Foes of urban blight go after landlords

<— Falling population in Baltimore

A Baltimore woman’s five-year campaign to pressure landlords to repair blighted buildings has attracted fans and imitators in other cities, the ire of some property owners, and now for the first time, a pair of lawsuits.

Since early 2009, Carol Ott has run a website called Baltimore Slumlord Watch. On an almost daily basis, she posts photographs of boarded-up or dilapidated buildings and the names and addresses of owners she identifies through public records.

Last month, Ott was sued for her role in a recent project in which artists painted murals on 17 vacant buildings in the city. Two civil lawsuits filed in state court in Baltimore allege the work was an act of vandalism at two properties and seek $5,000 to restore the buildings to their prior condition.

“To trespass on property and vandalize property is just anarchy,” said Brian Spern, a lawyer who filed the lawsuits on behalf the owners, two trusts whose investors he declined to identify. “Labeling someone a ‘slumlord’—name-calling—is not in the best interest of anyone,” he added.

Ott, 45 years old, said she advised artists as they looked for buildings to target and provided property-owner information, which was posted next to the finished artwork. She said she didn’t trespass and plans to fight the lawsuits and keep blogging.

Baltimore artists have painted murals on 17 vacant buildings, including the house shown. Blogger Carol Ott, who advised them, faces vandalism suits

Her use of the word “slumlord,” an epithet normally reserved for owners who permit substandard living conditions, is intentionally volatile,  Ott said. “ ‘Negligent Property Owner Watch’ doesn’t have the same ring,” she said.

A court date is scheduled for March 5. Ott is the only named defendant.

The lawsuit illustrates tensions that can arise between urban landowners and citizen watchdogs as cities across the US, including many that were once industrial centers but have shed jobs and residents for decades, wrestle over what to do with vacant properties.

An abandoned building in Baltimore

The housing crash exacerbated the problem, said Tamar Shapiro, president of the Center for Community Progress. The Flint, Michigan, nonprofit group advises local governments on policies to prevent blight and transform abandoned areas, from setting up land banks to sell properties that have been foreclosed, to creating green spaces to replace demolished sites.

City officials in Baltimore estimate it has 16,000 vacant buildings. In Philadelphia, there are an estimated 40,000 vacant houses, commercial buildings and lots. A 2010 study by the center found that more than one in five addresses in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana, were vacant.

The hollowed-out buildings drag down surrounding property values and can invite problems from drug dealing to prostitution. Sites can become stash houses for stolen goods.

Two years ago, Linda Henry, 62, who works part time cleaning offices, started a Facebook page titled Slumlord Watch of Columbus, Ohio. She said she was inspired by Ott’s site.

“When the weather is permissible, I take pictures of nasty houses and post who the owner is,” she said. “The properties get so torn up.” She said she hasn’t been threatened with a lawsuit.

Real-estate investor Stephen Arrivello said he was also inspired by Ott’s site to create Abandoned Philadelphia, a site that he uses in part to drum up business. He allows others to post about vacant properties that can become leads for his business.

Abandoned house in Philadelphia

“It’s somewhat altruistic and somewhat self-serving,” said Arrivello, who added that he keeps his descriptions of properties “noncontroversial” to avoid potential legal action. Philadelphia recently created a land bank to streamline the process for selling off city-owned vacant properties.

Baltimore has taken its own steps to ease the vacant-building crisis there, said William “Pete” Welch, a council member from West Baltimore who describes himself as the “tear-down king” of the city. He said that his district has razed more vacant buildings than any other, and he is introducing a bill to provide property-tax credits for urban farming, among other projects.

In the meantime, there are still many vacant buildings scattered throughout his district, including one Ott has been sued over. Welch said he didn’t approve of painting a building without the owner’s consent.

Ben Frederick, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore and a real-estate broker, also disapproved of the project. “A bunch of renegades going out there and defacing people’s property and calling people names is not just really a productive and effective way to be in the world,” he said.

“We’re using these methods because nothing else has been working,” said the street artist who organized the project with $12,000 from an anonymous donor and goes by the name Nether. He counted it as a victory that one of the 17 properties has since been demolished.

So the problem goes well beyond Detroit. I have never seen this phenomenon in BC, Canada (except for old mining towns, that the mining company knows have a finite life span from the start).