Eighteen months after Howard County launched an effort to convert 24 luxury town homes in Ellicott City to public housing, Allfa Pines remains a vacant target for vandals because of delays in getting federal financing for the project.
"It is a real tragedy," Leonard S. Vaughan, the county's acting director of housing and community development, noting that more than 800 people are on the county's waiting list for subsidized housing.
County Administrator Buddy Roogow said he doesn't understand why the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development "continues for well over a year to deny us final approval even though we have met every requirement they have imposed on this project."
The conversion plan dates to late 1989 when then-executive Elizabeth Bobo approved plans to obtain an option to buy the town houses after the development off U.S. 40 went to foreclosure. The county exercised its option last July.
Since then, the project has been delayed repeatedly, and vandals have broken several windows and stolen a heat pump from one unit, county officials said.
The first delay came when HUD said the county could not qualify for a grant for the project unless it stripped the town houses of such luxuries as Jacuzzis, fireplaces, microwave ovens, garbage disposals and dishwashers.
After prolonged negotiations, the county agreed to disconnect the Jacuzzis, place decorative grills in front of the fireplaces, raze the chimneys and remove the dishwashers. It was agreed the microwave ovens and garbage disposals could stay.
The next dispute occurred when HUD appraisals came in significantly lower than the county's. HUD estimated the property's value at $1.05 million, while the county put it at $1.9 million. A new appraisal by HUD put the value at $1.6 million, making the deal possible, according to Mr. Vaughan.
When it bought the property last July, the county obtained a $1.2 million "bridge" loan from the state Department of Housing and Community Development that is due to expire this July.
The county wants an $1.8 million grant from HUD to cover the purchase, in addition to the $368,000 block grant it already has received. HUD also would pay the operating and maintenance costs of the project for 20 years.
Mr. Vaughan said the county appeared to have jumped the last hurdle Jan. 24, when he was told that the Baltimore-area HUD office had recognized the county's newly created Housing Authority.
That meant the Baltimore office could ask officials in Washington to approve the transfer of the Allfa Pines grant from the state's Community Development Administration, which helped broker the deal, to Howard County's Housing Authority.
Since then, Mr. Vaughan said he has heard no word on the county's application for the HUD grant. "It is a frustrating process, and the project now has got hung up in passing paper from one HUD office to another," he said.
"This is a situation where the people employed to provide low-income housing have managed to frustrate it," agreed Rabbi Martin Siegel, chairman of the Howard County Clergy for Social Justice, which promotes development of more affordable housing.
If the HUD money is not available, Mr. Vaughan said the county will turn to the state to seek help in financing the project, which will result in more delays.
Reba Gwaltney, a HUD spokeswoman in Baltimore, said the case was complicated by the county's creation of a housing authority after the state agency had received the grant monies for the project. HUD headquarters in Washington is reviewing the matter and has not yet approved the transfer of the money to Howard County, she said.
"What is atypical about this project is the ownership changed and complicated the situation," she explained.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker said, "It is a crying shame that the units stand empty when the need is so great."