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Mobtown Beat

Path of Destruction

Emergency demolitions in the city are down, but costs for those demolitions are up

562 Wilson St., before it collapsed in March 2008.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 9/9/2009

On June 24, 2008, two calls came into the city's 311 system describing the rowhouse at 1226 Argyle Ave. The back wall had collapsed, both callers said. The owner of the occupied house at 1224 told the operator that 1226 Argyle, owned by the city, was letting water in and damaging her property.

The city closed those complaints a few days later.

Nearly eight months after that, on Feb. 12, 2009, the city sent its demolition contractor to take down 1226 Argyle. Because it was an "emergency," P&J Contracting was paid an additional $2,500 for the job. "It collapsed, so the city didn't have a choice," says Julien Matadi, who bought 1224 Argyle in the spring of 2006 with plans to move there with his wife and college-age son. "They had to do it."

The Argyle collapse was one of three "emergency demolitions" P&J began that day. Two of those collapsed houses were city-owned.

The number of Baltimore building collapses and emergency demolitions is down over the past three years. But the number of city-owned buildings that collapse has held steady, the cost of each demolition has increased, and the city is still not always responding promptly to complaints about collapsing buildings, records show.

Collapsing buildings endanger citizens, and emergency demolitions cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Earlier this year, in an affidavit made part of the city's lawsuit against banking giant Wells Fargo, the city's acting director of the code enforcement legal section, Jason Hessler, cited demolition of abandoned, foreclosed houses as one of the potential costs Wells Fargo's loan policies had imposed on the city.

Three years ago, City Paper published a two-part story examining the prevalence of collapsing buildings in Baltimore City ("Collapse," Feature, July 26  and Aug. 2, 2006 ). Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano criticized the stories, saying his department had already increased inspections of abandoned and under-construction buildings to reduce the danger of collapses. "[R]esidents should be assured that we are prepared to move quickly to demolish or stabilize any building that poses a threat to life or property," Graziano wrote in a letter to the editor ("Knocking it Down," The Mail, Aug. 16, 2006).

Michael Braverman, deputy commissioner for code enforcement, was more succinct in the story itself: "If an inspector finds a building in imminent danger of collapse tonight, that building will be taken down by tomorrow morning," he said in July 2006.

To test these statements, City Paper asked the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development for its tally of "emergency demolitions" for the past three years--the same data we used in 2006. We also examined 311 data for calls about collapses, to see how long it took the city to respond to complaints about collapsing buildings.

The data shows a mix of trends.

The number of emergency demolitions has declined by 19 percent since spring 2006. From March 1, 2003, through February 28, 2006, there were 110 emergency demolitions. Between March 2006 and February 2009 there were just 89.

Emergency demolitions undertaken as a result of collapse have been reduced even more. In the new data, the city differentiates among buildings that were demolished because they had partially collapsed, burned, were under construction, or were deemed "unsafe." Only 61 demolitions were undertaken because of a full or partial collapse--39 fewer than were logged in the three-year period before that.

But even as the overall rate of collapse seems to have declined, the number of city-owned buildings that collapsed has stayed steady. In the 36 months between March 2006 and the end of February 2009, the city paid to demolish 17 of its own buildings after they partially collapsed, the same number it demolished in the 36 months between March 2003 and February, 2006.

Demolition costs are rising, too.

P&J Contracting received an average of $24,852 for each of the emergency demolitions it completed between 2003 and early 2006. The average cost for the demolitions since then was $28,936. Pless Jones, P&J's owner, did not return several phone calls for comment.

One of the buildings P&J cleared away was 562 Wilson St., which collapsed on March 30, 2008, killing Alvin Brunson, who was digging out the basement ("Falling Through the Cracks," Mobtown Beat, June 25, 2008 ). That job cost the city--which, through a series of paperwork snafus, still claimed ownership--$15,195.

Brunson's housemate, Henry Smith, says the city demolished adjacent buildings in the days following the collapse of 562 Wilson. None of those demolitions appears on the city's list of "emergency" jobs, however. A Housing Department spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comment by press time.

Despite the reduction in emergency demolitions and collapses, the city still sometimes experiences multiple building collapses on the same day. Between March 2003 and February 2006, the weekend of Jan. 14-15, 2006, stood out. In those two days, the city responded to eight full or partial building collapses. Officials blamed high winds, which weather records indicate gusted up to 40 miles per hour. In the 2006-2009 period, the largest one-day tally of emergency events was Dec. 31, 2008, when four buildings fell down. Three more collapsed five weeks later, on Feb. 12, 2009. Two of those buildings, 1226 Argyle Ave. and 3107 Oakley Ave., were city-owned.

Matadi, the owner of 1224 Argyle, says his property has sustained even more damage from 1222 Argyle, the house on the other side of the city-owned collapse. "I made so many [311] calls on that property," he says. "The 1226, initially there was nothing happening, and all of a sudden, it collapsed. Once it collapsed, they didn't come in because I called--they came because it had collapsed."

Most of the city-owned buildings subjected to emergency demolitions were not called in through the 311 system, records indicate. And both of the other two that were called in were demolished, as Braverman predicted, within a day.

One of those buildings, 2201 Ashland Ave., was called in by a city police officer, records indicate.

The other building, 1319 N. Washington St., sits three blocks from the home of Eric Booker, the director of housing-code enforcement. In early 2006--just before 1319 collapsed--former Baltimore City Inspector General Andrew Clemmons completed an investigation into Booker's handling of his duties, having discovered that Booker owned nine houses in that neighborhood and sent his code inspectors into the area more readily than other neighborhoods ("Watching the Inspectors," Feature, Nov. 7, 2007 ). According to Clemmons, when confronted with his findings, Booker responded, "But I live here. If I was living in those other neighborhoods, I'd pay attention there."

Additional reporting by Chris Landers

Recent demolitions of collapsed houses

Map by Chris Landers

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