News & Community

Slumlord Justice

A Pigtown woman outs owners of blighted properties in Baltimore’s neighborhoods.

Carol Ott had enough. “Maybe I woke up on the wrong side of bed that morning,” she says. “I don’t know exactly what pushed me over the edge.”

For years, the feisty, 5-foot-1, mother of two dutifully attended Pigtown neighborhood meetings. Each time, the same topic—the shuttered shopping center at the intersection of Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards—came up. It was bad enough that the community’s grocery store had departed. Now, across the street from the “Welcome to Pigtown” mural at the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood’s gateway, the abandoned shopping center had degenerated into an open-air drug market and the portico alongside the long-gone Save-a-Lot, for all intents and purposes, had become a homeless camp.

“When I moved there in 2000, the grocery store was still open, but it closed several years later and became an eyesore, garbage strewn everywhere,” Ott recalls. “Nobody was maintaining it. A doctor and his business partners, including at least one other physician, owned it, and were doing nothing to improve it. Apparently, they wanted an extraordinary amount of money for the property and, meanwhile, the drug activity kept up.”

Frustrated at another community meeting one night—“we had like five different neighborhood groups then, and I went to most of them,” she says—Ott stood up and walked out, swearing she was done with meetings. “There’s got to be a better way of dealing with this,” she recalls thinking. “It was typical of neighborhood meetings anywhere, city or suburbs, doesn’t matter. Same people, same complaints, nobody steps up. I figured I’d force the shopping center owners’ hand and make it public on the Internet. If you ‘Google’ your doctor—and I’m good at this stuff—and it comes up that they’re a slumlord, well, they probably aren’t going to like that.”

Not long after reaching her boiling point in late 2008, Ott launched her still-active, slightly infamous WordPress blog—Baltimore Slumlord Watch. The blog, which includes pictures Ott takes of abandoned properties as well as “reader-submitted” photos of abandoned homes, provides information on the legal history and housing violations of blighted properties, their impact on the surrounding neighborhood, contact information for local elected officials, and the names and addresses of negligent owners. It’s direct, data-base researched, and at times, just a bit snarky, like Ott, who typically goes vacant-house hunting in jeans and bright red Converse high tops, generally toting a cellphone camera—and box cutter, for protection. It’s not a coincidence, she notes, that vacant homes attract crime. (Until this story, Ott maintained her anonymity as the person behind Baltimore Slumlord Watch, partly for fear of retribution toward her family.)

Her initial post outed the Timonium doctor listed as the resident agent for the company that owned the then-vacant Pigtown shopping center and listed the hospital where he had surgical privileges. From there, the plan to goad one irresponsible landlord into accountability grew into a citywide housing resource. Ott regularly posts updates on Baltimore issues like lead paint and fire-department station closings, as well as vacant housing efforts in other cities.

Today, Baltimore Slumlord Watch gets 12,000-15,000 hits in an average month, and the blog possesses genuine social media clout. “Friends” and “followers” on Facebook and Twitter include City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Baltimore City Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, among other politicos, not to mention numerous housing advocates and journalists. Not all are necessarily fans, however; one local columnist and talk-show host, Ott says, blocked her Twitter account after describing the blog as a negative portrayal of Baltimore.

“I’ve known Carol for 10 or 12 years and rebuilding neighborhoods has always been a passion of hers,” says Baltimore City Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district formerly included Pigtown. “We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, and believe me, she’s someone who will let you know where she stands. But I support what she’s doing. She’s letting people know who holds ownership of the abandoned properties in their neighborhood—and this is not always easy to find out—I know, from experience. She brings the truth out in the open—whether the property is owned by a private individual, speculator, or the mayor and City Council.” Or the religiously affiliated.

While Ott readily admits her personality bends toward sarcastic, she generally keeps posts matter-of-fact, preferring to simply share information from the state Department of Assessments and Taxation and other government websites to expose negligent owners. “I’m just the messenger,” she says. Though, she sometimes can’t help herself, for example, posting “WWJD?” headlines above photos of several church and pastor-owned blighted properties. And “Would You Like a Vacant With That Pizza?” above a photo of a dilapidated property owned by a pizzeria owner. She headlined posts about a landlord and resident agent with familiar and lengthy legal histories, “The Adventures of Stanley and Bud” and “More Fun with Stanley and Bud.”

Although it’s difficult to directly link outing a landlord on the blog to a subsequent rehab or repair, the public revelation of the Pigtown shopping center owner proved a difference-maker. Three weeks after her first post, the blog received a reply from the owner-doctor, who complained about the police response to crime and a deal to sell the property that fell through. However, within a few months, maintenance improved and, eventually, tenants moved in, including a Dollar General store, Zips Dry Cleaners, and a busy carryout restaurant, all there today.

“Once it became known who owned the property, they suddenly became responsive,” says Cole. “When they responded online, I was happy to see they were paying attention. Shame worked. You put the first and last names of these property owners online and, suddenly, they get nervous.”

While it started with just photos and information on a few vacant houses in her neighborhood, the Slumlord Watch blog expanded from its Pigtown focus after Ott learned of a bad fire at a vacant home in West Baltimore. She tried unsuccessfully to get the address of the home from online sources, finally jumping on a bus to see for herself and take photos.

“The bus driver was a little concerned about my safety and said, ‘Are you sure you wanna get off here?,’” Ott remembers. “I had never done anything like that before.” Almost immediately after taking the blog beyond Pigtown, Ott began getting inundated with e-mails about blighted properties elsewhere. Often, readers seek advice after they’ve reported a troublesome vacant home to no avail; other times, the blog serves as an outlet for frustration. “At first, the blog was just a very spur-of-the-moment reaction to the vacant shopping center,” Ott says. “I knew there were a lot of abandoned properties in the city, but I really didn’t know the extent at that time. No idea.”

Cole and several people close to Ott knew, or guessed, that Slumlord Watch was her handiwork, but otherwise she maintained her privacy. “She wanted to keep it anonymous and asked me to protect that,” Cole says. “I understood. A lot of these landlords are not nice people.” One landlord, currently incarcerated, was referred to as a drug kingpin.

E-mails from property owners, unsurprisingly, are nasty, but typically threaten legal action, not physical harm. “I get, ‘Dear Mr. Slanderer,’ a lot, she says with a laugh. “I’m like, if you’re going to threaten me, at least get the legal term right if you want me to take you seriously. It would be libel. Then again, I’m very careful.”

Baltimore Slumlord Watch’s impact hasn’t just been limited to Charm City, either. It helped spur similar projects in Columbus, OH, and Richmond, VA. New York City’s elected public advocate, Bill de Blasio, launched a “Worst Landlords” list online in August 2010. Slumlord Watch has also received attention from the Columbia Journalism Review and the American University Center for Social Media.

Ott doesn’t view herself as a journalist, however. If pressed, she describes her blog as documentary photography and herself as a housing advocate. A photographer who has exhibited other work, Ott’s blog has garnered fans among Baltimore’s street artists, who also recognize the heartbreaking loss—and glimmer of potential—in Baltimore’s vast vacant housing stock, officially estimated at 16,000 homes. The street artists known as Gaia, who curated the recent Station North Open Walls Baltimore project, and Nether, a ubiquitous 23-year-old muralist, both reached out to Ott though Slumlord Watch. A recent collaborative project links Nether’s vacant-home murals to information about the houses on Slumlord Watch via an accompanying wheat-pasted QR code.

“I think it’s the visual/confrontational side of the blog that attracted street artists,” Nether says. “Our idea is to use these beat-up vacants, too, which we see as beautiful houses with lots of history, make people stop and look, and maybe imagine the possibility of something different again in the neighborhood. Street art and public art is about social change, and Carol’s very passionate and interested in the same thing. She’s definitely stirred up a lot in me.”

In terms of the City of Baltimore’s efforts to deal with the long-simmering vacant housing crisis, Ott doesn’t place much faith in the much-talked about Vacants-to-Value initiative, which aims to streamline the sale of city-owned vacant properties for rehabilitation. Scale-wise, it’s not significant enough to make a dent, Ott believes, also suggesting many “V2V” homes are targeted by investors. A Republican, Ott views her work as apolitical, or at least non-partisan. “I vote, that’s about it,” she says, adding she prefers neighborhood, action-oriented solutions to politics. Which is not to say that she’s not mindful of the history, politics, and lending and real-estate practices that splintered city neighborhoods, particularly as segregation fell. Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, by former Sun reporter Antero Pietila sits on her living room shelf. Ott, whose employment background includes working for architectural and construction firms as well as nonprofits, has read it several times and remains engrossed in local and national housing issues.

“From what I gather, she’s very much self-taught [regarding housing issues], and I do think the blog has been successful in bringing awareness to a subject that needs more people’s attention,” says Robert Strupp, executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc. “All of us in the housing arena certainly—city government officials, elected leaders, as well as housing advocates, industry people and other stakeholders who are making decisions about these neighborhoods—benefit from looking at the real challenges. I support what she’s doing wholeheartedly.”

Matt Hill, an attorney who works on tenant rights and housing issues at Baltimore’s Public Justice Center, communicates regularly with Ott, often seeking assistance from Slumword Watch to get the word out about housing issues, hearings, and legislative initiatives. “I am amazed at the depth of her knowledge and always eager to talk to her about the issues,” Hill says, adding he’s always happy when their interests overlap. “Every time I need help at the grassroots level, I go to her to see if it’s something she supports, and use the blog to reach people.”

Ott is in favor of reviving something similar to the city’s early-1980s “dollar house” program. She also supports Habitat for Humanity’s hands-on approach. But true to her nature, she also cannot help but point out on her blog the irony in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health owning vacant homes. (It should be noted, two years after her blog post, work on the highlighted Hopkins-owned block has begun.)

Like others, she believes, Baltimore will have to raze a large share of its vacants as other cities are doing, and replace them with green space, “shrinking” the city, so to speak. However, she adds, it’s not as cheap or easy a solution as it may seem with vacant homes often scattered amongst functioning ones. She worries, too, about residents becoming isolated or displaced by redevelopment or gentrification.

Mostly though, Ott concerns herself with the give-and-take with her readers, whether encouraging them to follow-up on a complaint about a troublesome vacant home next door or helping them contact their elected officials. “I love my readers,” she says.

One of her Pigtown neighbors, Mike Bresnan, who has actually never met Ott in person, is one of Slumlord Watch’s biggest fans. Bresnan bought a house on Nanticoke Street in May 2008 and has lived next to a vacant home for more than a year and a half. Recently, he went to court and won a settlement with the landlord over water damages to his house caused by the vacant property.

Ott twice posted photos Bresnan submitted of the gutted, trash-strewn house, noting that the owner’s LLC was not in good standing with the state—meaning they haven’t filed the tax returns for their business.

“I didn’t know what else to do besides call 311. She was a huge help in tracking down information, and she was the one who told me who the owner was and advised me,” Bresnan says. “I love the blog. There’s a bunch of vacants in my neighborhood, and nobody else even seems to care or know what can be done.”