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 Tuesday 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 Laycao believed a person was inside a three-story vacant rowhouse engulfed by flames the morning of Jan. 24. The building collapsed and trapped them just minutes after they entered the building, which had previously 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 roughly 15,000 vacant and abandoned homes.
Council member Odette Ramos held Tuesday’s 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. The majority of the vacant houses, about 90%, 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 Tuesday 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 properties 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.
“We haven’t been below 15,000 [vacant properties] in decades,” Kennedy said.
In three months, the city housing department has performed 48 emergency demolitions, including several vacant houses affected by a sinkhole that cratered East North Avenue in East Baltimore this month. There are 60 building demolitions planned and 88 other properties have been stabilized with repairs to unstable roofs and walls.
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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, Laycao a fiance with an upcoming wedding, and Butrim a father who didn’t yet know he and his wife were expecting, 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.”