New management breathing new life into once crime-filled Eastport complex

September 20, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

Myra Stansbury sat on the concrete steps of her apartment building, bouncing her 11-month-old son on her lap, grateful for that small luxury.

Not long ago, the stairwells at Bay Ridge Gardens in Eastport were covered with graffiti, smeared with gum and filled with trash. The streets were marred by late-night drug dealing and sporadic violence.

But in the last month, a change has come over the low-income housing project at the end of Bay Ridge Avenue, filling Ms. Stansbury and other residents with hope.

The stairwells have been swept clean and the grass trimmed. Mothers walk with strollers where drug dealers once openly sold crack cocaine to a steady stream of customers.

For the first time in years, residents say they feel safe enough to pull out lawn chairs and chat with friends in the evening.

"A year ago, you couldn't even come outside," said Vivian Joyce, 43, who has lived in the complex for 12 years. "The drug dealers had taken over. There was trash everywhere. It was unsightly."

Now she's optimistic that better days are ahead.

Shelter Properties Corp., a Baltimore company that specializes in turning around troubled low-income housing, has taken over the day-to-day management. And the Shelter Foundation, an unrelated, non-profit group that provides housing for homeless Maryland families, is planning to buy the 198-unit complex.

Last month, more than 200 residents packed a neighborhood meeting called by Shelter Properties' management team. They formed a community association, elected Ms. Joyce president, and planned a cleanup day for October. They also agreed to make some changes to spruce up their neighborhood, like making sure curtains don't flap outside the windows.

"I feel so good about this," said Ruth Rogers, the property manager, who stayed on after Shelter took over the complex. "Before they took over, I was ready to find another job."

When it was built in 1971 with low-interest federal loans under a program designed to increase the nation's stock of affordable housing, Bay Ridge Gardens offered a welcome alternative to subsidized or public housing.

The collection of brick buildings on the city's southeastern side was well-kept and affordable, the perfect place for young families and seniors living on fixed incomes.

"A lot of police officers lived there back in the '70s," said Sgt. William Powell, who heads the city's foot patrol program.

It was a well-kept, stable community, with many older people, said Ms. Joyce. "When I first came here, it was nice. It really was."

But over the years, maintenance slipped and drug dealers moved in.

The toilet in Ms. Stansbury's basement apartment overflowed repeatedly, ruining the rug. Roaches migrated back and forth among units in the buildings.

When the ceiling collapsed in Ms. Stansbury's apartment, a maintenance worker nailed a piece of sheet rock over the hole.

An official with Zalco Realty, of Silver Spring, the firm that managed the complex for the last 20 years, declined to comment on the allegations of neglect, saying only that the company no longer manages the property.

Meanwhile, the foundation has applied to purchase the complex under a federal program designed to keep the units affordable.

"We would like to see those units preserved for low and moderate-income tenants," said Larry Tom, the city's community development chief. "There's a two-fold issue. One is that it's in dire need of repair. The other is that we want to keep it affordable."

Until the sale is approved, Shelter cannot afford a complete renovation of Bay Ridge Gardens, said Patrick Duffy, a spokesman for Shelter Properties.

But the management company is beginning new programs, and it has started cleaning up the site, he added.

fTC "We have a very visible management team, and we believe with our skill in turning troubled properties around we can make improvements," Mr. Duffy said.

Pearl Bowden, the regional manager in charge of Bay Ridge Gardens, said she hopes to make the complex her second big success story. In just two years, she lifted a 700-unit complex in Prince George's County from worst in the state to best in the county.

Ms. Bowden, who is fondly called "Miss Pearl" by residents, was bubbling over with enthusiasm one morning two weeks ago as she took a reporter and photographer on a tour of the property.

Signs of neglect were everywhere, from the graffiti to broken shutters. But signs of change also were apparent, including newly pruned bushes and spotless empty apartments that had recently been renovated.

Miss Pearl said she has a lot of goals. She wants to fill up the 35 vacant apartments, scour the graffiti off the stairwells, fix the playground and plant flowers. She even is determined to rid the grounds of cigarette butts.

She also has hooked up with Emily Green, Annapolis' neighborhood development coordinator, to line up drug counseling and children's activities.

Shelter, meanwhile, is introducing stricter entrance standards and plans to evict anyone caught selling drugs.

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