Newlyweds Eriq and Dawn Williams were looking for a place to call home, a peaceful community where they could raise children and save a little money for the future. They settled in what once was Annapolis' worst slum.
Just three years ago, the brick apartment complex at the city's northwestern edge was Boston Heights, a shell of neglect, likened by city officials to war-torn Beirut, Lebanon, notorious for drugs, sporadic violence and squalid living conditions. It was a place the couple never would have considered.
But time, the persistent efforts of government officials and $9.7 million worth of renovations by the nonprofit Community Preservation and Development Corp., of Bethesda, have transformed the dilapidated 159-unit complex into a pristine neighborhood called Admiral Oaks.
Now, flowers bloom at the entrance off Admiral Drive where drug dealers once openly sold crack cocaine to a steady stream of customers whose cars circled the tear-shaped street. Children play catch in front of attractive apartments, once abandoned and littered with used hypodermic needles and teeming with rodents.
County Executive Robert R. Neall called the reopening a "miracle." At a dedication ceremony attended by 100 residents and dignitaries Friday morning, Mr. Neall agreed with Maryland congressman Tom McMillen, D-4th, who hailed the public-private partnership as "an affirmation that government can work."
Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins joked that he has a love affair with the city "and now I have a mistress." Alderman Carl O. Snowden, D-5th, who fought for years to stop tenant rights abuses at Boston Heights, talked about the community's "spiritual rejuvenation."
Emily Green, the city's community development worker, who quietly worked behind the scenes to keep the project going, was there. So was Elizamae Robinson, a housing counselor with the the city's nonprofit Community Action Agency. She remembered time when she wouldn't refer even homeless families to the complex. Now, she sends them.
Even though Admiral Oaks looks pricey, with its blue awnings and manicured lawns, its trees, flowers and playground, it is still considered low-income housing.
In fact, several developers wanted to build upscale housing on the site when the city forced Boston Heights to close in 1989. But the Bethesda-based firm secured $4 million in long-term financing from the Federal National Mortgage Association, which received federal tax credits in exchange, to guarantee that Admiral Oaks will remain a low-cost complex for 15 years.
In addition to meeting federal and state income guidelines, prospective families must pass the management's scrutiny in order to qualify for an apartment. This scrutiny could include a visit to their current place of residence, said Leslie Steen, company president.
The rents are kept low with government subsidies. Sixty-three of the units have been reserved for families receiving federal rental assistance; the rest are two-bed room apartments renting for $470 a month.
Those lucky enough to rent apartments have praised the privately-owned complex. "When they said it was being fixed up, I didn't believe it," said Inga Williams, 27, who grew up in the community and moved back three months ago. "But it looks better than I could imagine."
She agreed with Charles Simms, an Annapolis housing inspector who lived there from 1969 to 1972. "It's come full circle," he said. "It used to be a real nice place to live."
Former Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer, now deputy director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, said he was delighted by the community's rebirth but cautioned that it will "take an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears to keep it nice."
"The War Zone"
Toward the end, Judith Williams could barely sleep at nights. She shivered in her bed as police sirens wailed, waiting for the gunfire.
Her four children were trained to drop to the floor at the first sound of shooting. The noise was unbearable, and she worried constantly; that her children weren't sleeping, that they might wander outside into the path of a stray bullet.
"It was bad," recalled the 33-year-old mother, who is not related to Inga or Eriq. She and her children were among the last 63 families to leave after Sateesh K. Singh evicted in November 1989 after housing inspectors cited hundreds of code violations.
By the time the complex closed, city police officers, weary from the shootings and stabbings, called Boston Heights a "war zone."
Police Sgt. William R. Powell remembered the difficulty in stopping the open drug dealing. With only one entrance, Boston Heights was hard to reach secretly. Children paid to act as
lookouts waited at the entrance and tipped off the dealers, who scattered into the abandoned, boarded-up apartments.
Another veteran Annapolis police officer, Sgt. Philip Turner, remembered the sadness he felt in watching Boston Heights deteriorate.