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Opinion

Antero Pietila: A Baltimore landlord?s lament

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Opinion,Antero Pietila

The news this morning is that after 55 years in business, Stanley Sugarman has let his real estate license lapse. It?s not that he ran out of steam at 80. It?s much worse than that: He no longer understands the business that he once knew so well.

"Real estate. It?s like a commodity, it?s like speculation," he said the other day in the office of his Homewood Realty on Maryland Avenue.

Don?t get me wrong. Sugarman has no complaint against the prices that a new breed of investors eagerly shelled out for his inventory at Alex Cooper?s real estate auctions in Towson. He just can?t figure out what the new breed ? guys with addresses in Upper Marlboro, Laurel, Oxon Hill, and Bowie ? are doing, bidding for inner-city properties sight unseen. Buying a pig in a poke never made any sense to Sugarman, a graduate of Brown University and a World War II veteran, who saw action in the Pacific aboard the battleship Wisconsin.

Sugarman has witnessed the Washington crowd?s speculation before. First Max Berg got burned, drawn to seemingly dirt-cheap Baltimore rowhouses like a fly to a fire. Then it was Lynn Nofsiger and Edwin Meese, Reagan administration insiders, both who thought there was gold in them there rowhouses. The result was a mess that took decades to sort out ? blocks upon blocks of marginal rowhouses in Southwest Baltimore that could not be sold at any price.

Over these years, Sugarman has been called all kinds of names ? "blockbuster," "slum landlord," "speculator."

In fact, Sugarman is a rarity among the city?s landlords. He supported the Johns Hopkins Institute of PolicyStudies, which examines complicated housing issues. One high-ranking city housing official once paid him the ultimate compliment, calling Sugarman "a landlord with a conscience."

These days, Sugarman is worried. He can?t see how poor people will be housed now that the speculative frenzy has produced rents that once were unfathomable. Skyrocketing Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. rates are adding to his nightmare scenario: blocks upon blocks of renters who will face next winter with makeshift extension cords and candles, and the house fires that will inevitably follow.

Sugarman did his best to minimize risks. Yet he can tell tales aplenty. He can tell horror stories about flabbergasting water bills, about tenants who moved out without a notice in the middle of the night, leaving the doors unlocked. Twenty-four hours later the property was vandalized, copper pipes gone, electric wires stripped.

How was he able to survive? Because of his plumber who, at 85, was still making house calls at any hour of the day or night like an old country doctor, and his partner, Jerry Corn, a former U.S. Marine still sporting a crew cut who would go to the toughest of the neighborhoods. Corn felt safe because he had never encountered anyone who could outshoot him.

Sugarman knows that lots of other old-time landlords like him are getting out business, unable to fend off lead-paint suits by aggressive lawyers and opportunistic complainants, including occasional visitors, who were never listed on leases.

Lead paint. It was the industry standard up to the 1960s, used not only in the inner city, but suburbs as well.

I wonder whether Sugarman is right when he asks what will happen to today?s booming lead paint lawsuit racket when it?s no longer black plaintiffs against Jewish landlords like him but against black landlords with lesser means, because most of the little fry in the new Washington crowd of bidders are black.

This is what it always comes to in America. Race.

The ultimate irony in a city like Baltimore, of course, is that it?s the poor and the black who will suffer when landlords like Sugarman go out of business and reasonable rents disappear. The city certainly isn?t doing its share. Its inventory of public housing is steadily decreasing. Meanwhile, long lines wait for Section 8 certificates for scarce subsidized housing.

So if it isn?t private landlords like Stanley Sugarman providing housing for the masses, who is?

Answer this question, please.

Antero Pietila is writing a book about how bigotry shaped Baltimore between 1910 and 1975. He can be reached at hap5905@verizon.net.
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