This column has sought to invigorate local and national debate that too often seems hackneyed by first reminding the reader that we are all in this together. That, regardless of political affiliation, faith, gender or color, what we do as citizens in Baltimore may reflect on our fellow citizens in Idaho. And, what befalls Nebraskans can even inform the self absorbed New Yorker.
In the words of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, ‘all politics is local’. In the same vain, many of our national problems can be dealt with locally and be effective. And the examples we set in smaller municipalities may, if successful, be used as templates in other, larger ones.
For Baltimore, this column has sought to highlight the myriad ways this city can better itself with the use of its human capital. The need to better ourselves is plain.
Today, Baltimore doesn’t make enough money to pay for itself. In one of the wealthiest states in the Union, Baltimore takes in more funding than it gives back in tax earnings to Annapolis and Washington DC. We do not have enough jobs for our population that even some of the wealthiest of us commute out of town for work. The only tangible item we have plenty of is our human capital, too many of whom we seem sadly willing to give away to the state and federal prisons, if not the morgue and the funeral home.
I went to the wake of my friend Myron’s mother just before the New Year. In the casket lay a beautiful, long gray haired woman of eighty years. She, with her husband of almost sixty years, raised six good children off still beautiful but dog eared Garrison Boulevard, in what has become a dangerous section of west Baltimore. For all these years they remained, urbanites who ran small businesses and contributed to the city’s economy with jobs and tax revenues. More than money, they contributed six good people to this city and our nation.
Within the quorum that is Harwood Association, Myron, myself and a few others have worked for several years with city agencies to provide a detailed profile of our neighborhoods strengths and weaknesses. In return, both the Baltimore Police Department and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City asked us to generate a complaint log using the 311 and 911 system, now commonplace in most jurisdictions in the U.S.
In Harwood, using this complaint driven system has produced mixed results.
In five years, because of 911 complaints we filed and the resulting greater police presence on most corners, the open air drug markets have all but gone. While the profile of the Housing Authority has also risen dramatically using the 311 complaint log, the effects have not been felt in the same way.
What I hear constantly from Harwood residents is the seeming arbitrary nature of code enforcement by Housing inspectors. Inspectors who cite minor, one time infractions with $50.00 dollar fines for homeowners and renters yet refuse to cite the more glaring scofflaw tenants and landlords. Tenants and landlords on our blocks who, week after week and year after year, ignore the basic rules of sanitation for Baltimore City.
Now, for a third time in a year, I have been similarly fined. In the hope of bringing a somewhat derelict house of lawless tenants living on my block to the attention of the Housing Authority, I filed a 311 complaint. In the tenants’ yard was an overflowing can of trash that lay unsecured for nine days over the Christmas holiday. As we know about trash left unattended, our native rat population, known endearingly as the ‘Baltimore Bunnies’, had a fine fete too.
The result of my being a good little citizen was another $50.00 fine for an empty trash can resting just beyond my yard, in a rear alley that terminates at my property line. And, while I was fined, the derelict house complaint that brought the city inspector to the alley in the first place was not.
Let us be clear. By law, the inspector was correct in citing me and there is little chance I can avoid paying this fine. As a good citizen, I will pay the fine. Even so, to nickel and dime the law abiding people of Baltimore while ignoring the repeat lawbreakers, is to lose our trust and waste our money. This behavior is emblematic of a city that is still unwilling to confront one of its most glaring and costly problems.
Citizens of Baltimore logged more than 980,000 311 service requests in 2012 in a city of 650,000. In New York, a city of over 8 million, there were little over 1.5 million requests for service in 2012. In a year that included the devastating Hurricane Sandy, only one in five New Yorkers requested service. Meanwhile in Baltimore, the breakdown is 1.5 requests per person. Something is amiss in a city that registers more complaints than people.
As regards this derelict property on my block, the tenants, their drug dealing and the otherwise havoc they create, I did as advised by city officials. In 2012, I registered six requests for service using 311. I have no idea how many complaints were registered by other neighbors concerning this same house. Finally, as a result of a stabbing that took place in the house before Christmas, the police department is now likely to force an eviction on the tenants.
Baltimore police are often blamed for treating all of us as ghetto, often unable to differentiate a thug from a college kid. While we focus our attentions on police, the same is happening with other agencies and their representatives. Housing inspectors seem to view the taxpaying homeowner and renter with more disdain than the tenant who deals drugs and throws household refuse in the alley. The question for the Housing Authority is twofold: who pays your salary and who costs the City of Baltimore more money? The answer should be simple.
Follow the money.
When local and federal law enforcement couldn’t bring extortion, bootlegging or murder charges against Al Capone in 1930’s Chicago, they turned to the Treasury Department. It was the Treasury who followed the money and brought Capone down with his conviction for tax evasion. By focusing on slumlords, their tenants and what they cost the City of Baltimore each year in inspections, cleanups, court costs, evictions, police and fire, the Housing Authority would better serve the taxpayer.
The trust between taxpayers and the city is diminished when the taxpayer is treated more harshly than the slumlord. What’s more, this city cannot expect those who disobey the law to stop doing so if the city does not enforce the law. If Baltimore leaders were really interested in harm reduction, they would place more focus on those families, like my drug dealing neighbors to show them how the rest of us do it. And maybe they wouldn’t be facing eviction.
If the Housing Authority spent less time dealing with law abiding citizens looking to generate revenue, they might find time to harass slumlords who make living in Baltimore horrible for their tenants and the rest of us too. Housing might sometime reason that eliminating slumlord behavior could be Baltimore’s greatest revenue enhancer.
Myron’s parents are representative of Baltimore’s silent majority. They were high school sweethearts in an era of public segregation. Like many of my neighbors, they are what is good and great about us. People who are brave enough to raise good kids and who refuse to leave a city that treats them like chumps. Tough enough to endure the mistrust and disdain shown them by agents of this city and whose salaries we pay.
We all deserve better.