Going through the city’s tax sale list brings up the usual slumlords, tax scofflaws, and people all over the city who owe money for one reason or another. It’s usually pretty uneventful, though last year found M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards on the list, which was amusing.
This year’s intriguing item is 417 E Fayette Street (The Charles L. Benton, Jr. Building). If you’ve ever been mailed a letter from our fine code enforcement folks, or needed to file a permit application to build a deck — you are familiar with this building. It’s the home of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, and also the Department of Housing and Community Development (formerly lumped together under the umbrella of Baltimore Housing.) The fact that they’re on the tax sale list is ironic enough — but of course, like many things in Baltimore, perhaps most things, there’s an element of scandal involved.
A property listed as 409-417 E Fayette Street is on the list, with a lien against it in the amount of $51,708.27. Oddly, the name of the owner/person who owes the lien is not the Mayor and City Council. It’s a company. The Peoples Holding Company, to be exact — a company that hasn’t existed since the 1980s, and was founded by a man named James H. “Jack” Pollack, an ex-boxer (and then insurance agent) who grew up on the streets of East Baltimore and went on to found one of the strongest and most corrupt political machines in the state. Through his Trenton Democratic Club in Park Heights, Pollack was able to control who represented Baltimore’s citizens, not only in the Mayor’s office, but on the City Council and in Annapolis. This system of patronage (or as one person called it, “highly organized syndicates for plunder and graft that grew rich by holding office through firm control of patronage, the withholding of taxes and revenue, the contracting of new loans…”) was felt in every city and state agency, and in the courts. Also on the company’s payroll were two judges: Paul Dorf (Mr. Pollack’s son in law) and Henry Stichel. Mr. Pollack had some other interesting connections, as well: “Big George” Santoni, a state delegate convicted of shaking down FBI agents, racketeer Julius “The Lord” Salsbury, and a host of minor players in the Mafia. Pollack’s son Morton, an attorney, was the last person affiliated with the company after his father died.
In 1982, the City agreed to purchase the property known as 417 E Fayette Street from the Peoples Holding Company Joint Venture, for the amount of $1,600,000 (with 12-1/2% interest), with an interesting payment scheme. The City was to pay $100 a month for the first ten years, and then around $50,000 per quarter until the amount was paid off. My guess is the lien on the property is for one of the quarterly payments, plus interest. You can read the entire purchase agreement here. (Link opens a PDF.) An amendment to the original agreement was written and filed with the state in December of 1985, and was signed by William Donald Schaefer, Morton Pollack, Alvin Shapiro, Charles Benton, Robert Edelson, and Richard Lidinsky. You can read the amendment here. (Link opens a PDF.)
Here is a map of most of the properties on the tax sale list, including 417 E Fayette Street.
University of Baltimore archives
Maryland Land Records, Maryland State Archives