In a more recent email, Hawley said the department received Scott’s inquiry “and will be providing him with a thorough response,” but did not offer additional details.

Chase’s former home, which was condemned by the city along with four others on the block on Sept. 17, was razed six days later. The city posted emergency condemnation and demolition notices on the five homes while Chase, 65, was at work, but did not include a date or time that the houses would come down.

Among the properties razed Sept. 23, Chase’s was the only owner-occupied home.

A condemnation notice is tacked to a vacant house adjacent to the home of Frances Chase. Her home was one of five properties on the 1900 block of Hollins St. that were demolished just six days after the homes were condemned by the city.
A condemnation notice is tacked to a vacant house adjacent to the home of Frances Chase. Her home was one of five properties on the 1900 block of Hollins St. that were demolished just six days after the homes were condemned by the city. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

More than a year and a half prior to her home’s condemnation and ensuing demolition, Chase had applied for financial assistance from the city to help with repairs. In an email to a supervisor in February 2018, a housing technician wrote that roof repairs would not allay the house’s other issues, such as collapsing floors, crumbling and peeling walls, and frozen pipes.

The supervisor replied that since the homeowner was having work done under a waiver and did not qualify for additional assistance, the department should go ahead with the roof repair to stabilize the property.

“Once this is complete we can revisit the case,” he said in the email.

The city spent nearly $10,000 repairing Chase’s roof. Records show the city found there was not enough equity in Chase’s home for it to fund additional repairs.

Audrey McFarlane, a professor at University of Baltimore School of Law, said the city led Chase to believe that it would work with her to maintain her home.

“They made an abrupt about-face,” she said in a recent interview. “I wish she had more notice and some support.”

Classifying a condemned property as an emergency provides city officials with sweeping jurisdiction over the site. In the event of an emergency where a threat to public safety, health or property exists, officials are also exempt from having to post notice of the condemnation or demolition, according to a section of the city’s building, fire and related codes, though they did alert Chase and her neighbors in this case.

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Hawley previously said in an email that city officials condemned Chase’s home after a visit prompted by community complaints about two other homes in the area. Usually, she said, the city has time to help homeowners prepare for demolition, but, in Chase’s case, officials worked with her after the demolition rather than before it.

Chase’s daughter, Shane Williams, said officials have offered to relocate her mother to a mortgage-free home, but will not cover the title or inspection fees that amount to about $1,400. Hawley said settlement is imminent, but declined to discuss the specifics of the relocation.

Many of the houses on Chase’s block date back to 1890 to 1910, property records show. Chase’s home was built in 1900.

Before the demolition in September, more than a dozen homes on Hollins Street were vacant.

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