Shuttered rooming house worries neighbors in East Baltimore

The operator of an assisted-living facility in Butcher's Hill that has been shut down by the city says he hopes to reopen, so it can continue to serve those in need. City officials say they want longstanding problems at the facility fixed, or the property sold.

The state suspended the license of St. John's Assisted Living in the unit block of S. Patterson Park Ave. in 2015 after health inspectors found repeat health and safety violations. In May, the city ordered the three-story building vacated after finding it had been operating as an unlicensed rooming house.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church, the Eastern Rite Catholic parish that owns the property, was slapped with a $900 citation this month for missing a deadline to obtain a use and occupancy permit. City officials say they plan to file suit within the next 30 days to push the property into receivership. That would allow a third party to auction the property to a new developer if the church can't convince a judge it is able to do the work.

The Rev. Ivan Dornic, who founded the church in the 1980s, said he is trying to comply with the city's demands and wants to reopen the assisted living facility, now that the state's suspension has lifted and he is eligible to reapply for an assisted-living license.

But first, he said, he must evaluate how much that would cost, whether the church can afford it, and get approval from the church's board, a group Dornic said he will not be able to convene until September. As of last week, he had not applied for the use and occupancy permit.

"We are still nowhere," Dornic said.

Meanwhile neighbors say they are fed up. Many have long bemoaned what they viewed as an eyesore on their otherwise well-manicured street along Patterson Park, and said they were relieved when the city finally stepped in. Now, they are eager to see progress at a property they fear will otherwise continue to deteriorate.

Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the neighborhood, has vowed to push the city to expedite the process.

"He needs to make a decision quickly," Cohen said. "We as a community have run out of patience with this particular property owner."

Dornic, a slight man in his 80s who was born in what is now Slovakia, blamed the troubles he's encountered to discrimination against Eastern Europeans, or a lack of understanding of what he is trying to do: Carry out the teaching of Jesus to help those in need.

His parish, which numbers fewer than 100 families, is overseen by a bishop in Presov, Slovakia, because, Dornic said, he has run into problems with American bishops who didn't support his work.

"Some of those people and bishops don't understand and they think I'm a troublemaker," Dornic said. "That's what Jesus is telling us to do."

Shortly after he founded the church, Dornic started building a network of services and facilities intended to help Eastern European refugees and the homeless.

In addition to St. John's, the church owns Lemko, a 110-unit affordable housing complex for seniors in Fells Point that is overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Dornic's church also owns Tatry Housing Organization, which operates two rental properties in East Baltimore for people who are homeless or need inexpensive housing, Dornic said.

Following an inquiry by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Housing cited both for operating as rental housing without proper permits.

St. John's began as a home for refugees in the 1980s, Dornic said. It was later converted to an assisted-living facility.

"The neighbors were opposed to St. John from day one," Dornic said.

Dornic said state health inspectors faulted the Polish and Ukrainian nursing staff for keeping medical notes and records in their native languages.

"Every time inspectors would come, they would fine us for not having them in English," Dornic said.

According to state records, the Maryland health department suspended St. John's license to operate as an assisted-living facility in July 2015 for operating without sufficient or properly trained staff, inadequately caring for patients' health and safety needs, and failing to maintain the building.

The state fined St. John's $10,000 in 2014 after inspectors reported health and safety violations that included finding one patient's medication in another patient's room, records that indicated patients' care plans hadn't been reviewed or updated in years, and unsecured oxygen tanks in a closet where a fire had occurred.

The state agreed that December to reduce the penalty to $2,900 in exchange for a committment by St. John's to make significant improvements to policies, training and operations.

But when inspectors returned months later, they reported new violations in addition to previously cited issues that had not been resolved, and ordered an emergency suspension of the facility's license.

St. John's nurse manager had resigned weeks earlier, and patient records indicated staff were not following up on necessary and prescribed care, inspectors reported.

In one instance, inspectors said, doctors recommended psychiatric follow-up care for a patient was admitted to the hospital after he stabbed himself with a pocket knife because he was hearing voices. The patient's records didn't show he ever received it.

After losing the assisted living license, Dornic used the building as housing for people who he said did not need medical care. City officials say he did not have a city permit to operate a rooming house.

Dornic initially told The Sun that he didn't think he needed a license. He said later he believed he had one.

The Baltimore City Fire Department ordered the property vacated May 25, after inspectors found that the fire alarm system didn't work and that it didn't have a permit to be used as housing.

Twenty-six people and four dogs had been living in the building, fire officials said. They were offered transportation to a city shelter and information about housing assistance, officials said.

Dornic said the building was kept in good shape, and neighbors never complained about the facility itself — only about the people who lived there.

"The building was in desirable condition," he said. " There was nothing dangerous about the building."

But neighbors said they have complained to city officials and to Dornic for years about what they saw as unsafe conditions.

William Brownley, who said he has lived next door to the building since 1979, said he got to know the residents over the years. He went inside on a few occasions, he said, most recently in May to ask a woman on the third floor to stop throwing toilet paper and trash from her window into his yard.

Brownley said he had been complaining to the city about the place for years because he felt a moral responsibility to try to fix a situation that made him uneasy.

He said he was relieved when the city came to board it up.

Neighbors say they hope the issues at St. John's are resolved quickly. They don't want a vacant, boarded-up building on their street.

Baltimore's housing department plans to file suit against the church within the next 30 days, said Katy Byrne, the deputy assistant commissioner of housing for litigation. That will start a court process that will require the church to prove it has the financial and physical means to repair the property.

A judge will decide whether Dornic will be allowed to move forward or whether the property should be assigned to a third-party receiver to be auctioned, Byrnes said.

If auctioned, profit from the sale would cover the receiver's fee and pay off any debts. The church could recoup any money left over.

Mark Cylik, who has lived on the block for 25 years, said he'd like to see someone other than Dornic fix up the place.

"I'd love to see somebody take it over and restore it," said Cylik. "The wrought iron work on those porches on the side are just absolutely beautiful. …

"Anything would be better than what it is."

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