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Why Did Baltimore City Give Rubble to a Dead Man?

Frank Klein
PICKING UP THE PIECES: In the aftermath of the building collapse at 562 Wilson St. that killed Alvin Brunson, the city is making the case that he--not the city--owned the fallen building.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 4/23/2008

On April 4, Alvin Brunson finally got his building back. The 12-foot-wide, three-story rowhouse at 562 Wilson St., which Brunson had lost in a tax sale in October 2004, was gone--crumbled to rubble--by then. Brunson, too, was dead, having perished in the building collapse ("Building Collapse Kills Local Historian," The News Hole, March 31; "Alvin K. Brunson," Mobtown Beat, April 16). But Baltimore City transferred ownership back to Brunson--misspelled as "Brunsen"--five days after he died, according to land records reviewed by City Paper.

Actually, the city transferred the building to Brunson's nonprofit, the Center for Cultural Education. And this may be a problem, as the center's corporate charter was revoked in 2003. So, officially, the property at 562 Wilson is now owned by a defunct corporation, in care of a dead man.

This is a strange turn of events. But there is logic to it, when one understands the city's potential liability. The available records indicate that, for years, Baltimore Housing officials knowingly allowed an unlicensed contractor to do dangerous work on a city-owned building. The contractor--Brunson--died as a result. But if the building could somehow have been considered his property the whole time, the city's liability for the incident vanishes.

An attorney representing Brunson's family calls the transfer of ownership "fishy to say the least."

To recap, Alvin Brunson was a fixture on Pennsylvania Avenue. He made it his business to know the neighborhood's history, and it was his life's passion to try to preserve that history, first in his home at 541 Wilson St., and eventually, he had hoped, in a museum across the street at 562 Wilson.

To that end, Brunson established the Center for Cultural Education in 2001. And he had ambition, though not the money, to restore the house at 562 into a museum.

In 2004, Brunson lost 562 Wilson to the city for back taxes. He was trying to get the building back, and had convinced the city's Board of Estimates to return it to him, as of August 2007.

But Brunson couldn't wait to regain ownership of the house, and city housing officials did not make him wait. On June 8, 2006, they granted him a construction permit for the building he did not then own. They extended the permit on Jan. 3, 2007.

Here the story gets murky. News outlets have reported that Brunson was underpinning the basement, a dangerous process that involves digging away an existing foundation and replacing it with a deeper one, to gain headroom. Permit records available online do not show any underpinning permits, but they show that other permits were granted to do major work on the house. The last one was granted on Feb. 21, 2008, and calls for the reframing of the walls and floors.

On the afternoon of March 30, as Brunson and two others worked inside, the building collapsed. Two workers narrowly escaped; Brunson was crushed in the basement.

City Paper asked housing officials to explain the circumstances. They did not respond. On April 3, Cheron Porter, Baltimore Housing's communications director, e-mailed this statement:

Official Statement the Passing of Mr. Al Brunson: [sic]

Baltimore Housing is saddened by the loss of Mr. Al Brunson. Mr. Brunson was a Baltimore treasure and his light will truly be missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very trying time.

At the time of his death, Mr. Brunson was working on 562 Wilson St., a property that was in the process of being conveyed back to Mr. Brunson after he lost it in a tax sale in 2005. However, it was generally acknowledged and understood in good faith that he was the owner. At the time of his death, we were actively working to have the records reflect his ownership. Mr. Brunson did have active permits pulled on the property. We have reached out to his family to see if there is a way we can assist through our Community Services Division.

Based on the statement, City Paper asked more questions: Why did the city not transfer the building to Brunson for all those months? And why did the city allow him to pull construction permits for more than a year before he even had an agreement to transfer ownership? And who are the inspectors responsible for this neighborhood? Housing officials did not respond.

On April 17, Brunson's sister, Aletha Brunson, says she is unaware of the property transfer to her brother's name. She also wonders whether it was Brunson's work that caused the collapse--or the effect of another collapse nearby. "I have been told that the roof of the building adjacent to my brother's collapsed a couple months ago," she says, adding that she visited the site around Thanksgiving and toured 562 Wilson St. then. "The building he was working on was structurally sound. My brother knew what he was doing."

City Paper provided Ms. Brunson with the land records for the property transfer, which are dated Aug. 24, 2007, but were not recorded until April 4, 2008. Alvin Brunson's signature does not appear on the papers. Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano's does.

Herman Braude, a Washington-based lawyer who is representing the Brunson family, says he has questions about the city's transfer of the property. "It was August of 2007 when they made the agreement," he says. "Why did it take them almost a year to make that transfer? And can you do that to a corporation that doesn't exist anymore?"

City Paper has requested records relating to Brunson and 562 Wilson St. under the Maryland Public Information Act. The newspaper awaits the city's response.

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