The Washington Post

Fallen Baltimore firefighte­rs’ families want vacant homes torn down faster

- BY LILLY PRICE AND EMILY OPILO

baltimore — Lt. Paul Butrim, one of three Baltimore City firefighte­rs who died in a fire at a vacant rowhouse in January, will never hold his baby daughter.

His wife, Rachel Butrim, found out on the one-month anniversar­y of his death that she was pregnant. The couple had previously lost a young son.

Rachel Butrim and Lacey Marino, the older sister of Lt. Kelsey Sadler — who also died when the unstable vacant house suddenly collapsed — asked Baltimore City Council members last week to quicken the process of demolishin­g abandoned buildings so other families will never experience similar tragedy.

“Council, I am anxiously waiting for the day when this is dealt with. I know Paul would want to make certain this never happens again,” Rachel Butrim told the Council’s Economic and Community Developmen­t Committee.

Butrim, Sadler and firefighte­r/ paramedic Kenny Lacayo believed a person was inside a vacant three-story rowhouse engulfed by flames the morning of Jan. 24. The building collapsed and trapped them just minutes after they entered it; the structure also had collapsed during a fire in 2015.

“Council, where is the accountabi­lity?” Rachel Butrim asked. “I ask this question not just for my family but for all the past, present and future families affected by the city’s inaction.”

After the firefighte­rs’ deaths, Mayor Brandon Scott tasked a working group of city agencies to recommend ways each department could help tackle a persistent plight in Baltimore — the existence of about 15,000 vacant and abandoned homes.

Council member Odette Ramos held the hearing as an update on how the working group’s recommenda­tions have been implemente­d and whether there have been immediate signs of improvemen­t to the city’s vacant housing problem.

The inventory of abandoned buildings is driven by population decline and has hovered stubbornly around 15,000 for decades. About 90 percent of the vacant houses are privately owned. The city’s lack of title on the buildings creates a lengthy and expensive process to acquire properties for demolition or renovation, among other options.

But some progress has been made since March to streamline the city’s ability to take back vacant properties.

Housing Commission­er Alice Kennedy said that in-rem foreclosur­es, a process newly approved for Baltimore, could significan­tly speed up the way the city takes possession of vacant and blighted properties.

In-rem foreclosur­e is a type of tax sale foreclosur­e in which the city can remove a vacant and abandoned property if its liens accumulate to reach an amount that is more than the value of the property from the tax sale.

A tax sale is an annual event in which investors can buy liens on properties with past-due taxes or other delinquent charges. Instead, the city can foreclose on the liens of a property and take title to it.

That method of acquisitio­n used to take two or three years. Now, it takes nine months.

The process, authorized by the state in 2019 and approved in Baltimore by legislatio­n passed last session, applies only to vacant and abandoned properties — properties with vacant building notices on them where the liens exceed the value of the property. Baltimore Circuit Court also recently created a separate docket dedicated to foreclosur­e cases.

So far, it’s made a dent in the city’s inventory, Kennedy said. There are 14,780 vacant or abandoned properties, both publicly and privately owned, which is 210 fewer properties than in March and the lowest number Baltimore has seen in years.

In three months, the city housing department has performed 60 demolition­s and 48 emergency demolition­s, including several vacant houses affected by a sinkhole that cratered East North Avenue in East Baltimore this month. Eighty-eight other properties have been stabilized with repairs to unstable roofs and walls.

Kennedy emphasized the importance of residents having homeowners insurance and preparing an estate plan to prevent properties from becoming vacant in the first place.

But the properties that are abandoned, sometimes for decades, become safety risks for residents who live nearby and first responders who must enter them.

“They are death traps,” said Marino, Sadler’s sister. “The properties are consistent­ly broken into, utilized for drug activity, vandalized, etc.”

“Our lives will never be the same due to this tragedy, which could have been prevented if vacants were addressed,” she added.

Ramos, after hearing how Sadler was a wife and mother; Lacayo a fiance with an upcoming wedding; and Butrim a father who didn’t yet know he and his wife were expecting a child, became emotional as the hearing came to a close.

“We have to make sure people are not living next to vacant properties, we have to make sure our communitie­s are ones that people are proud of, and we have to make sure we don’t have more firefighte­rs die,” Ramos said.

“This is really important; this has been important for decades. And we have to get this right.”

“Council, where is the accountabi­lity?” Rachel Butrim, widow of Baltimore City Fire Department Lt. Paul Butrim, speaking to the City Council about her husband’s death while responding to a fire at a vacant rowhouse

 ?? KENNETH K. LAM/BALTIMORE Sun ?? ABOVE: Rachel Butrim, widow of Baltimore City Fire Department Lt. Paul Butrim, testifies last week before a City Council committee. RIGHT: Emergency personnel and investigat­ors sift through debris at a collapsed rowhouse in Baltimore, where Butrim and two other firefighte­rs were killed in January.
KENNETH K. LAM/BALTIMORE Sun ABOVE: Rachel Butrim, widow of Baltimore City Fire Department Lt. Paul Butrim, testifies last week before a City Council committee. RIGHT: Emergency personnel and investigat­ors sift through debris at a collapsed rowhouse in Baltimore, where Butrim and two other firefighte­rs were killed in January.
 ?? KARL MERTON FERRON/BALTIMORE Sun ??
KARL MERTON FERRON/BALTIMORE Sun

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