- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

BALTIMORE — A horrific fire that claimed six lives this week — and left four others hanging in the balance — provides a stark glimpse into life in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Thirteen persons were inside a row house on Cecil Avenue in the neighborhood known as East Baltimore Midway when it was consumed by flames in the span of a few minutes Tuesday morning. Of the six who died, at least four were children.

The dead included 7-year-old Marquis Ellis, according to a letter sent to parents at his school, Highlandtown Elementary. Tayshaun Thomas, 16, and Davontae Witherspoon, 13, were also thought to have died in the fire, said Vanessa Pyatt, a school system spokeswoman. Both boys attended Lombard Middle School. Tayshaun, a son of family matriarch Deneen Thomas, used a wheelchair. An unidentified 5-year-old boy also died.

City fire officials provided little new information about the blaze. Miss Thomas remained in critical condition at the Burn Center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center on Wednesday, a hospital spokeswoman said. Fire officials did not confirm the names of the dead and injured.

The cause of the fire remained unknown. Investigators were meticulously sifting through what remained, said Kevin Cartwright, a fire department spokesman, who noted that no evidence of arson had been found. The home had active electric service, a Baltimore Gas & Electric spokeswoman said.

Most of the people inside the home were members of an extended family that had been living there since last fall without paying rent. Miss Thomas moved in with her two sons and soon opened it to several other relatives, the owner of the house said.

It’s a common situation in Baltimore’s disadvantaged communities, said neighbors, advocates and city officials.

“It has nothing to do with trying to violate any city codes. It’s just out of necessity,” said the Rev. James L. Carter, pastor of the nearby Ark Church, where a vigil for the victims was held Tuesday night. “We’re living in some hard times.”

East Baltimore Midway is within a mile of Johns Hopkins University. According to census data, the neighborhood’s population declined by 23 percent — more than 1,200 residents — from 1990 to 2000.

The 2000 census also found that more than 96 percent of the community’s residents were black; the median household income was $27,824; nearly half of adults 25 and older did not receive a high school diploma; and more than 30 percent of families with children younger than 18 were living in poverty. The latter figure jumped to nearly 43 percent when the children were younger than 5, and nearly half of single mothers with children younger 5 were living in poverty.

“The community is economically challenged. We are challenged with crime, blight, insufficient housing,” Mr. Carter said. “With what has occurred, I’m hoping that attention will be given to our community as it relates to city government and what it can do to make things better and to enhance the quality of life.”

Stuart Katzenberg, head organizer for the Maryland Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, said a lack of safe, affordable housing has caused increasing numbers of families to “double up” in single-family homes — many that are in substandard condition.

“We have many families across the city, new immigrant families as well as Baltimore families that have been raised here for generations, doubling up more and more,” Mr. Katzenberg said. “At the same time, you see more boarded-up and vacant houses, so we do have a crisis here in the city.”

He said the poor should not be relegated to unsafe homes.

“The argument that some people give is that there’s plenty of affordable housing in Baltimore,” Mr. Katzenberg said. “Well, I guess, if you want a shell of a property where the floors are rotting away and it’s a tinderbox.”

According to a 2005 report funded by the Abell Foundation, the city has about 40,000 low-income renters “who cannot afford even the modest rents on their dwellings, live in substandard housing, or both.” It also found that more than one-third of the rental units in the city “do not meet basic housing codes of physical adequacy.”

Like many disadvantaged communities in the city, East Baltimore Midway is not far from more prosperous environs. Walk seven blocks west on North Avenue, then turn south on Calvert Street, and you will find the Station North Townhomes — gleaming new $400,000 structures meant to attract professionals who commute by train to Washington from nearby Penn Station, among others.

Mr. Katzenberg noted that most of the new development in the city this decade has been market-rate housing. The City Council is considering a bill, backed by ACORN, that would require developers to include affordable units in new residential developments — a proposal that developers have resisted.

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