Neighbors Nix Condos For Disabled

Homeowners Block Mentally Ill Housing


Lois Miller dreamed of building a better home for people branded "crazy" and banished to mental wards.

Day after day, she clung to her belief that many of these men and women she encountered belonged not in institutions but in homes, real homes, where they could make the transition to society.

Finding neighbors willing to live next door to people fresh out of a state mental hospital, however, can be tricky, delicate business.

In December, Miller thought she had found the perfect home, one that would provide patients round-the-clock supervision without letting them simply languish in institutions. Four months later, her dream is in danger of being shattered by neighborhood opposition and an abrupt turn about by the developer.

Omni House, a non-profit rehabilitation program for the mentally ill founded by Miller in 1981, signed off on a deal to buy 12 two-bedroom condos where 24 patients would live -- part of a 900-unit complex still under construction off Ordinance Road in Glen Burnie.

The developer, Cromwell Fountain Associates, joined Omni House, County Council members and state lawmakers in praising the agreement as a bold model of a more humane alternative to institutionalizing the mentally ill .

But within three months, such warm praise had disintegrated amid fears of patients "going berserk," endangering other residents of the sprawling condo complex.

The homeowners association voted unanimously to oppose the purchase.

Officials from Cromwell Fountain made it plain that they wanted out of the deal, first in five separate meetings, then in a letter asking Omni House to void the contract and, finally, in an April 4 letter hand-delivered to Omni House canceling the contract. One Cromwell official cited in a complaint filed Monday was quoted saying he didn't want "Crownsville (State Hospital) moved to Cromwell Fountain."

Omni House leaders refused to agree. Joined by a national advocacy group for the mentally ill, they filed a federal lawsuit calling the case a clear violation of a 1989 law forbidding housing discrimination against the mentally ill.

U.S. District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis granted Omni House's request Monday to temporarily forbid Cromwell Associates to sell any of the 12 units. The judge is to hear from both sides May 8 in Baltimore.

"The problem is that there is widespread housing discrimination against the mentally ill across the country, and this is yet another example," said Beth Pepper, an attorney representing an unidentified Crownsville State Hospital patient who was to move into one of the 12 condos.

"We have to change people's attitudes about mental illness, because in fact people with mental illnesses make very good neighbors," added Pepper of the Washington-based National Mental Health Law Project.

The lawsuit claims Cromwell breached its Dec. 20, 1990 contract in violation of the Fair Housing Act and seeks unspecified damages to compensate Omni House and a client identified only as "James G." for "economic loss, emotional distress and deprivation of civil rights."

Cromwell Fountain officials and Cromwell's attorney, Jim Praley, declined comment on the case yesterday. Praley did say, however, that Omni clients now living at the complex would be allowed to stay and that the 12 units would not be sold before the case is decided.

The deal began unraveling after CromwellFountain residents read that the state would pay for three-quarters of the $1 million purchase. The state also agreed to provide a $250,000 low-income loan.

More than 100 residents of the 300 occupied units signed a petition protesting the sale. Lawmakers were deluged with phone calls. Many residents complained they had been caught unawares.

"We never heard anything about it until we read about it," said Bryan Moorhouse, president of the civic association. "The basis for our opposition was that we envisioned and were lead to believe that this would be a complex of owner-occupied units. Omni House was going to rent those (units) out."

Moorhouse admitted that other fears and concerns spurred the community to take action. "Personally, speaking not as a board member but as a father, there is a fear of the unknown," said the father of three children.

Other parents worried about the safety of their children when they learned that manic-depressive and schizophrenic people would be living in the community. They also feared that their property values would plummet once Omni House clients moved in. A resident complained at the mere thought of swimming in the same pool as the mentally ill, a local lawmaker said.

"I was not aware of it until I started getting all these calls," said Sen.Philip C. Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park. "I must have had 30 or 40 residents who contacted the office right after each other."

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