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Nightmare Neighbor

No One Takes Responsibility For Collapsing And Neglected East Baltimore House

The City Paper Digi-Camô
COLLATERAL DAMAGE: Carolyn Jones says the house next door to hers is collapsing and causing structural damage to her home, which she points out to a photographer during a recent visit.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 8/15/2007

Carolyn Jones doesn't want her house to fall down, but she's afraid it might.

Her floors are going soft--even though she replaced the supporting joists just a few years ago--and she points out the encroaching water damage on her north wall. "That's since March," she says of several ceiling stains.

Jones' problem is not lack of maintenance or gumption; she moved in seven years ago and has made the place nice for herself and her twin sons, even cementing a stunning river-rock veneer on the chimneys. But an adjoining house has been collapsing for more than a year, crashing debris onto her property and allowing water to seep in. She wants the city to knock down what remains of the house next door and shore up the party wall so that her own house will stop deteriorating. But her entreaties to city officials have resulted in only a partial demolition of the adjoining structure and a condemnation notice for her own property.

Last year City Paper reported numerous cases in which condemned houses were allowed to deteriorate for years until they collapsed, sometimes damaging neighboring properties ("Collapse," Feature, July 26, 2006). Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano protested that the newspaper was wrong and that housing officials actually had the problem of dilapidated buildings well in hand. "In fact, very few condemned properties ever become targets for demolition because they don't pose an immediate threat to public safety or adjoining properties," Graziano wrote in an Aug. 11, 2006, letter to the editor. In fact, Graziano wrote, "the city recently reviewed every one of the more than 4,500 properties on the condemnation list and determined that only 1,700 still qualify for condemnation. Each of those 1,700 properties is now re-inspected every 10 or 30 days, depending on their level of risk. Efforts like this will help us better protect residents and properties."

During the past year City Paper has received numerous new reports of collapsing buildings all over the city. In some cases the city's demolition contractor arrived soon after the collapse to clean up. In other cases the buildings continue to sag, their roofs caving in, their walls shifting and bowing. A few of the reports appeared to be unfounded. Jones' case may not be typical, but her situation illustrates the challenges city officials still face as they try to head off dozens of small disasters every year with limited resources.

Jones, a housekeeper at Johns Hopkins University for the past 11 years, says her problems began last July 4 when the rear addition of 1313 Valley St. crumpled, strewing debris over her fence and across her backyard. Police and city code-enforcement officers responded and placed a condemnation notice on the long-vacant house. Then they left the debris field on Jones' property for more than six months.

Jones called City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, whose 12th District includes this little stub of Valley Street just south of Greenmount Cemetery. She says Young got the city to take the collapse debris off her back fence in February.

"He told me, `Don't worry, they'll demolish that house,'" Jones says. "I assumed everything was fine."

Five months later, the house still stands, although the structure is shifting and popping, and Jones says she heard the roof collapse during a rainstorm in March. "All of a sudden my walls are blistering," she says. She called an engineer who she says told her the fire wall collapsed next door.

Jones wrote Young another letter but says he never got back to her. "When I called him last time, he acted like he didn't know what I was talking about," Jones says. "He said don't be surprised if the city says the damages is not on them, the damage is on me. There's some wickedness going on over here."

Young takes credit for the city's removal of the collapse debris from Jones' yard. "That's what she asked me to do," he says in late July. "I've done everything I could possibly do." Reminded that 1313 Valley is still collapsing and that Jones has asked him for additional help, Young remembers prodding Michael Braverman, the city housing department's deputy commissioner of code enforcement, about the case.

"I called Mr. Braverman," Young says, adding that he thinks the city is trying to work with the building's owner. "The city should be doing everything possible for Ms. Jones."

An unrelated mishap this spring cracked Jones' front stoop and destroyed her new hand railing. A metal pipe big enough to ride a motorcycle through rolled across the street like a steamroller and crashed into her house. The pipe is part of a sewer project, and the contractor fixed Jones' railing, but not the small crack in her stoop. Jones says the contractor promised to fix the stoop, and she thought a certified letter she received from the city in late June concerned that.

"So I signed for the certified letter, 'cause I thought, OK, it's about my steps," Jones says. "Then I opened it and it says your house is condemned!"

A city lawyer says the city issued Jones the condemnation notice in error. "Records appear to indicate it's been canceled," says Julie Day, director of the code-enforcement bureau's legal section. "It should have gone to 1313. She should be fine."

Day says Braverman would know the city's plans for 1313 Valley. But Braverman did not return multiple phone calls and detailed e-mails to his office over three weeks.

A new condemnation sign was stuck on 1313 Valley St. in July, more than a year after the initial sticker. Jones thinks the city is giving her the runaround. "Once you condemn a house, you can't re-condemn it," she insists. "Tell me why they switched the dates."

Land records indicate 1313 Valley St. is owned by Emerald Bay Development Group One Inc., which acquired it in October 2006 from a related company called Emerald Bay Development Group Inc. Emerald Bay Development Group had bought the building in August 2006 from Schwalenberg Real Estate Investments II LLC for $6,400, the same price Schwalenberg had paid in April 2006, when it bought the house from Otis Wilkins.

According to state tax records, Emerald Bay Development Group One Inc., was incorporated in January 2007--several months after it supposedly bought the house from Schwalenberg (there is no record of Emerald Bay Development Group Inc. in Maryland). Its incorporators are Frank and Thomas Schwalenberg, who list an East Meadow, N.Y., address on their corporate charter.

Jones says Frank Schwalenberg introduced himself to her months ago using another name. Last week he returned to the property and gave her his real name and phone number.

"She has really been hurt by this situation," Frank Schwalenberg acknowledges when reached at that number on Aug. 9. But he says "it wouldn't be economically feasible" for him to repair the damage to Jones' home--especially not while he's trying to pressure the city to turn over three more houses on that block to him.

"We're trying to--not coerce the city--but get the city to work with us to get three or four of those buildings," Schwalenberg says in a lilting voice. "We're not asking for money," he adds, though he says the city has fined him $3,000 to pay for the cleanup of Jones' property.

Schwalenberg says the three or four houses just north of 1313 Valley are in bad shape, and it would make no sense for him to fix 1313 when those other houses could easily fall down on his new rehab. Getting those other houses, he says, would be "good for the city and good for Carolyn."

But in the meantime, he claims, "we've been beaten up so much by Baltimore. . . . We just don't have the funds to do the right thing by her."

Land records indicate that the Schwalenbergs transferred at least seven properties to their own "Emerald Bay Development" company last year. Frank Schwalenberg says he first tried to sell the property to the other Emerald Bay, which was controlled by a California investor who he says never paid him. That investor, Crislynn Eichenberger, could not be reached for comment, and Tanya Zink, the owner of a Georgia address Eichenberger used, says she has "no idea what's going on" and claims that Eichenberger's Emerald Bay is a "fraudulent company."

Schwalenberg says he is a retired engineer and consultant for the city and state of New York. He says he and his brother have done two other Baltimore rehabs already and are keen to hire locals for an apprentice program. "You like to give something back," he says.

Robert Strupp, director of research and policy at the Baltimore-based nonprofit Community Law Center, says the Schwalenberg name rings a bell. "We've had other inquiries concerning properties in which the Schwalenbergs have had an ownership interest," he says.

Currently, 1313 Valley has a crumbling back wall and its roof has collapsed. Jones keeps hoping a city-paid crew will show up to take down the house and shore up her north wall. She's seen the crew at work. Across the rear alley, one block east, fresh hay is spread across the ground where the city recently demolished a house.

Near that is another house that looks very much like 1313 Valley St. The back wall there is gone, too, and the second floor toilet, pitched at an unlikely angle, hangs over the overgrown yard like a question mark.

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