The heavy hand of housing justice Court: But the city's toughest recourse is sometimes overzealous


Court. It's the ultimate weapon, used to bring the worst housing scofflaws to bay. Sometimes, though, the zeal of city enforcers to make slumlords and others who abandon pay for their misdeeds snares unwitting victims.

Sheila Ellerba is one of them.

Thirteen years after an arsonist's flames consumed her dream house and the city razed the charred Park Heights hulk, Ellerba has become another target of a renewed City Hall campaign to force owners to pay for work done on their property.

Last October, two months after the mother of eight declared bankruptcy, the city sued Ellerba for the $10,000 cost of tearing down the house, plus interest, penalties and unpaid taxes. While records show that the debt has grown to $139,000, the suit demands $95,000 from her.

Lennard Simon could give Ellerba a glimpse of the future. He's been there.

A decade after a tenant torched his three-apartment house, Simon is still haunted by the ghost of 2301 Ocala Ave. and beaten down by a bureaucracy that sued him for demolition costs, extracted $16,500 in settlement, and then hounded him for thousands more.

Simon and Ellerba are but two city property owners whose luck has been doubly bad. They were victims of circumstances that prompted the city to do expensive work on their property. Then, they were sued for payment.

City Hall has had Ellerba in its sights for a decade, though she didn't realize it until February. Three times previously, its lawyers sued her for ever-escalating debts on 2470 Shirley Ave. - in 1987, 1989 and 1992.

Each time, sheriff's deputies drove to the address to deliver court papers to Sheila Adams, her name at the time she bought the house. They reported back that it was a vacant lot and that she wasn't there. Each time, the lawyers gave up.

Now, the city has found her as part of a push to track down the owners of lien-ridden properties. "We're not going to just spin our wheels," says Carolyn Espy, a city lawyer, vowing to locate the defendants before suing them.

But sometimes the wheels do spin. Last month city lawyers, including Espy, sued Charles E. Wilkinson and Florence L. Wilkinson for more than $47,000 in liens on a West Baltimore house, even though both died more than 10 years ago.

Lennard Simon knows about city persistence.

After the Halloween fire in 1986, he and friends set about repairing more than $73,000 in damage to his Ocala Avenue house. A year later, they had nearly finished the job when an arsonist struck again. This time, a city crew leveled the remains of the ill-fated building.

Simon was billed $13,633.23 for the demolition job.

He pleaded with the housing department for relief, writing that the bill represented "a major crisis in my life." He got no reply.

Instead, city lawyers sued him in 1990. Two years later, with interest and penalties pushing the debt past $24,000, the city agreed to accept $16,500 and to give him another two years to pay.

He mortgaged his home and wrote a check in April 1994. Two weeks later, the city filed a document saying it was "satisfied" and closed the case.

Simon was left with a vacant lot and an annual property tax bill of a little more than $100.

Soon, though, the city began to demand more money from the 49-year-old employee of the state comptroller's office.

Last spring, nearly two years after Simon wrote the check for $16,500, the Department of Finance billed him for $12,159.74 and warned that he stood to lose the property if he didn't pay.

"He shouldn't have gotten the bill if it was a final settlement," says a city lawyer who refused to be named. But, he added, shrugging, "A lot of times, these things happen."

Within months, the city seized ownership of the lot, finishing off Simon's first real estate venture.

Sheila Ellerba is worried that the city suit will finish her off financially. She doesn't care if she loses the Shirley Avenue lot - she told the city years ago to take it. But, she wonders what to do, saying she can't afford a lawyer.

After the fire, she told the city she couldn't pay the $10,000 it billed her for the demolition. Indeed, she had been able to buy the house only because the price was $500 and the city was willing to finance a $28,000 renovation.

The arsonist struck before the work could be done.

Looking over the trash-strewn lot where her house once stood, Ellerba sighs and says, "What are they going to do, lock me up?

"I'll tell the mayor, 'I'm a poor black woman trying to make it. I got off welfare to make it, and then you turn around and sue me for $95,000.' "

Pub Date: 4/07/97

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