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Victim, community leader talk about problems with vacant houses in Baltimore after fire

Derrick McCargo, 50, was not at home when a fire broke out in a vacant row house attached to his home on Oct. 10 in the Easterwood neighborhood of West Baltimore.

The fire caused an explosion that badly damaged McCargo’s property — gaping holes in the roof, blown out windows and a pile of burnt brick rubble next door — leaving the home uninhabitable and McCargo homeless. He’s also missing his dog “Teddy” and two bicycles, which he blames on the explosion.

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Fires in vacant housing like the one on the 1800 block of North Monroe St. last week have become major nuisances and life-threatening hazards, according to West Baltimore community leaders.

“Lives are going to be taken," warned Rev. Keith Bailey, president of the Fulton Heights Association, speaking at a press conference in front of the ruins of the North Monroe home Monday morning.

Bailey said he was walking by a house in the neighborhood a couple of months ago when police found a dead body in a vacant home that had caught fire. He and others blame the fires on squatters trying to warm up in vacant buildings.

“More bodies are going to be found if this continues to go on over and over," Bailey said.

In the city, it’s common for squatters to use the gas lines feeding the homes to start fires. Even if Baltimore Gas & Electric shuts off the gas, they said, squatters still can figure out how to manipulate the lines to get gas into a home. As the days grow colder, local leaders are ringing the alarm bell louder.

“This hazard can and has resulted in large explosions, which destroy houses in and around the places where they occur,” said Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, Sr., CEO of the Matthew Henson Community Development Corp., in a statement Sunday calling on the city to act. “Innocent neighbors can be killed or seriously hurt.”

“If the city fails now, after hearing this notice, to address the squatting issues in the Greater Easterwood Community, any resulting harm, or death, will be the city’s responsibility,” wrote Cheatham, adding that he knows of at least four other unsolved fires in his neighborhood.

Cheatham has asked officials from the city, BGE and related private businesses to attend the neighborhood’s monthly community meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Matthew A. Henson Elementary School at 1600 N. Payson St. He hopes officials will have an update about the most recent explosion.

Baltimore City fire spokesperson Blair Adams said the investigation into the apparent gas explosion at the house last Thursday is ongoing and they do not yet know the cause or whether squatters were involved.

McCargo meanwhile said the now destroyed house next door had been vacant for more than two years and he claims he has seen people come and go. He and his landlord Edward Alston, 70, said they have called the city several times to have it boarded up.

A Baltimore Housing representative could not be reached Monday for comment. The house does not appear to be on the most recent list of vacant housing that the city maintains.

A BGE spokesperson said there was an active gas account connected to the house, and that there had not been a request to stop the service.

The company said it was it is cooperating with the Baltimore Fire Department on its investigation and asked the public and authorities to contact BGE to report any misuse of its equipment.

McCargo is growing frustrated with Baltimore City officials.

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“You don’t see any council people except for the election time,” he said. "That’s when they ask for you to vote for them. I need help now. I need support now. It seems like I’ve been running into stumbling blocks. I just want information to get my house back intact now.”

Alston said he is hosting McCargo at his own home temporarily until he can find permanent housing.

John Williams, a funeral home director who works across the street from the North Monroe row house, said he has called the city nearly every week over the summer about the now destroyed home.

“The amount of rats over there is insane,” he said.

The city’s vacant housing woes have stumped every mayoral administration over the last decade. There were 16,784 vacant houses in Baltimore as of Monday, just slightly below the 17,006 on Jan. 1, 2010.

The city Housing Department and state contractors knock down hundreds of buildings each year. Developers fix up another few hundred each year, but new houses become vacant at about the same rate, as people move or die.

Baltimore Sun reporters Christine Zhang and Ian Duncan contributed to this piece.

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