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Mobtown Beat

Spitting Bricks

Butchers Hill home renovation looks like old times

Photo: Allison le, License: N/A

Allison le

The brick chimney that collapsed into the areaway of 220 Chester St. is part of a problem-plagued renovation

Hilary Sporney had a bit of a bother in recent months with her neighbors at 220 S. Chester St.—the kind of thing that hasn’t been so common since the housing bust of 2007.

“I was away. I came back to discover that they broke through the wall between the first and second floor,” she says. The hole was about a square foot. “I had to get a structural engineer for that,” Sporney says.

The owner did pay $640 for the firewall repair. “I wouldn’t allow them to use their own contractor,” Sporney says.

It’s the sort of trouble that was common in Baltimore’s more up-and-coming rowhouse neighborhoods during the height of the real estate bubble in the middle of the last decade. Quick-buck house flippers hired shoddy, often unlicensed contractors to revamp and expand hundreds of small rowhouses. Much of the work was done without permits or out of the scope of existing permits. Dozens of houses were demolished or collapsed.

City Paper wrote about the collapses. The city’s inspector general opened an investigation. Eventually, it petered out with the land rush.

But the house at 220 S. Chester St. looks like a throwback—or perhaps a harbinger. Sold late last year for $80,000 to a company called Chesapeake Investment, LLC, it went under instant renovation. Earlier this summer, the front of the building was acid-washed, but not shrouded, causing damage to the neighbors’ homes. They threw debris from windows and punched the hole in Sporney’s house.

Then, on June 23, workers partially collapsed a back wall and dropped a brick chimney into the areaway. Antonio Santana, chief of the city building inspectors, arrived to stick a “stop work” order to the house’s front window. A neighbor across the street says the window fell into the house when Santana touched it.

“The problem is, they’re continuing not to manage the project,” Sporney says. “They told me it was going to be so lovely, with multiple decks, and I’d have nice neighbors.”

The across-the-street neighbor, Mark Adams, says he has been watching activities at 220 S. Chester for months. The crew began work without permits, he says, and after he reported that, it appeared that a city building inspector brought permits to the workers.

The name of the owner printed on the permit was wrong. Adams filed a negative zoning appeal.

“They are pretty brazen, suggesting that someone is looking out for them,” Adams wrote to Deputy Commissioner for Code Enforcement Michael Braverman on May 31, after workers tore off a previous stop-work order. “Usually, a working guy is somewhat hesitant to break a stop-work order. These guys act with impunity.”

That kind of insider’s game—certain sloppy contractors getting special favors from inside City Hall, even as they damaged neighbors’ property—practically defined the housing boom in Baltimore’s south and southeast neighborhoods.

No one was ever publicly held to account for it, though a few inspectors were quietly removed, the bosses retired.

By last week, the latest stop-work order had been removed, workers continued the renovations. Sporney, working in two different positions at one company, was hoping the renovation next door would be finished without further trouble.

“It’s a nightmare,” she says. “I could go on and on.”

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