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Vacant Houses HotSpot

November 06, 1999

BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

In the heart of Hagerstown's once-vibrant black community sits 337 N. Jonathan St., a decaying house residents say has become a symbol of their neighborhood's decline.

The house, built in 1913, is boarded up and empty. Graffiti mars its outside walls and the sidewalk in front of it. Neighbors say the house, which is in the middle of one of the most notorious illegal drug markets in the Tri-State area, attracts and nurtures crime.

The owner of 337 N. Jonathan St., Charles F. Summers, has been cited for numerous code violations in the 4 1/2 years he has owned the property, according to city officials.

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When he doesn't pay his fines - as is often the case, according to code inspectors - city attorneys take him to court. But Marc David, a code enforcement officer, said Summers has missed at least four court appearances in the last three years.

"I've never seen him in court," David said. "We've tried everything with this particular landlord. He's been fined, taken to court, court-ordered. We've gone in and cut (the grass) and billed him."

District Court records indicate that Summers has not paid fines in several cases. Although plaintiffs have the option of garnishing a defendant's wages to collect legal debts, court records indicate this has not been done.

David said he does not know why the city has not taken further action, but added that all judgments are reported to credit agencies. Unpaid debts hurt a person's ability to borrow money.

Summers, of Middletown, Md., - he is not the Hagerstown City Police officer by the same name - did not return phone calls seeking comment.

City officials say he has remained elusive. David said Summers does not accept registered mail; notices are returned unopened.

"I drive down to his personal residence and tape the citations right to his front door," he said.

At various times, Summers has owned about 15 properties in Hagerstown, although city officials said he lost most of them in foreclosure proceedings last spring.

Still, the house at 337 North Jonathan St. sits unused. City records show that Summers applied for a permit in November 1995 to do plumbing work and electrical renovations to the house. But the permit was voided in January because no work had been done.

For all the frustration 337 has generated, though, it is not the only problem building in central Hagerstown. It may not even be the worst.

There are vacant buildings throughout the entire city. But the problem is most concentrated in a two-square-mile section of the city known as the HotSpot area.

The HotSpot area, which was created in 1997 with a $221,000 grant, has Washington County's most persistent crime problem. It runs north-south from Prospect Avenue to Memorial Boulevard and is bounded on the west and east by Prospect and Mulberry streets.

The area has 37 vacant and substandard buildings, according to Property Maintenance Inspector Vicki Hastings. Three of the worst vacant buildings are on Jonathan Street, a major street that cuts north through the city.

Hastings said the city has made progress. Of the vacant buildings, she said there are only about two or three that are awful.

"Ten years ago, there were 20," she said.

But to Carolyn W. Brooks, Hagerstown's HotSpot coordinator, vacant buildings remain one of the most troubling obstacles to reducing crime in the region.

Brooks said she has been attacking the problem on a number of fronts. Strategies include pointing out vacant buildings to code officers, advocating a landlord training program and organizing community cleanup efforts.

"We're working on trying to get landlords to be accountable for maintaining their spaces," she said. "If we can't get a handle on landlord accountability, we're going to have a really difficult time solving the drug problem."

Vacant properties are hardly the only factor in the city's drug trade, and Hagerstown City Police say they have more problems with occupied houses whose residents welcome drug users and dealers.

But Sgt. Rick Johnson, the commander of the Washington County Narcotics Task Force, said neighborhoods breed crime if too many of their properties fall into disrepair.

The condition of the vacant homes in the HotSpot area has attracted the attention of city officials. In the last five years, the city has spent more than $2.5 million on projects that include renovating properties and provided second mortgages to homeowners.

Councilman J. Wallace "Wally" McClure said he would like the city to go further by creating a fund that could be used to tear down vacant buildings.

The vacant buildings have exasperated nearby residents, who complain they are powerless to turn their neighborhood around.

One elderly woman who recently moved back to her childhood home when her mother died, said she is disheartened by how much the neighborhood has changed for the worse.

The woman, who asked not to be identified because she fears the area's drug dealers, recalled with pride the black-owned taverns, grocery stores, barber shops, funeral homes and other businesses that used to dot the landscape.

Today, most of the businesses are gone.

"It's a world of difference. We didn't have this mess when we were growing up," she said.

See related item: Condemnation almost never used

See related item: Vacant building source of concern

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