After Baltimore firefighters entered what they thought was a vacant Southwest Baltimore rowhouse and found a man dead with gunshot wounds while flames tore through the structure, residents of Carrollton Ridge said the unexpected discovery illustrates two huge problems facing their neighborhood: a staggering concentration of blighted properties and rampant gun violence.
The fire was reported around 7:20 p.m. Sunday in the 300 block of Furrow Street, which contains a handful of occupied houses and about two dozen vacant structures. When firefighters entered the burning building and found the body, Baltimore Police homicide detectives and arson investigators also responded to the scene.
Officials have released few details about exactly how the incident unfolded, but neighbors said the victim had been living in the house for several months. Baltimore Police have not released his name pending notification of his family.
However, the property owner said squatters had been illegally occupying the building, which he bought last year intending to renovate and rent out. The occupants were scheduled to receive an eviction notice next week.
On Monday afternoon, the sidewalk in front of 325 Furrow St. was covered with a tangled mess of melted furniture and singed rugs spilling from the burned-out house.
Neighbors were saddened but not surprised by the news of another horrific crime in Carrollton Ridge, a close-knit community in Southwest Baltimore beset by drugs and increasing violence — factors that have caused many former residents to leave in recent decades. As the vicious cycle continues and disinvestment persists, more vacant homes create more opportunities for the drug trade to proliferate, residents said.
“Our neighborhood is definitely on the fast track to decline because of the violence and the living conditions,” said Cyndi Tensley, president of the Carrollton Ridge Community Association.
She said people moving into the area often struggle to afford housing as rental prices increase, creating a largely transient population.
“Nothing but deterioration,” said Michael Drabic, who grew up in Carrollton Ridge and now owns numerous rental properties there. “I do feel that this neighborhood has been forgotten by the City Council and the mayor.”
Drabic was visiting one of his properties Monday afternoon, completing his daily ritual of feeding several stray cats that hang around the area. An orange tabby with white paws stepped gingerly over sprawling piles of trash and debris covering what were once backyards and patios. Drabic said he routinely picks up hypodermic needles in the alley behind Furrow Street.
He gestured to the crumbling brick rowhouses and shook his head, wondering aloud how the miserable surroundings affect neighborhood residents, including children growing up there and people struggling with drug addiction.
Drabic said he hopes city officials will prioritize Carrollton Ridge and tear down more vacant houses that are clearly beyond repair. He could almost count on one hand the number of nearby blocks where the majority of homes are occupied.
Officials with the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development said the agency is completing an annual review to identify properties that are candidates for demolition and stabilization. Officials said there are currently no development or demolition plans in the 300 block of Furrow Street.
When Baltimore Police announced the homicide investigation at 325 Furrow St., they said firefighters were dispatched to extinguish a fire inside a vacant building. But city housing officials later confirmed the building was not listed as vacant, a designation that indicates a structure is both unoccupied and either uninhabitable or deemed a nuisance because of code violations.
Darryl Brown, a Prince George’s County resident who bought the house in October, found out about the fire and homicide only after a Baltimore Sun reporter called him Tuesday.
Brown said he planned to renovate the house, but squatters moved in before he could start. He spent months trying to get them out with little help from city officials, even after he complained numerous times about drug use and illegal occupancy, Brown said.
“The person living there was not paying me no rent; we had no contract,” he said.
Officials with the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office confirmed that deputies were scheduled to serve an eviction notice at the property next Monday.
The address has been the subject of several complaints to law enforcement within the past year, including an overdose in November and a burglary weeks later, according to calls for service data provided by Baltimore Police.
Brown said he bought the house because it was cheap — he paid $22,000, according to state property records — and he wanted to have more assets to pass to his daughters. He and the owners of the house next door were planning to help revitalize the blighted block, Brown said.
The population of Carrollton Ridge has fallen 36% over the past decade to about 2,300 people, and more than one-third of housing units are unoccupied, according to 2020 census data. At least 15 people have been shot in Carrollton Ridge since Jan. 1, including five victims who died, according to the latest data from police. Last year, the neighborhood recorded at least 15 homicides, making it one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
Another Carrollton Ridge resident, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her safety, said the neighborhood has changed drastically since her childhood. She remembers roller-skating with her friends past well-kept rowhouses and clean sidewalks.
“Now you can’t walk down the street no more because the crime is so bad,” she said. “The city really needs to do something.”
The vacant buildings are a fire hazard because people sometimes light candles inside them and fall asleep, she said, and boarding up windows does little to keep the buildings secure.
On Furrow Street, which extends about three blocks between West Pratt Street and Ashton Street, 58 of 111 properties are listed as vacant by the city. Only eight are owner-occupied, property records show.
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Little more than a half-mile away on South Stricker Street, three Baltimore firefighters were killed in January after entering a burning vacant rowhouse that collapsed and trapped them inside. The fire was later ruled incendiary, meaning it was either intentionally set or accidental but resulted from other criminal activity.
The woman said she wants to move with her mother to Virginia and finally leave Carrollton Ridge behind. But first, she needs to find a drug treatment program because she relapsed several months ago after eight years clean. She also hopes to watch her son graduate from high school in the coming weeks.
She tries hard to envision a future outside Carrollton Ridge. Until then, the woman said, she takes things one day at a time.
Police officials declined to answer questions this week about whether the fire has been ruled arson and when the shooting occurred.
Hours after police cleared the scene, city workers arrived Monday afternoon with dump trucks and a backhoe to clear debris from the sidewalk and clean up a vacant lot across the street, which was overgrown and scattered with trash.
A short distance down Furrow Street, faded teddy bears and empty liquor bottles memorialized a recent gunshot victim. Around the corner on South Smallwood Street, another memorial paid tribute to Charles Rheubottom, a beloved neighbor who was shot to death on his front steps in March.
Baltimore Sun reporter Alex Mann contributed to this article.