Shanty Town Showdown
Evicted trailer-park residents, property owner square off
On a recent morning, two women named Barbara smoked cigarettes in a local motel room, waving the housekeeper on when she appeared at the open door. If they seemed at ease, it was because they'd lived there for nearly a month. In late February, Barbara Kress and Barbara Seidenstricker were evicted from their homes, such as they were. They'd been living in a cluster of trailers behind a bar in an industrial section of Southeast Baltimore. It was cramped, with four or five trailers jammed up against one another, some housing as many as nine people, they say. They say they cooked on hot plates and at least one of the trailers did not have its own bathroom.
But--for a few months at least--it was shelter. According to Seidenstricker, her husband, who does construction, had done some work for the owner of the property and first heard about the trailers from him. The couple had been homeless for a year when they moved in. Kress moved into a trailer with her then-boyfriend, an auto mechanic, several months after losing her house-cleaning job and her rental home in Highlandtown. Both Barbaras say they now rely on family and friends to support them.
"Most people were down there to save up money to find another place because they lost their jobs because of the economy," Kress says. Both women contend that for more than three months they each paid $400 a month in rent (in addition to a $200 security deposit) to James Micklos, the owner of the adjoining bar, the Lava Lounge. Micklos, however, denies the trailer occupants were ever his tenants. "They were basically a bunch of squatters," Micklos says. "We told them to leave and they wouldn't leave. And then the city came and kicked them out for us."
Everyone agrees that on the morning of Feb. 22, the city evicted the people who were living behind the bar at 1301 Ponca St. Micklos says that around eight people were kicked out. Kress and Seidenstricker say there were more than 30. (Attempts to contact other former occupants were unsuccessful.)
"[Micklos] called my phone and said to me, 'Don't let anybody in the trailer,'" Kress says. "I saw police and the fire department. The next thing I know they're going 'boom, boom, boom' on the door. It was raining and they were like 'Come on, let's go.' They herded us off like we were cattle or something."
"Everybody was kinda shocked," Seidenstricker says. "We were all out in the parking lot trying to figure out where we could go or what kind of help we could get."
That day, Baltimore Housing declared the trailers--and a makeshift wooden cabin--unfit for human habitation. "The location was rife with illegal electrical and plumbing hookups," writes Tania Baker, a spokesperson for the agency, in an e-mail. Micklos blames the occupants for these offenses, but Housing issued him a $500 citation for the illegal work done on the site, as well as a $1,000-penalty surcharge. Housing's legal team is also considering pressing charges; the city building code provides for misdemeanor prosecutions for work done without a permit.
City Councilman James Kraft (D-1st District), who represents the area, says he first became aware of the situation late last year when he heard complaints about illegal activities going on in the trailers. "I had that complaint from people in the community and I forwarded it to the city," he says.
It wasn't the first time the property on Ponca Street had seen trouble. In June 2006, about a year after Micklos bought the bar and named it Club Malibu, more than 100 people took part in a fight outside, according to police testimony at a city liquor-board hearing. Several months later, eight people were sent to the hospital within a two-week span with bruises or stab wounds from other fights on the property. In the aftermath, Micklos renamed the bar the Lava Lounge. In early 2009, the bar was found guilty of four counts of underage drinking and eight counts of violating its liquor license restriction, which prohibits anyone under 21 from entering the club after 9 p.m. It was the third underage violation for the bar, which was given a mandatory 80-day suspension and a $4,400 fine. The decision remains under appeal.
As for the trailers, Micklos tells a City Paper reporter that they aren't his. "The whole property has been sold a few months ago," he says. Yet liquor board files show no evidence of a transfer of liquor license, and the property remains in Micklos' name, according to state records. In response to these points, Micklos says, "Well, the place is being rented with an option to buy." He declines to name the person who is allegedly buying the bar. "The guy's starting a new business, and I don't want to get him in trouble," Micklos says, adding that he himself lives in Pennsylvania, and that the bar hasn't been open for months because the buyer is renovating the building. (The Barbaras, for their part, say the bar was still functioning when they were evicted.)
Soon after this conversation, a man calling himself James Marko calls City Paper. Caller ID shows that Marko calls from a pay phone, and the number he provides for follow-up is a disconnected line. Marko says he was renting the property from Micklos. "I put those trailers back there for storage," he says. "I had no idea people were living back there." Marko contends that two of the trailers were his, and that he was charging $300 per half-trailer, strictly for storage. (Marko also says that he is subleasing the top portion of the Lava Lounge to a third party, and has plans to open a catering business in the basement. He declines to divulge this third party's name.)
But Seidenstricker and Kress say Micklos was the one who rented them their rooms, and he was generally the one to come knocking on the door when rent came due. They say he only took cash. "I'd just paid him my rent on Feb. 18," Seidenstricker says. Kress says she has sought help from Maryland Legal Aid, though the organization says it has no record of her visit. Her chances of recovering any lost rent money are slim in any case. "If there's no true landlord/tenant relationship under law, Legal Aid wouldn't get involved," spokesman Joe Surkiewicz says.
The signs of permanent habitation on the property are hard to miss, though. A long wooden cabin behind the trailers has an AC window unit and gutters. In another, a porcelain mask hangs on the wall near a cluttered shelf made of plastic milk crates. Empty liquor bottles and packages of chips are visible through some of the windows. Among the detritus in the area--clothes, pots and pans, empty prescription drug bottles--lies a scrap of City Paper from March 3, 2010, a week after all the occupants were evicted by Baltimore Housing.
If the women are telling the truth about the money owed them, they may have to get in line. Micklos filed for bankruptcy last August, and his petition documents show he owes a total of $796,175.62 to numerous entities; his assets total $764,370. Micklos abandoned his prolonged effort to declare bankruptcy in March. "I decided it just wasn't for me," he says. (He filed "a line requesting denial without leave to amend.")
His income statements reveal substantial income from the State of Maryland. Last year, Micklos' other business, a company called Micklos Painting Contractors, pulled in more than $200,000 in state painting contracts. Micklos is facing foreclosure on a house near Greektown, and the Ponca Street property goes up for tax sale next month.
For now, the Lava Lounge appears closed. When a reporter visited in mid-March, a woman emerged from an RV parked near the bar. "You waitin' for Jimmy?" she asked.
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