DC-based freelance writer Andrew Zaleski has written for Wired, The Washington Post Magazine, Backchannel, The Atlantic, Politico Magazine, The Guardian, and many other publications.
Carol Ott spends her days publicly shaming bad property owners, despite hate mail and death threats.
Carol Ott is used to words of concern from Baltimore city bus drivers. They tend to reveal their surprise that a diminutive, middle-age white woman would want to walk through neighborhoods where boarded-up or burned-out vacant properties—and the crime that tends to pop up in such areas where no one’s looking—are a common sight.
Her response never changes. Yes, she tells them, this is my stop.
After all, she needs those boarded-up houses. Ott is the instigator behind Baltimore Slumlord Watch, a blog documenting blighted, vacant properties owned by individual or commercial landlords in Baltimore.
On a good week, Ott takes photos of almost 20 different properties. Then comes the research: combing through city and state property tax records; making crafty queries on Google; the occasional trip to the city courthouse to determine a property’s chain of ownership. Finally, Ott publishes those photos of vacants, their addresses, and any information she’s discovered about them—including who the owner is—on Baltimore Slumlord Watch. Since 2008, when she first started the blog, Ott has published more than 700 posts calling out absentee landlords who do nothing to fix up derelict properties.
“I have a tendency to be rather abrasive,” she says. “I’ve upset quite a few people.”
While Ott does have something of the pugilist in her, Slumlord Watch isn’t intended as a lesson in apoplectic voyeurism. The blog, she says, is her way of showing some tough love toward a city she’s called home for 13 years.
“We know there are thousands of blighted homes across the city,” she says. “How about working to find solutions to the problem?”
According to official city records, there are more than 16,000 vacant properties in Baltimore. Ott puts the number much higher, by at least twice that amount. And so identifying neglected properties, and the slumlords who own them, she says, is the first step toward a long-term fix.
Recently Ott expanded her work with Housing Policy Watch, a second website that launched in late June. With fundraising assistance from nonprofit Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., which will serve as her fiscal manager, Housing Policy Watch is where Ott will educate renters about what to watch out for and teach property owners how to be good landlords—say, by keeping tenants’ security deposits in escrow, a requirement in Maryland. Ott also wants to work with various community associations in Baltimore that need help dealing with vacant properties and lots, trash removal problems, and other issues specific to their neighborhoods.
It was never Ott’s goal to document vacant properties throughout Baltimore. The project began on a much smaller scale several years after she moved to the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown in 2000. At neighborhood meetings, what to do about a run-down, abandoned shopping center that had become a haven for selling drugs was a recurring topic. Ott took it upon herself to locate the Baltimore County-based doctor listed as the resident agent for the company that owned the shopping center, and outed him in her first blog post. Over time, she expanded her efforts citywide as more and more residents reached out and asked her to investigate vacant properties in their neighborhoods.
Websites inspired by Slumlord Watch have since popped up in cities, including Richmond, Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; and Philadelphia.
Although the job isn’t intrinsically dangerous, Ott did keep her identity largely a secret until Baltimore magazine published a profile of her in 2012. E-mails from irate landlords, however, have been routine since she started.
“I get: Dear sir. Dear Mr. Jerk-off. Mr. Slanderer is a big one,” says Ott. “People have threatened to subpoena me, but they’ve never. You have to find me first.”
It’s a bit of a boast, but one she makes comfortably. Ott still lives in Pigtown, but only a tight-knit circle of close confidants and friends know her exact whereabouts. The work of searching the histories of vacant properties comes easily to Ott, who worked in a real estate brokerage in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the late 1980s before taking jobs at nonprofits and architecture firms.
Partnering with a nonprofit manager for Housing Watch means Ott can start drawing a small salary for her work, which became something of a full-time job after she lost her previous job in early 2012.
Keeping an eye on AWOL landlords, though, isn’t just about the money.
“When you live in a place, you need to be committed to that place, and be committed to working on something you’re passionate about fixing,” Ott says. “This is my thing. And now I have the ability to do it on maybe a little bit larger scale.”