Veteran Of Housing Wars Still Fighting

Making a Difference -- A CELEBRATION OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH

February 15, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The young mother is in a bind, two months behind on her rent and facing eviction from her Annapolis apartment. She seeks help this morning from a veteran of city housing wars, Elizamae Robinson.

Robinson's been fighting the battle since the 1970s, when she and other tenants of the Ken-Mar project got tired of broken plumbing, heatless apartments and squalid grounds and launched a rent strike.

Now before her is a woman with her back against a wall.

Robinson sees the dilemma just about every week in her cubicle at the county Community Action Agency in Annapolis, where she works as a housing counselor. This is where people come when they can't pay the rent. This is also where people come when they hope to fulfill a dream of owning a low-cost home.

"We're beginning to see an awful lot of people" strapped for rent, Robinson says. "More so than in the past. We are beginning to see more people who are unemployed."

The mother of three children in the office this morning works as a clerk at Nationwide Insurance, but she's in the hole for $720 -- two months' rent. She says she spent money on Christmas presents for her children that would otherwise have paid that month's rent.

"The next month, I thought I could double it up, but I couldn't," says the woman, who declines to give her name.

Robinson performs the usual procedure, writing up letters of reference that the woman can take to local churches, charities and state agencies. These letters ask for help, any help the organization can provide. Some of the churches on Robinson's referral list are running out of money, she says. She has to pick and choose.

She comes up with six referrals for the young mother, includingthe state Department of Social Services. After speaking very few words, the woman rises from the chair next to Robinson's desk and leaves the cubicle with the letters.

Charles Ball fell behind in his rent after he was laid off from his job at Mid-Atlantic Window Co. on Jan. 2. He's short $321 and was referred to Community Action by St. Anne's Episcopal Church. It's the first time in his life he's ever had to ask for help.

"It's all new to me," he says.

Robinson gives Ball letters of referral to four Annapolis churches. If they can't help, she suggests he try the Department of Social Services.

Robinson started working for the agency in 1970 as a switchboard operator. From there she advanced to the agency's nutrition program, then to helping tenants of city housing projects organize to confront common problems -- drug-related crime, poor maintenance, litter.

In 1975, Robinson was living in Annapolis at the Ken-Mar housing project, now Woodside Gardens. At the time, the project comprised 13 buildings, 133apartments. The place was a mess, Robinson says. "The tenants were faced with absentee landlords. The place went into almost total disrepair."

A group of tenant leaders, including Robinson, the late James Hayes and Daisy Cooper, started holding meetings in each others' homes to discuss the problem. Their appeals to the owners of the projectwent unheeded.

"When we felt we had a large enough group to get it started, we just withheld our money," says Robinson. About nine of 10 tenants paid their rent into an escrow account set up by the strike organizers. The first strike went 12 months, after which the district court returned to the tenants half their rent money.

When conditions did not improve after about seven months, the tenants mounted asecond strike. This one lasted until 1980, with the district court holding the rent. Finally, the housing project was sold to a Boston firm, which Robinson said "did a lot of renovations. There are still a few problems, but none compared to what we had."

The strike was aneducation for Robinson.

"I learned quite a bit during that time. I went to a lot of housing seminars held by the National Tenants Organization. I learned a lot about tenants' rights, owners rights."

The knowledge came in handy in 1987, when tenants of the Boston Heights apartment complex -- a project plagued by drugs, squalor and landlord neglect -- claimed they were being overcharged for late rent payments. Robinson helped the tenants bring their complaints to the state attorney general. After an investigation, tenants were reimbursed themoney they were overcharged.

Robinson also had a hand in helping to relocate the 63 families who remained in Boston Heights when the owner evicted them in the fall of 1989.

When Boston Heights closed for renovations under new ownership, it cost the city 159 moderately priced apartments. The city can ill-afford the loss, even temporarily, said Robinson. The supply of "affordable" housing in Annapolis -- about $400 a month or lower -- is "nowhere near adequate. It hasn't been adequate in some years.

"I think the city could stand a lot more. You have a lot of people in developments they can't afford. Then you have the hidden homeless, extended families, two, three families living together. We've had situations like that where the head of thehousehold has become so overwhelmed that he just leaves, leaves other members to fend for themselves."

From where she sits, though, Robinson fights the problem one person at a time.

"I find it satisfying if I can help people," she says. "Just like Mr. Ball. . . . I'm grateful I was able to give him those referrals because our resources are very limited."

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