Missed chances on flipping scams
In his letter, "City not silent partner in real estate 'flipping' " (Aug. 21), city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III misstates the city's record in combating flipping scams and draws conclusions that are plainly wrong.
Efforts to alert city and state officials began 18 months before Mr. Henson's recent letter.
On Feb. 22, 1998, I sent a letter to City Councilman Bernard C. Young describing the scam, accompanied by a detailed chart of 80 transactions involving a single speculator.
Recently, Mr. Young advised me that he personally delivered the materials to Mr. Henson.
On April 22, 1998, I hand-delivered an even more detailed letter and chart to the offices of the mayor and the president of the City Council. I received no response.
In May 1998, I forwarded a stack of material the size of a telephone book to the Attorney General's Division of Consumer Protection, with a letter explaining the ongoing flipping scams.
That division has the sole authority under state law to bring an action to prevent violations of the Consumer Protection Act.
The response I received was that nothing would be done because the division lacked sufficient manpower.
On Jan. 11, I personally briefed the mayor, Mr. Henson and the city solicitor about the flipping scams.
I made clear my concerns over the scams' impact on low-income neighborhoods and their spread to more stable, middle-income neighborhoods.
After the January meeting, I wrote follow-up letters to the Mayor, Mr. Henson, and the city solicitor, offering to provide additional materials and information. I received no response.
Since we had been ignored by city and state authorities, I invited the heads of major nonprofit housing and community organizations to a meeting to take matters into our own hands.
Thus the "coalition to end predatory real estate practices" that Mr. Henson mentioned in his letter was born at my conference room table in January.
Under the leadership of Ken Strong, executive director of South East Community Association, we began serious organizing and lobbying. Public awareness was raised, and the coalition expanded. Eventually, the housing department sent representatives to attend coalition meetings.
Although no one in the coalition has wasted time blaming a government agency, Mr. Henson seems overly concerned with assuring the public that his office is above criticism.
For instance, Mr. Henson's comment, "A focus of the coalition is educating housing counselors to spot and deter unscrupulous transactions" is only partially accurate.
Prior to this scam being exposed, housing counselors were noticing transactions involving low-income buyers based on unusually high prices. Reports of these irregularities were overlooked or ignored.
Mr. Henson's reference to the effect on all home sales in Baltimore City misses the point. The relevant universe of transactions is not all home sales. The scams are not run in Guilford, Homeland, Roland Park and Northwood.
Low-income, first-time homebuyers are the ones targeted.
Mr. Henson's opinion that "most of the ways greedy speculators take advantage of [the] poor and unsophisticated . . . are not illegal" is plainly wrong.
I have interviewed and examined the documents of 150 victims. Only one of these sets of documents did not present, on its face, a serious violation of law.
Mr. Henson is not a lawyer. But the illegality of these transactions should be obvious to anyone holding a high position in government.
In the past three years, the city has seen at least 2,000 flips, about half financed by high-interest "sub-prime" rate loans and half by FHA-insured loans.
Phony homeownership, through flipping scams, has increased foreclosures and vacancies.
Honest efforts at rehabilitation and homeownership are wasted when blocks are filled with scam houses certain to go vacant from foreclosure or abandonment.
In the affected neighborhoods there are virtually no homeowner-to-homeowner sales. Houses are either sold to speculators at fire-sale prices by fleeing residents or estates or are foreclosed on and disposed of by banks or HUD at even lower prices.
Resales are accomplished through scams, including inflating appraisals, falsifying credit qualifications and illegally funneling closing costs from the seller to the unsophisticated buyer.
In the areas where they practices are spreading, such as Herring Run, Hamilton and Belair-Edison, the phony appraisals and subsequent sales are causing an unjustified increase in the tax assessments of innocent neighbors.
The result is additional flight, further depression of the true market and further opportunities for the phony market to flourish.
Last year, HUD chose Baltimore as one of three cities in which to conduct a thorough examination of federally subsidized housing programs. Mr. Henson sought to block that probe, arguing that Baltimore was chosen because of its African-American mayor and housing commissioner.
This forced a delay and a revision of the selection criteria.
Under the new criteria, Baltimore finished first in the nation in the frequency of violations of federal housing laws. The HUD investigation has finally begun.
Race is an important factor in housing fraud in Baltimore: about 99 percent of the victims of flipping scams are African-Americans. Most are single women with dependent children.
Had the HUD investigation started sooner, there may have been fewer victims.
Andre R. Weitzman, Baltimore
The writer is a co-founder of the Coalition to End Predatory Real Estate practices.
Labor delivers behind management glitz
I applaud Matt Witt's article, "We rarely see those who labor" (Perspective, Aug. 22). I cannot remember reading an article or seeing a news story that more accurately portrays how big business and the media characterize labor.
The media tend to glamorize upper management -- rarely do we see stories about their abuses and management's failures. In many cases, the problems of big business are blamed on the labor force and unions.
Despite poor performances, many managers still reap huge bonuses. As Mr. Witt points out, the gap between the salaries of upper management and workers is continuing to widen.
Yet many factories are outdated because management has been reluctant to put money back into them to upgrade their facilities.
These plants are inefficient and produce an inferior product.
The U.S. steel industry is a perfect example. It may never recover from the greed of the early owners who were more concerned with profits than making sure their facilities stayed modern.
Yet, all we hear about are the supposedly outrageous demands of labor force, and how it is because of the American worker that our industries are in trouble.
People seem to forget that it was because of abuses that unions were created in the first place. Remember the sweat shops?
To see how things once were in this country, simply look overseas to Asia. Workers needed protection from unscrupulous owners then, and still do today.
I have been a proud union member for 27 years. I can attest that my union has protected me. The public fails to comprehend that all of labor has benefited from organization.
Unions have increased the standard of living for all workers -- union or not.
I believe that the big, old pendulum is about to swing back in the direction of labor.
We will see a massive program, not only of workers unionizing for their protection, but of unions working together for the benefit of all.
Charles L. Douglas, Tracy's Landing
Parents teach children lessons that school can't
Instead of looking at achievement gaps in test scores between blacks and whites, as Agnes Green's letter suggested ("Addressing SAT achievement gap" Sept. 4), I propose we lump the scores together and look at the factors that impact children's academic achievement.
Research studies have indicated that many children have difficulty (regardless of race or socioeconomic level) in the third grade. In the first and second grades, children who have not learned to search for meaning can be good "technicians," because they deal with isolated data.
When the demands for comprehension increase, these children have difficulty organizing information. They often complain that they don't understand.
During the past 10 years, the focus in education has shifted from knowing the right answer to knowing how to find the right answer. Schools have been concentrating on teaching thinking skills. We want students to think for themselves, not merely to learn what other people have thought.
What are the real factors (regardless of race or income) that influence childhood development of thinking skills and foster academic achievement in the early school years and beyond?
Research indicates that nurturing behaviors can promote early cognitive development. Parents and other child caregivers can be trained to develop abilities in children that enhance and facilitate future learning.
For example, parents can, from birth, engage children in activities that enhance their ability to grasp novel stimuli, encode and retrieve information from memory and recognize similarities, characteristics and relationships.
Research also suggests that the crucial factors that promote academic achievement in children are emotional support and active parental involvement in the life of the child.
Before we question a school system's ability to teach our children, we must ensure that each child starts out well equipped to thrive in school.
We must focus resources on ensuring that all parents (black or white, rich or poor) have the knowledge and support necessary to provide nurturing that stimulates learning and promotes thinking in early childhood.
It is time we offer all parents research-based training on early childhood education.
The more parents know about early childhood cognitive development, the better equipped they will be to ready their children to achieve their potential.
Ronnie Koppelman , Columbia
The writer is an educational consultant and a former high school mathematics teacher.
Haussner's was like home, generation by generation
Having worked on Eastern Avenue for 35 years, I naturally became a Haussner's regular: my table reserved; my two chocolate muffins waiting.
My father, as governor during World War II, made it a point to dine there to counter any anti-German sentiment. Such was his regard for the place.
I taken strong exception to the article on Haussner's Restaurant by Jacques Kelly and Carl Schoettler ("The feast that was," Sept. 10).
I never associated the many fine paintings with "grandmother's greeting cards." I admired the fine marble busts, not their "staring expressions."
The many porcelains were nicely displayed, not "stuffed." There was no "bric-a-brac."
I find it unkind to portray the clientele as "older, slower, stiffer" and the kind and pleasant waitresses as "sanitarium-like caregivers."
Mrs. Haussner and her mother are lovely ladies with unusually refined grace -- not the "big sister" or "severe governess" that the article regrettably suggested.
I am sure many gourmets and gourmands thoroughly enjoyed meals at Haussner's. It was the favorite dinner spot of many of my business clients -- such was its national reputation.
Mr. Kelly and Mr. Schoettler have simply written a fiction. One wonders why they described Haussner's as they did.
Haussner's was an extended home for me and the people there an extended family. The words which best describe Haussner's are a blessing for Baltimore.
Gene O'Conor, Towson
A city that has spent millions of dollars to underwrite and create new tourist attractions surely will miss the opportunity of a lifetime when it lets Haussner's close.
Why don't city planners see that, by relocating Haussner's to the Inner Harbor, they could have a unique, grand and wonderful tourist attraction that serves excellent food?
Who needs yet another seafood restaurant or a mediocre hamburger chain or Italian restaurant?
What a shame to let the art, the memories and the truly unique ambience of Haussner's close without a whimper.
William D. Hunt , Lutherville
Baltimore without Haussner's Restaurant? We always thought it inconceivable?
We will always have in our memories the countless hours of good food, good times, good friends over many, many years.
We've celebrated with those near and dear the uniqueness, beauty and charm that was Haussner's -- its excellent food, beautiful masterpieces, great service.
There has not been an equal, nor will there be in years to come.
The family's goodwill gesture of donating the building to the Baltimore International Culinary College is a measure of the restaurant's value.
Our best wishes to the family and our thanks for the memories.
Lucy Pickering, Perry Pickering, Baltimore
As a kid, I remember standing amid busts of Caesars in the basement of Haussner's Restaurant and staring up at that big ball of white string they had collected over the years.
I vaguely remember being told the string had been collected from the laundry packaging on linens.
Was it the biggest ball of string in town or the world?
Let's hope the big string ball makes its way to the Smithsonian Institution as a testament to one family's thrifty, nurturing service to a Baltimore gone by.
D. R. Belz, Lutherville
How state arrived at Site 104
As a former member of the Maryland Senate, I was surprised by Del. Mary Roe Walkup's letter "Troubling leadership on dredge dumping" (July 31). Contrary to what her letter suggested, Maryland has a well-studied dredge disposal management plan.
The Maryland Port Administration (MPA) started formal efforts to develop a master dredging plan in 1986.
Over the years, some 500 sites and options have been identified and evaluated.
Scientific experts carefully studied the options while input was solicited from federal and state resource agencies, local governments, citizens and other interested parties.
While many sites were studied, few received the support needed to be implemented.
Some options failed to gain support because fisheries would be disrupted. Local citizens opposed others.
Many more failed because they were too small to be cost effective and would waste tax dollars.
While the experts studied options, vital dredging projects were postponed and the port's channels started to fill with material. To avert catastrophe, the MPA overloaded Hart-Miller Island and put tons of clean material into what was supposed to be a facility for only contaminated material.
As Hart-Miller Island neared capacity, the MPA was forced to raise the dikes and go back on promises to close the facility on an agreed upon timetable.
By 1995, the port of Baltimore faced a dredging crisis. The inability to reach a consensus on enough sites to meet the port's short term dredging needs, let along a long-term plan, led Gov. Parris N. Glendening to direct his cabinet to break the logjam.
The result was a statement of cooperation on a 20-year Dredged Material Management Plan that included a balance of cost-effective and environmentally sound disposal methods. It was signed in 1996 by every federal and state resource agency.
The crisis was averted for the short term. But now some of the same agencies that signed the 1996 agreement that included Site 104 are opposing a perfectly good dredge disposal option.
Many people, including Delegate Walkup, have also suggested the state should develop more ways to reuse dredge material.
Beneficial use projects are well and good, but they cost more than other disposal methods. Only one, the restoration of Poplar Island, received enough support to move from concept to construction.
And Poplar Island took seven years on a fast track schedule to get started. It will cost more than $400 million, with the state's contribution topping $100 million.
Delegate Walkup also suggested that the state could recycle dredge material. This is a great idea, but no one has developed the technology to reliably recycle enough dredge material to make that a practical alternative to other disposal methods.
Others have pointed to the Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) as a site that could meet the port's dredging needs.
APG representatives estimate that between 3 million and 30 million rounds of unexploded munitions are located throughout that facility. Without a federal commitment to remove the unexploded ordnance and clean up contamination, APG is not an option.
Everything that will go into Site 104 is already in the bay. The material will just be moved from one location to another. None of the scientific studies points to any negative impact on water quality from open water placement.
Open water disposal has been going on at Pooles Island for nine years and no adverse effects have been detected.
Delegate Walkup stated that Governor Glendening's "lone substantive defense of the plan is that Site 104 is essential to the future of the port of Baltimore -- so the state must accept open-water dumping to protect jobs."
The protection of jobs is a compelling argument. The port helps support 126,000 jobs throughout the state and directly employs 18,000 people.
I agree that the Army Corps of Engineers should make sure that it has addressed all the environmental concerns that have been raised. But every time a project is delayed, the port ends up overloading other disposal sites to the point that future capacity is lost.
The governor is not trying to protect jobs at the expense of the bay. He is trying to balance the needs of business with the need to protect natural resources.
F. Vernon Boozer, Towson