Know Your Blights
Updated law allows neighbors to sue owners of nuisance properties
Published: October 10, 2012
A revamped state law effective Oct. 1 gives community associations the right to sue the owners of “nuisance” properties in their neighborhood. A nonprofit housing law group has lawyers standing by to take the new cases.
“We have one attorney who is dedicated to just doing these cases for the next year,” says Kristine Dunkerton, executive director of the Community Law Center, which helped shepherd modifications to the law through the state legislature last year. She says the center has almost 140 likely cases queued up.
Dubbed the Community Bill of Rights, the law was actually passed 15 years ago, Dunkerton says, but provisions in it made it unusable. Community associations were too narrowly defined, Dunkerton says, and they would be required to post bonds to cover their opponents’ legal costs if their suits failed. Most community associations don’t have money to do that.
And the old law “excluded boarded properties,” Dunkerton says, “which are the bulk of what people would want to file actions against.”
Baltimore City has around 16,000 vacant and abandoned properties, many of which attract vagrants, drug and prostitution activities, rats, and other nuisances. There are also many thriving businesses—corner liquor stores, mostly—which neighbors say attract and cater to violent and drunk or drug-addled people. Getting such “nuisance” properties shut down and cleaned up presents a legal and logistical puzzle for city leaders.
Under the revamped law, Dunkerton says, “you can take matters into your own hands; you don’t have to rely on the city.”
Community activists City Paper polled were taking a wait-and-see approach last week. Joan Floyd of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance—one of the city’s most tenacious and knowledgeable zoning activists who often fights developers—asked about the law’s definition of a neighborhood association. “Is there also a membership requirement?” she asked in an e-mail. “If not, they will be calling Greater Homewood Community Corporation a ‘community association.’” Floyd’s group has clashed with that organization over the Walmart formerly planned for the area.
Carol Ott, a Pigtown resident and battler of slum and blight city-wide, says she is “on the fence” because some neighborhoods “don’t have ‘official’ 501(c)(3) community associations, or if they do have an association, it’s not an active one. A group of neighbors who are negatively affected by blighted properties should have equal access to the courts, in order to force property owners to clean up their drek.” She says she’d like to see the law amended further, to allow even noncorporate organizations status to sue in court.
On the east side, Joe Di Mattina, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association, also said he had a concern that the law favors neighborhoods with stronger associations, which are less likely to have big blight issues. But his group is ready to dive in. In an e-mail, he calls the law “a great tool for neighborhood associations to combat blight and irresponsible landlords,” adding that the “Patterson Park Neighborhood Association definitely has a short list of homes we intend to test this litigation on, after which we can evaluate how useful this tool is for the neighborhoods.”
He was not alone in his support for the law, Dunkerton says: “We had dozens and dozens of groups sending in support letters to their senators and delegates, which is the reason we think it passed unanimously.”
The law is not perfect though. About 22 percent of all the vacant properties in Baltimore are owned by the city itself—mostly by the Housing Department, which is the city agency whose enforcement actions the revised law hinges on. Simply put, if Housing is not citing a property as a nuisance, then community groups can’t go after the owners in court.
And if the owner of the nuisance property is the city itself? Tough luck.
“The city[‘s] Department of Housing is exempt under the law,” Dunkerton says. The Housing Authority, which is a federally funded arm of the Department of Housing and Community Development, is not exempt, she says, but since DHCD seldom cites Housing Authority properties, the practical effect is to make them exempt as well.
Still, Dunkerton is rearing to do what the law allows. “It’s something that’s so new and something can be so empowering for neighborhoods,” she says. “But it’s completely untested.”
Give it five years, Dunkerton says. With some luck, “we’re hoping it can be a model for other cities.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.