Tierra Gregory didn’t consider the dangers above her head when she was a girl in West Baltimore, playing jacks on the stoops of crumbling rowhouses.
Now an attorney, Gregory has spent much of the last year digging through records, trying to uncover who is responsible for the vacant house that collapsed and killed a man in March 2016.
The search has plunged her into a thicket of tax sales and foreclosures, revealing a tortuous path of ownership that is not unusual for Baltimore’s thousands of vacant homes.
Now Gregory questions: Can anyone be held accountable for Thomas Lemmon’s death?
One windy afternoon, the rowhouse at 900 N. Payson St. fell and crushed Lemmon, a 69-year-old retired truck driver sitting in his vintage Cadillac. His widow and grown children hired Gregory to investigate who was at fault. Nine months later they sued the city and the investors who bought debt on the rowhouse in an annual auction of property liens.
Baltimore recovers millions of dollars in overdue taxes and water bills with these auctions. Investors bid online and pay the debt, satisfying the city. Then they try to collect the money themselves from the homeowner. Investors can charge double-digit interest rates and fees on the debt. Often small debts, say $750, balloon to several thousand dollars.
Those able to pay can keep their homes. After at least six months, an investor can foreclose.
“Once you add on the fees and interest, then suddenly it’s not such a small lien,” said Carol Ott, an advocate for affordable housing in Baltimore.
Months into the investigation, Gregory dropped the city from the lawsuit. She decided housing officials weren’t to blame for the home’s ruinous condition. She now contends that responsibility rested with the homeowner.
She had traced the old rowhouse through years of auctions, uncovering three companies that bought the debt.
Gregory pursued a $225,000 wrongful-death lawsuit against the companies. But she discovered the first one, Fidelity Tax, had shut down. The second, VCRT Trust, assigned its rights in the rowhouse to the third company. She learned that the third one, Montego Bay Properties, foreclosed on the home in February 2013.
As a limited liability company, the identity of Montego Bay’s owner or owners is not public. John Reiff, an East Baltimore lawyer, is listed as the company’s agent. He declined to comment for this article.
Gregory’s lawsuit is still pending. But she acknowledges she faces a legal hurdle in holding anyone responsible. She has discovered the owner of 900 N. Payson St., as listed on the deed, is still Eugene Boykins, a Baltimore clothier who bought the rowhouse in the 1980s. Boykins has been dead nearly 20 years.
Housing advocates say investors deliberately hold back from transferring a deed, allowing them to collect on the debt without taking on a rotting vacant. Ott calls this a loophole.
“There’s no incentive for them to record the deed,” Ott said.
That is a problem, Gregory notes. Until the deed is transferred, she said, “the house is in limbo.”