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Walls Come Tumbling

Investigation Of Improper Building Practices Plods On, As Inspector Waits For Housing To Comply With Info Requests

Frank Klein
PROPERTY DAMAGE: A worker stands in front of 2044 Fountain St., the renovation of which, says a neighbor, caused water to leak into her adjoining home.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 11/8/2006

Agents of the city Inspector General's office investigating allegations of corruption in the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development have been stonewalled by department officials, according to people familiar with their investigation. But the inspector general himself says it's not that bad.

"We've gotten some cooperation," says Andrew Clemmons, the inspector general. "We're still waiting on some of the documents we've requested. I'm sure we'll get them. We haven't gotten them yet."

Clemmons' agents asked for information from city housing officials after City Paper published stories detailing the criminal record of John Elder, a professional engineer and former city employee who has been involved in multiple building collapses ("Collapse," Aug. 2). But in the months since the requests were made, city housing officials have turned over only limited information to the investigators, including a chart of the department's organization and some phone numbers, people familiar with the investigation say. A request for cell-phone and e-mail records has gone unfilled. City Paper has requested similar records under the Maryland Public Information Act but was told that it would have to pay more than $3,600 for the records and wait for them for months. The Housing Department and city solicitor's office have not responded to the newspaper's modified request, and housing officials since August have refused to answer questions except through formal public information act requests.

Meanwhile, two ongoing construction projects--both involving Elder--have damaged neighbors' properties and drawn multiple complaints, but city building officials have declined to force a halt to construction and instead have approved the work.

"They should be protecting the owner of the adjoining property," says Christine Freund of upper Fells Point, "and not just the owner of the property that's doing the renovation."

Freund lives with her husband, John, and their infant daughter at 702 S. Montford Ave. The Freunds say a roofer they hired on Nov. 2 discovered a hole in their roof--with construction debris from next door sticking out of it. "They took one look and said, `You need a new roof.' I was shocked," Freund says.

The house under renovation next door, 700 S. Montford, was almost completely demolished, with only its front wall left standing, under permits specifying demolition of "only all interior nonstructural walls," records show. Among the "nonstructural" elements removed under that permit was a 30-foot steel column reinforcing the outside wall, according to the Freunds and other witnesses. The contractor, Bayside Properties, is responsible for more than 350 renovated homes in Fells Point, Canton, and Federal Hill. The nonstructural permits were obtained in April 2005. The Freunds say they did not complain until Bayside tore the roof off 700 S. Montford in September.

"We were trying to be good neighbors," John Freund says. But "you could see daylight through our storage area" at the top of the stairs.

Bayside temporarily patched the couple's roof after they complained on Sept. 20. But water has leaked into the Freunds' renovated rowhouse several times since, soaking a new wood floor and causing a musty smell and discoloration of their exposed brick walls. The couple has complained to city officials, but so far they say they have felt patronized by the building inspectors and their supervisors.

"They were acting like we were just causing trouble," John Freund says.

"She had a tiny bit of water," says Gregory Morris, a project manager for Bayside.

During a tour of the house Nov. 3, the couple point out recent water damage and older damage from when 704 S. Montford was renovated several years ago. City officials did not help them then either, they say.

In a series of e-mails to building officials, the Freunds have questioned how Bayside was allowed to take down almost an entire building without getting a full demolition permit. The couple cited the city's building code, which appears to require notification of neighbors, licensed and insured contractors, and a host of other safeguards to prevent or ameliorate damage to the neighboring property.

But deputy housing commissioner Michael Braverman determined that the 700 S. Montford Ave. project is in compliance with city code.

"For your information," Braverman wrote in an Oct. 12 e-mail to the Freunds, "removing a wall does not trigger the notification requirements . . . which are excavation related. It is [another section of the code] that covers notification for demolition of a structure, but those notification requirements do not apply to the removal of a wall. The insurance requirements you reference apply to licensed demolition contractors only. A licensed demolition contractor is not required to remove a wall."

"Under the demolition code, we would be protected from any damage," Christine Freund says. "But since it's their interpretation that there hasn't been any demolition," the Freunds are out of luck.

A key question for the Freunds is the identity of Bayside's engineer, who reportedly deemed the outside wall unfit to stand. Morris says he won't divulge that information to City Paper. But, he says, "we do not use John Elder." Elder signed the project plans, however.

The Freunds say that an agent of the city office of inspector general interviewed them and photographed the properties. Inspector General Clemmons says housing officials have been extra responsive to the Freunds because of his office's scrutiny. "They know we're looking at it now--they're moving on that," Clemmons says. "We're particularly interested in that one because it was fairly recent."

A few blocks from the Freunds, another homeowner says next-door contracting caused water damage in her home. Since late August, Denise Whitman has complained of unpermitted work, clouds of dust, and water inundation associated with the complete rebuild of a rowhouse at 2044 Fountain St.

Whitman, who lives at 2042 Fountain St., says the main trouble started Oct. 21, when she and her 14-year-old daughter had to punch holes in her ceiling to let water drain out. "They were blasting into the wall with a pressure hose," says Whitman, adding that the next-door contractor was taking water and electricity from another neighbor to do it. Whitman says she told the workers to stop--the first time in English, which didn't work, and the second time in Spanish, which did.

Her place had just about dried when, on Oct. 28, heavy rains sent more water into Whitman's home. The water apparently pooled up on the floors next door and washed through the porous side wall. At the time, 2044 Fountain had no roof.

"That was worse than the first time," says Whitman. "Water was flowing from every edge. Everything I had just dried was wet again."

William Malkin is the contractor at 2044 Fountain.

"I don't even know what to say," Malkin says on Nov. 1. "We have been through heck and high water with this lady. No one has given me any indication of any water damage."

Malkin says Whitman is a complainer who has tried to stop an addition planned by Milton Smith, 2044's owner. Smith, a Baltimore City police detective, declines to speak to City Paper, Malkin says.

Whitman, who works for the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point, says she had resigned herself to the big rear-yard addition next door, but draws the line "when it comes to damaging my walls, and the essential structure of my house."

Whitman wonders why the house next door was effectively demolished--without structural-demolition permits--when it was a perfectly sound home before renovation began this summer. "It had heart pine floors," she says, adding that the previous owner "did a really nice, conservative job" with a previous renovation.

"I got concerned when I started seeing structural work," Whitman says. Her notes on the property begin on Aug. 28 when, she says, "they tore the roof off. I saw no permits."

Whitman e-mailed city officials, who, she says, sent an inspector who required Malkin to obtain permits for structural work. Malkin says everything he's done has been permitted and sounds frustrated by the fuss that's been made.

"I've done 15 rehabs in the city this year," Malkin says. "This is the only one that I had significant problems with."

Malkin says the city has stopped work on Fountain Street numerous times. "It's not really a problem when they shut you down," he says. "When they ask you a question and you give them an answer, and the answer is competent, then they let you start work again."

Malkin says he doesn't want a "negative" story to appear in the paper. "I'm a good guy, and I can be vouched for," he says. "Just print the facts."

Although Malkin says he has renovated 15 houses this year, Fountain Street is Malkin's first historic renovation.

Malkin says he ran a roofing company before going into whole rehabs, but his company, Malkin Enterprise, was originally a retail of "scooters, handbags, watches," according to a corporate filing. Malkin, who paid nearly $500,000 for a Baltimore County home in spring 2005, pleaded guilty in 2002 and received probation for manufacturing counterfeit items, according to court records.

"We ran the business legitimate," he says. "We paid all our taxes. Is it relevant that I sold some [fake] Gucci bags to feed my kids?"

Whitman's home, possibly built some time around 1803, was once owned by Thomas Kemp, the famous shipbuilder whose Chasseur became the "Pride of Baltimore" and is memorialized by a replica of that name. Whitman says she's worried that work done to her side wall may have weakened the structure--a possibility she finds galling because, according to land records and her own measurements, the wall between her house and 2044 Fountain is not a party wall, a wall shared between the owners of adjoining properties. She says she has spoken to a lawyer who told her to hire an engineer and a contractor to assess the damage.

Engineer John Elder says it's common to power wash a front wall since, if water goes through, "it's on your own property. It's not so common to do a party wall," he says. "I'd do it with a plain hose, and I'd do it judiciously." Elder says nobody asked his advice.

Elder's connection to 2044 Fountain St., appears tenuous. Elder says he had a draftsman add detail to the original plans for 2044 Fountain after a building inspector expressed concerns about the stability of the four-inch-thick wall on the east side of the property--opposite Whitman's house.

Elder says Malkin does good work and has had few problems on his other projects.

Clemmons, the inspector general, says his office is aware of the Fountain Street issue and "we're taking a look at that."

Clemmons says his office will submit a report to 1st District City Councilman James Kraft, who first requested the investigation. "As part of our report we will make recommendations as to how to improve the process," he says.

Asked if his investigators have discovered anything potentially criminal, Clemmons responds, "We're not that far yet."

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