A man sitting in a white Cadillac was killed yesterday afternoon when an abandoned house collapsed on him in West Baltimore. WBAL, WYPR, and other news outlets got the initial reports; the man has not yet been publicly identified. [Update: He was Thomas Lemmon, 69, and according to this Sun story, he loved that old Caddy]. But who owned the building?
Carol Ott of Housing Policy Watch tracked the ownership of 900 N. Payson Street. It's not the man state tax records say owns it, Eugene D. Boykins. He died in 1999. It's an LLC that was operated by three lawyers, two of whom were disbarred in 2011 for their role in a conspiracy to rig tax sale bids.
John Reiff and Anthony DeLaurentis admitted their roles in the scam, which reporters for the The Sun broke way back in 2007, as city officials promised to reform and repair the city's system for keeping track of dangerously dilapidated buildings. The feds put the tax sale scammers away, mostly. But the city's vaunted vacant building reforms appear to have done little.
And the tax sale system abides.
"Despite being disbarred for illegally rigging bids at municipal property auctions, the attorneys are still able to purchase property through the city's Vacants to Value, and through city tax sales," Ott writes.
Last week, Reiff and DeLaurentis' law licenses were restored.
Meanwhile, collapsing buildings have continued to hurt and kill.
Alvin Brunson, a beloved local self-taught historian, died in 2008 when the house he was working on—he planned to turn it into a museum—fell in on him. Two years ago a worker was trapped in an Otterbein house that collapsed on him, and an 8-year-old boy died when a house fell on him after an apparent gas explosion.
The building that fell yesterday went to tax sale in 2007, and the certificate was bought at auction by Fidelity Tax, LLC, Anthony DeLaurentis of DeLaurentis, Reiff and Turer, Resident Agent. A city housing inspector cited it as vacant in November of 2008, meaning the owner then had 30 days to make repairs or demolish it. City permit records show no construction permits were ever pulled. The company foreclosed on Boykins' estate, winning the right to the building in 2010.
But Fidelity Tax, LLC never took title and never recorded a deed, leaving the long-dead Boykins as the apparent owner of record. The LLC itself was forfeited in 2011, state tax records indicate.
This is a common thing, says Robin Jacobs, Director of Strategic Legal Services Projects for the Community Law Center, which has been trying to reform the laws governing property ownership, LLCs, and the tax sale system for years. "In some instances what will happen is if the judgment holder doesn't pay the taxes and fines or assessments… the city will move to remove the judgment and the property will go back to the dead guy," Jacobs says. "It sounds a little crazy, I know, but there is this possibility that this property will eventually revert to this person's estate."
City Paper left a message with the law firm at DeLaurentis and Reiff's old number. We asked the city's lawyers to tell us who is, or might be, legally responsible. We reached out to the third lawyer in the deal, John Reid, who now lawyers for another firm in D.C.
"I haven't been involved with that law firm since late 2010," Reid says of his old partners DeLaurentis and Reiff. "It's tragedy in any case."
The LLC that owns the tax certificate is long defunct, but that's not the end of the story. Turns out Fidelity Tax, LLC, was simultaneously established in Florida, in 2001, by Jarrett Levan—and that company is still in business.
Jarett Levan is now Acting Chairman and CEO of BBX Capital, a company with substantial holdings (they're even a time-share company!) BBX was sued in New Jersey a few years ago for its subsidiary's (that is Fidelity Tax, LLC's) alleged tendency to rig tax sale bidding in that state. The case settled.
So it appears from the available record that Levan is the responsible person in the case of 900 N. Payson St.
Or maybe not. After all, if you buy the right to collect back taxes on a Baltimore house just to get that sweet, sweet 18 percent interest, does Maryland law compel you to take actual ownership of, and responsibility for, that house?
"With vacant properties," Jacobs says, "it can be an incredibly complicated story."
We will update this post when or if Levan and the other players return our calls.
*The name of Housing Policy Watch and the Robin Jacobs' title at the Community Law Center have been updated and corrected above.