Strict inspections are key to city revival; Baltimore: Move toward tougher housing code enforcement begins after years of inattention.


A FAMILY LIVING through the cold and heat without electricity is headed for disaster. And it struck over the weekend, when three children and their grandmother died in a Baltimore fire that started from a candle.

Could this have been prevented? Perhaps. But the harsh reality is that no amount of fire prevention activity -- and the city fire department's safety campaigns have been quite successful -- reaches all whose daily battle is about mere existence.

Firmer housing code enforcement may be one way to prevent future tragedies. The good news is that the housing department is moving briskly to toughen its practices.

The task is not easy. The huge number of vacant houses -- 40,000 is a generally accepted estimate -- is one reason.

A decade ago, just as that number started to soar, the Schmoke administration, in a shortsighted cost-saving measure, reduced the number of inspectors. That sent a signal to scofflaws that they could operate with veritable impunity.

Even today, the understaffed inspection system is so shoddy that 40 percent of violation notices receive no follow-up.

There are other defects as well. Under the decrepit system:

A routine vacant house notice is handwritten and passes through 20 hands, according to Patricia Payne, who became the housing commissioner in February.

The 115 inspectors are divided into three classifications, with pay differentials and specialized responsibilities, complicating matters further.

Whether needed bureaucratic streamlining can be achieved remains to be seen. An encouraging sign, though, is that unions have agreed to a novel concept -- work quotas for inspectors.

Things are looking up on the management side as well. Michael Braverman, an activist prosecutor, has rejoined the department after nine years' absence. He will work with another seasoned prosecutor, Denise Duval, who now is a deputy commissioner.

Reasonable but strict code enforcement is key to neighborhood stability. The sooner it is re-established, the better so that disasters like the one over the weekend can be averted.

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