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City's blight outpaces housing inspectors


At the corner of Druid Hill Avenue and Dolphin Street, Lorenzo C. Hill patiently waits for the No. 21 bus so he can comb West Baltimore in search of rats, trash and abandoned buildings. Clutching a clipboard and pen, the stocky, cheerful city housing inspector must rely on public transportation because his employer can afford to issue only a bus pass, not a car.

Mr. Hill's tedious form of travel is just one example of the financial woes that beset the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, particularly its division of housing inspection. More than a decade of federal, state and city budget-cutting has left the division ill-equipped for its war against urban blight.

There are only about 100 housing inspectors now, 90 fewer than in 1977. The diminished force oversees 276,000 Baltimore dwelling units while using 17 city cars.

The reduction in inspectors has meant that the city can be slow to cite property owners who violate the housing code, and slower still to force them to make repairs. In an attempt to compensate for the loss of staff, the division has been training citizen volunteers to conduct inspections in their neighborhoods. But there is a limit to what they can do.

Four months ago, Helen C. Vello attached a shoulder strap to her tape recorder and walked through her Southeast Baltimore neighborhood for eight hours chronicling the broken steps, flaking paint and rat burrows.

Ms. Vello, president of the Elwood Park Improvement Association, used the tape to make a report and gave it to the district housing supervisor, whose office issued 85 violation notices.

"But the city never followed up," Ms. Vello said last week. "They tell me, 'Our inspectors are backed up over six weeks.' Well, I don't feel really happy about it. I don't want to hear their boo-hoo problems. The apathy is contagious."

The staffing shortage has allowed some city landlords to ride out the 30-day period for correcting violations because inspectors don't return to find out if needed work has been done. A review by The Sun of some of the violation notices on properties owned by R. William Connolly Jr. showed that citations were not followed up by city inspectors for as long as 3 1/2 months.

A recent spotlight on Mr. Connolly's dwelling units prompted Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke last month to order a special probe of his 517 properties. Two inspectors have already found numerous new violations -- to be added to the outstanding ones -- creating more paperwork and the need for further reinspection.

"It's been a balancing act," says Robert Dengler, acting director of the inspection division, who readily acknowledges that his office can't keep up with the growing number of complaints it receives. Besides the loss of inspectors, the force of middle managers who keep track of code violations and schedule reinspections has been cut from 11 to three.

A bill pending before the City Council would increase the annual fees charged to owners of rental properties from $10 per unit to $20, raising about $800,000. If the measure is approved, the additional funds are intended for the hiring of new housing inspectors. But Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the housing department, said department officials fear that the money could be redirected to other city agencies hit by state budget cuts.

In January 1991, Mr. Schmoke terminated 19 housing inspectors when the inspection division lost $1.2 million in federal funds. The laid-off inspectors, including Mr. Hill, were rehired eight months later, but during that time housing inspections in many areas had ground to a halt.

"I felt like I was drowning," said Mr. Hill, who returned to find 725 citations in need of enforcement in his territory of 65 city blocks. Many of the citations had been written before his layoff and went untouched during his absence, he said.

"When I got back, it was worse than it was before. There was no one here to do it. I'm just now catching up."

Earning about $18,600 per year, the inspectors are expected to generate their own inspection schedule based on residents' complaints. They also are expected to do detective work to locate absentee landlords, and they must hand-deliver emergency violation notices to any property owner.

In some communities, residents complain that housing inspectors are stretched so thin that neighborhoods that were once well-kept are starting to deteriorate.

In Brooklyn Park, Tim O'Malley says he is ready to move out of the city to escape the decline of his neighborhood, which he believes is being ruined by absentee landlords.

"I don't know where to turn, what to do anymore," said Mr. O'Malley, 30, who has lived in the 600 block of Jeffrey St. all his life.

Mr. O'Malley, son of the late Del. Joseph W. "Doc" O'Malley, said the area's housing inspector, Gertrude White, tries to make sure that violations are corrected, "but it's impossible for her to do it all."

Taking a landlord to court is a nightmare of bureaucracy, inspectors say. If a property owner repeatedly fails to make necessary repairs, the inspectors can recommend court action to the housing compliance division. Then, a compliance inspector must visit the property and make another inspection before sending the case to the state's attorney's office -- which itself is understaffed, housing officials note. When the case finally gets to housing court, frustrated inspectors often find that judges are more lenient than they would like.

"When an inspector goes out and builds a good case, you go to court and the judge fines the property owner $1,000, then suspends $800," Mr. Hill said. "The owner pays the $200 and never fixes up his property. The inspector is sitting there with egg on his face, and the court has let us down again." Despite the disappointments, Mr. Hill, 34, said he looks forward to going to work each day. A former manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, he quit his better-paying fast-food job to work as an inspector. During his layoff, he drove a cab and worked at the Days Inn downtown, but when he was recalled, he was ecstatic.

"I feel like I'm contributing," Mr. Hill said while walking through a trash-strewn block of Whatcoat Street noting violations in abandoned rowhouses. "Any small victory I accomplish I feel good about."

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