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Landlord in the maelstrom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For nearly a decade, residents and officials have battled Pioneer City's largest landlord over trash, crime and blight - with little success.

In their bid to clean up Arwell Court, one of Anne Arundel County's most dangerous streets, they have pursued Mohammad Zuberi through state and federal courts, through nuisance claims, liens and bankruptcy.

The latest push: a lawsuit by the county Health Department, based on more than 1,000 alleged code violations on Arwell Court that include rodent infestations, rotting wood and malfunctioning plumbing.

But little has affected Zuberi, who owns 30 homes on Arwell Court - and more than $3 million in property holdings across the region, according to the Columbia resident's 1998 bankruptcy filing.

"To say that he is the biggest problem over there is not to overstate it," says Anne Arundel County Assistant State's Attorney Thomas J. Fleckenstein. "An absolutely, astronomically enormous problem."

In Pioneer City, Zuberi is not the only landlord accused of neglect; two other Arwell Court property owners face Health Department lawsuits. Even his harshest critics acknowledge he is not solely to blame for problems on Arwell Court - a street so troubled, officials at nearby Fort Meade won't let soldiers spend housing allowances there and federal officials won't redeem rent subsidies there.

But many say that without pressing Zuberi, it will be impossible to improve the community, which looks more like West Baltimore than western Anne Arundel.

"You can't keep up the neighborhood when you have one street with 30 houses that keeps going down," says longtime Arwell Court property owner Robert Farmer.

Zuberi, an engineer-turned-real estate entrepreneur, owns about 70 properties in all of Pioneer City and about 15 other properties in the region, bankruptcy court records show.

Although he declared Chapter 13 personal bankruptcy in 1998 - he has since converted it to a Chapter 11 reorganization - those properties remain his primary income. His residence in Dorsey's Search, Columbia, is assessed at $270,000.

Denies it's his fault

Zuberi says the county unfairly blames him for Arwell Court's problems.

"I've been a landlord for 30 years. Nobody's ever made a claim against me," he said in a recent interview.

Zuberi says he takes care of his tenants "just like they were my own family" and fixes problems promptly. "If I don't, I don't get the rents, do I?"

Lengthy legal battles suggest otherwise.

In 1995, the state filed a nuisance claim against Zuberi for failing to screen tenants, many of whom were selling drugs. But by the trial date, the evidence had "unraveled," according to prosecutor Trevor Kiessling Jr., and the case was settled with Zuberi admitting no wrongdoing and promising to screen tenants better in the future. Though neighbors say they were demoralized, Zuberi says the state "cleared" him and its case was weak from the outset.

In 1996, when Zuberi wouldn't shorten a fence that was higher than neighborhood rules allowed, he was sued by Warfield Condominium Association No. 3, which governs the street. He lost the trial, and a judge ordered him to pay the association's $23,000 attorney's fees. He shortened the fence, but court papers show he never paid the fees, now part of the bankruptcy case.

In 1998, after Zuberi stopped paying Arwell Court condo assessments, the association took out liens on his properties. But just before the foreclosure sale, he filed for bankruptcy. In court records, he lists $3.6 million in assets and $3.2 million in liabilities. Warfield remains one of Zuberi's largest creditors, with more than $80,000 in claims.

In the recent health department lawsuit, Zuberi agreed to create a list of all necessary repairs with health inspectors by mid-July and fix them by mid-October. But officials say he skipped several appointments. And when inspectors completed the list, Zuberi declared few items violated health standards. He also says the code is ambiguous and few of the alleged violations affect life and health.

A week of mediation was fruitless; a district court hearing on the repairs is expected to begin in November. This month, county attorneys served Zuberi with another lawsuit claiming he owes close to $200,000 in civil fines for failing to comply with orders to make repairs.

Drugs seized

Police are concerned, too, because several drug seizures on Arwell Court were at homes that Zuberi rents out.

"He's the biggest property owner, and we can't get him to work with us," says county spokeswoman Pamela Jordan, who knows Zuberi from her years in the zoning office.

"If he were a more engaged landlord, and more concerned with improving the quality of life in the community, I think there would be a big difference."

Zuberi says he has worked with the county and has even offered to help the county's office of law update the health code. "Where they said there was rotting wood, I changed it," he said. "Where there was peeling paint, I painted."

Dione Rodman, who lived at 1848 Arwell Court for more than a year, waited months for Zuberi to fix the gaping hole in her bathroom ceiling; she says it collapsed in May while her 3-year-old son was in the room.

Other holes in her home were never patched, letting rodents into her kitchen. Old appliances stayed in her yard for months before they were removed. Some windows have no screens.

In May, Rodman paid only part of her rent because Zuberi hadn't fixed the ceiling. By June, she had an eviction notice.

She fought it, because finding a new home was difficult. Rodman, 22, came to Zuberi because she has a drug conviction on her record and heard he wouldn't check her background. She says he didn't even ask for a Social Security number - and she paid rent in cash. Her case is now incorporated in the 88-page list of alleged violations that the health department cited.

"I was desperate. I didn't know it would be this bad," says Rodman, who moved out of her Arwell Court home this month as the eviction process began.

Rodman is not the only one with complaints. Bridget Lovick, who planned to move into one of Zuberi's Arwell Court homes this summer, compiled a long list of needed repairs and brought it to one of his court hearings. She says conditions were so bad that she left before unpacking her first box.

Zuberi's hold on Pioneer City dates to the 1970s, when the community of affordable condominiums was built. So named because Pioneer Drive bisected it, the $30,000 brick-front homes appealed to low-income workers and investors alike.

Farmer, a retired NASA engineer and home improvement contractor, bought nine Arwell Court homes. Pasadena businessman David Blanch bought three. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Kent Leonhardt bought five on Arwell Court and 10 more throughout Pioneer City. All still own property there.

No vacancies

At first, they had no problems finding responsible, credit-worthy tenants. Affordable homes were so scarce in Anne Arundel County that prospective tenants started bidding wars.

"I never had a vacancy," Leonhardt recalls. "If somebody left, somebody was there the next day."

Zuberi bought several homes in those early days, and few complained about him then.

By the 1980s, the community had changed. Crack cocaine infiltrated the streets. Gunshots were more frequent. By 1990, Arwell Court lost a solid tenant base when the Army would no longer let soldiers at Fort Meade, less than a mile away, spend housing allowances there.

Desperate homeowners sold quickly to the few willing buyers. And Zuberi was one of the most willing. Property records show he bought 15 units during a single week in 1994, seven of them on Arwell Court. He paid less than $25,000 apiece.

With so many aging properties to manage, other landlords say, Zuberi seemed unable to keep pace with repairs. He says the problems stemmed from a difficulty finding tenants.

"Even you wouldn't want to go to Arwell Court if you are sane in your mind," he says. "Everybody you ask there, it's very visible they want to move out."

Amid the legal wrangling, Zuberi calls the condo board "extremely jealous little people."

He adds, "I own 20 percent of the units. They hate me."

Ready to sell out

Instead of fighting him in court, Zuberi says, the board should invest in a security company to patrol Arwell Court. And far from trying to control the street, he says, he would sell his homes there "to any donkey who comes up with the money."

In July, Zuberi told District Judge Vincent Mulieri that he was broke and asked to rent out his vacant properties - the most unlivable on the list, according to health inspectors - to supplement his income. The judge declined.

Despite that claim, Zuberi's filing lists about $3 million in rental real estate assets. He owns four cars. And he can keep business expenses low by relying on contract laborers instead of a steady staff, occasionally hiring down-on-their-luck tenants for maintenance jobs.

That practice spawned problems in January, when a tenant-turned-employee threatened to attack Zuberi because he hadn't been paid. According to court records, when Zuberi tried to drive away, the employee threw a brick into the car window, cutting Zuberi's face. The employee pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of property.

The long-running legal fight and Zuberi's bankruptcy have frustrated residents and other Pioneer City landlords.

"The reason that most people file for bankruptcy before a foreclosure sale is that they can't pay the liens and want to keep the property," says Kathleen Elmore, the Severna Park attorney who has represented the association against Zuberi. "It's not that he couldn't pay. It's that he wouldn't pay."

Zuberi and his lawyer still dispute that he owes the money.

"We and the residents are trying very hard to get him to do what's right. But it's very frustrating," Elmore said. "For the most part, they don't have any money to fight him. They're working their butts off just to keep their homes."

If the failed 1995 nuisance case demoralized Arwell Court's property owners, the bankruptcy filing only deepened the despair. Leonhardt, the career soldier, began to lose faith.

"The government writes all these laws, telling us what we have to do, and yet they're not enforcing them in the most extreme cases of violating the law," he says. "I think Zuberi thinks he's above the law."

Matter of the pool

As lawyers wrangle over his bankruptcy and the long list of repairs, yet another squabble has begun - over plans to turn Arwell Court's fetid, decrepit pool into a community center.

New Beginnings United Methodist Church wants to buy the pool, closed for eight years, and turn it into a recreation center offering health services, computer training, religious outreach and basketball courts.

The board is several votes short of the majority needed to approve the plan. If Zuberi would vote with them, the Rev. Cynthia Belt says, they could start building immediately.

But Zuberi says he's against the idea because the pool, owned by the community condominium association, belongs to all denominations. "I'm not signing [the plan] because I don't believe in it," says Zuberi, whose property makes him a major power in the association.

Activists and tenants who filled an Annapolis courtroom for a June 6 health department hearing did not let him forget their anger over the pool.

"Why won't you support the center? Why are you against the children?" former Zuberi tenant Glenda Gathers shouted as other residents gathered.

Even after a sheriff's deputy dispersed them, Gathers and her group chased Zuberi, who shielded his face from news cameras with a file folder, to the parking lot seeking an answer.

Today, many residents and neighbors are encouraged by the health department's resolve in the latest lawsuit. They hope that, with the county at his heels and the bankruptcy court looking over his shoulder, Zuberi will soon begin repairing the Arwell Court homes. Maybe one day, he'll vote to support the community center plan.

Standing at the pool on a sweltering day, Belt says she's praying for it: "No one can be a stumbling block forever."

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