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Mobtown Beat

Falling Through The Cracks

City Historian Killed in Collapse Was Mired in Bureaucracy

Ken Royster
DOCUMENTARIAN: Alvin Brunson kept detailed records of his interactions with the city, up until the building he was renovating collapsed and killed him in April.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 6/25/2008

Alvin Brunson didn't even want the house that broke his leg and then killed him.

He tried to leave it behind in 1994, but the three-story rowhouse across the street from his own home on the 500 block of Wilson Street caught up to him--or anyway, the back taxes did. The city took him to court, and he lost, so he paid them.

And then Brunson's nightmare really began.

The history of 562 Wilson St. and Alvin K. Brunson (friends call him Kirby) is told in a two-inch-thick stack of documents Baltimore Housing released recently to City Paper under the Maryland Public Information Act. There are court files, tax bills, e-mails, letters, building permits, and housing-inspection reports.

Combined with Brunson's own records, which his family shared with City Paper, the documents depict a 15-year rolling tragedy of bureaucratic error, legal bluster, and plain bad luck. In the end, it appears that Brunson's decision to make something good of the situation led to his death under tons of rubble when the house collapsed on March 30 ("Hot Property," Mobtown Beat, April 23; "In Appreciation," Mobtown Beat, April 16; "Building Collapse Kills Local Historian," The News Hole, March 31). Cheron Porter, director of communications for Baltimore Housing, says the city is not commenting further on the Brunson situation, but questions remain about the city's role in the tragedy.

Brunson's fateful odyssey began on Sept. 20, 1993, when he and two partners paid $800 for a tax lien certificate for 562 Wilson St. Buyers of tax certificates pay the back taxes owed on the property, then they charge the original owners high interest and fees to get their buildings back. If the original owner doesn't pay, the certificate holder can foreclose and take the property. The trio hired attorney Marc H. Baer to handle the matter.

Not long after Brunson and his partners bought the tax certificate, 562 Wilson burned. "I called Marc Baer to let him no [sic] that we were no longer interested," Brunson wrote in a time line he later sent to city officials and his own attorneys. According to Brunson's account, Baer "stated that he would take the necessary steps to stop our paperwork from being processed."

But the court awarded Brunson and partners the property.

In the fall of 1994 Baer sent Brunson and his partners a bill for $670.30, which would have covered the back taxes and water bill on the property and completed the transfer. Brunson and his partners ignored the bill.

Brunson thought little about the house until September 2002, when a surprise call from assistant city solicitor Kyriakos Marudas informed him that he owed more than $10,000 in back taxes on 562 Wilson. Protesting that he never took possession of the property, never received a tax bill, never got a deed, Brunson fought the charges in court. In May 2004, he lost the case. District Court Judge Ronald A. Karasic reduced the tax bill to just under $4,000 and, essentially, forced the house on Brunson. It took him almost a year to pay off that judgment.

The house was a burned-out hulk filled with debris. Brunson, who friends and family say worked as a handyman and small-time contractor in the 1990s, was 10 years older than he'd been when he first eyed the fixer-upper. Brunson set out to make the best of it.

Brunson, who has written some books on Baltimore history and landmarks, had founded the nonprofit Center for Cultural Education, which he operated from his home at 541 Wilson St ("Street of Dreams," Feature, Feb. 2 and 9, 2005). He also did significant work to that house, attaching a two-story brick addition to its western side. "Kirby was a handyman," says Kenneth Westary, vice president for institutional advancement at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina, and a board member of Brunson's Center for Cultural Education. "You look at that addition--he put that up himself. He knocked out a wall, he put up almost a whole other house next to his house. Put in a deck, put in a bathroom."

These days the deck is soft, the brick addition leaning slightly away from the main house.

Brunson decided to rehab 562 Wilson and move the center into it as an expanded museum and gathering place. His time sheets indicate he began cleaning out the building on Dec. 12, 2004, but he apparently didn't get much done before an accident laid him up. According to an account Brunson wrote to a city lawyer in July 2006, "In 2005, I satisfy the judgment. I finally get to go inside the property to inspect it and fall through the floor and break my leg."

Laid up for months, Brunson made ambitious plans for the building and set about raising money for the project. He eventually wrote the Baltimore Development Corp., the mayor, and the foundation operated by movie stars Will and Jada Smith, among many others.

In a plan submitted to many in support of his fundraising for the project, Brunson estimated he could get the work done for $38,500. A typical gut rehab of a rowhouse costs well over $100,000. Brunson was relying heavily on volunteer labor--mainly his own.

City officials were impressed enough that on Oct. 30, 2006, Mayor Martin O'Malley informed Brunson that his Center for Cultural Education would be awarded a matching grant of up to $16,500 from the Baltimore City Heritage Area Small Cap Grant Fund. The mayor presented Brunson a giant foam-board check, though it is unclear whether it ever transformed into real money, in part because Brunson let the corporate charter lapse in 2003.

Severely underfunded but undaunted, Brunson worked on the house, often alone but sometimes with help from several volunteers, according to time sheets he kept on his project. He and a few others put in thousands of hours.

They did not know that in 2005 the city had taken the house back. Documents indicate that the people working for Project 5000, Mayor O'Malley's much-hyped program to acquire 5,000 vacant or abandoned city properties and return them to productive use, never realized that Brunson had unknowingly foreclosed on the building in 1994. As Brunson had never gotten a deed to file, records of his ownership were obscure, and the Project 5000 team did not coordinate with the team led by Marudas, the lawyer who had pinned the house on Brunson and extracted a $4,000 dowry for it. So in 2005, Project 5000 filed papers to snatch the building from the previous owners and claim it as a city-owned property.

Brunson noticed the house was again owned by the city when he checked online tax records in July 2006, so he wrote to Jennifer Lloyd, a city lawyer for Project 5000. In a cordial e-mail, Brunson called the situation a "`living' nightmare" and asked, "Please tell me what did I do wrong. I believe that I have done every right here. But, I really feel victimized."

Lloyd set about making things right, but that process would ultimately outlive Kirby Brunson. A water bill totaling $857.99 materialized (this despite Brunson's contention that the water meter at 562 had been removed years before). Clearing the bill took years. According to e-mails, Lloyd pushed for answers and kept Brunson informed of the bureaucratic tangle.

Meanwhile, Brunson pulled permits and worked. The biggest job was digging out the crawlspace, Brunson's housemate Henry Smith says.

"We had so much sand coming out of that it was unbelievable," Smith says. "He wanted to make that a basement and eventually an eatery."

Brunson's time sheets indicate he and others were excavating as of Sept. 2, 2006. Yet there is no permit for the excavation and underpinning, as required. It is unclear why Brunson--who was apparently fastidious about records and open communication with the city--neglected to pull a permit for his basement dig-out.

Underpinning is a dangerous process in which the home's foundation is lowered, usually by digging out one small section at a time and filling the space under the wall with poured concrete or concrete blocks. It normally requires an engineer's plans and a licensed contractor; numerous houses in Baltimore have collapsed in recent years because of faulty underpinning.

The job was apparently beyond Brunson's means.

Smith says that in December 2007 a piece of the party wall collapsed in a horseshoe shape under the house. "That's what got him to start getting cinder blocks, jacking it," Smith says, adding that the partial collapse upset Brunson only inasmuch as it cost him time to rebuild it.

Brunson kept working under the building, and he kept giving tours and speeches, all in his tireless effort to promote Upton and the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor in its historic glory. According to his time sheets, he installed a concrete footing on March 9, 2008, and spent 32 hours repairing the basement walls from March 15 to March 18. His time sheet for March 27 reads "basement--underpin." There was more underpinning on the 28th. On March 29, Brunson was "Preparing floor for slab of concrete."

On March 30, the day he died, Smith says Brunson was quitting the job early. "He told me he had to wrap it up early, he had a talk down at Eubie Blake" National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center on Howard Street.

Smith says reports that Brunson was in the basement when the house collapsed are wrong. Smith says he talked to his friend and housemate just a few seconds before the house came down. They were both outside, in front, and then Brunson turned and walked down Brunt Street, between his building and 564 Wilson. "I knew he didn't make it anywhere near back inside the building," Smith says. He points to a spot across the alley from the old 562 site, up against the next building. "That's where they found him."

Smith marvels at the speed with which the city dispatched its trusted contractor, P&J, to demolish not only 562 Wilson but also the attached home at 560. "I never seen the city move so fast," he says. "They knocked everything down the day of the funeral." Smith says the roof at 560 Wilson had collapsed 10 months before Brunson's property, and he thinks that may have contributed to his friend's death (an inspector's photograph dated Jan. 9, 2008, shows roof damage at 560). Another house on that side of the street has a collapsed roof as well, and all but one are vacant. A city housing inspector had recommended demolition of the whole block on Oct. 4, 2007, and again on Jan. 9, 2008, when the notation read, "recommending to chief [Eric] Booker for razing of the entire even side of the block with the exception of 556 which is occupied."

On Friday, June 13, Abraham and Ernestine Brunson spent three hours at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration reregistering their son's pickup truck. They look a little weary when they return to his home to speak to a reporter. "He had done so much work on it," Ernestine says, looking out the window at the flat field across the street where her son perished 10 weeks ago.

The couple has just begun their search for answers, but they seem sure that fault for the collapse lies with someone other than their Kirby. "It could have been all those other buildings that were next to his. The one next to his was all burned out," Ernestine says.

As she sets out with her husband for the three hour drive back to their home in Richmond, Va., Ernestine Brunson says, "I think some changes should be made."

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