County plans major face lift for Hilltop $1 million renovation is proposed

February 05, 1993|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

It's been 24 years since the county built Hilltop, its first public housing complex for low- and moderate-income tenants.

And the county housing office says the 94-unit community oMount Ida Drive in Ellicott City needs a $1 million face lift. The department has included the project in its 1994 capital budget, proposing to spend the money over the next four years.

"Our sense is, if we can offer a quality product then we can require a quality effort from the residents in terms of maintaining that product," said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county's housing director.

"We're not trying to create the Taj Mahal or luxury apartments, but we do want it to be standard, modern housing."

Some of the initial planned improvements include replacement of the exterior doors with weatherized doors, the installation of vanities in the bathrooms, and the replacement of outdated kitchen appliances. Outdoor work includes repaving the parking lots, replacing some of the deteriorating concrete porches in the rear of the unit, and landscaping work.

Mr. Vaughan said much of the work is being done to avoid safety problems in the future.

The housing department has asked the County Council to approve spending $250,000 on Hilltop renovations in fiscal 1994. The department would finance the project by selling bonds.

The Hilltop complex was built to provide housing for families who lived in a community of substandard dwellings in Fels Lane, referred to in newspaper reports at the time as "Howard County's worst slum."

The ramshackle Ellicott City homes weren't maintained by the owners and had major structural problems, no indoor plumbing and leaking roofs.

The county demolished the homes in 1968, and many of the families moved into newly built Hilltop.

About a dozen of the original resident families still live at Hilltop. Some tenants are second-generation residents who grew up there and now have their own units.

Under the income guidelines for Hilltop, eligible residents must make less than 50 percent of the median income for the Baltimore region. They pay 25 percent of their income as rent. According to these standards, the income for a family of four applying to get into Hilltop can't exceed $22,050.

If a family's income increases to where Hilltop rent is equivalent to rents on the private market, the Hilltop rent would remain at 25 percent of its income or adjust to the private market rent of the unit, whichever is lower.

Raymond Johnson is one of the original residents and is president of the Hilltop residents council. Mr. Johnson was instrumental in convincing the county to build public housing for displaced Fels Lane residents.

He lives in a three-bedroom town house with his mother and a brother. The Johnsons have added personal touches to the home -- wall-to-wall carpeting, wallpaper and a ceiling fan in the kitchen.

The family paid $90 a month when it moved to Hilltop in 1969. Now, because of the combined in

comes of Mr. Johnson and his brother, the family pays $680 in rent. He said improvements at Hilltop are overdue.

"For that kind of money, you're just not getting your money's worth," said Mr. Johnson, a teacher in the county's Head Start program.

Mr. Johnson said he'd like to see stacked washers and dryers and wall-to-wall carpeting in each unit.

Although the Johnsons make enough to move out of Hilltop, Mr. Johnson said the family doesn't want to leave.

The county sets no time limit on how long a tenant can live at Hilltop and has no policy of evicting tenants when their incomes increase.

"I guess it's a family type thing," he said of the family's decision to stay at Hilltop. "My mom's been in Ellicott City all her life."

Mr. Vaughan said he appreciates the concerns of longtime tenants, but said that Hilltop was designed to be "modest" public housing.

"If they can get a better value for their dollar we would encourage them to go to the private market," he said.

"These units are for low- and moderate-income housing. They are safe, sanitary and decent," Mr. Vaughan said. "They're not top of the line."

With some tenants at Hilltop paying rents equivalent to the commercial market, the county can afford to subsidize a family at another public housing unit in the county, Mr. Vaughan said.

Mary Kelly, also an original Hilltop resident, pays $780 a month for the four-bedroom town house she shares with a son, daughter and granddaughter.

Ms. Kelly's daughter, Tracy, grew up at Hilltop and lives with her 5-year-old twins in her own unit.

"This is my community; these are the people I've been raised with all my life," said Mary Kelly, who works as a building supervisor for the county school system.

"I moved here with the idea that this would be my home."

Ms. Kelly said she has looked in Ellicott City for another place but can't find anything she can afford.

"I'm not welfare, I'm a working-class person. But there are not homes out there that are affordable."

Although the county placed no time restrictions on living at Hilltop it was never intended to be used as lifetime housing, Mr. Vaughan said.

However, the fact that an entire neighborhood moved to Hilltop as its first tenants may explain why some of the original tenants have stayed on.

There are 178 families on the Hilltop waiting list.

There are those who would argue that what they're doing is creating a community," Mr. Vaughan said. "There's some merit in that, but it does foster dependency on public property."

Some Hilltop tenants have expressed interest in buying their units, but an appraisal done by the county found that the units were worth more than the residents could afford.

Mr. Vaughan said the county may explore developing additional affordable units for purchase that Hilltop residents could qualify for.

"For young families, [public housing] should be a steppingstone to something better and different," Mr. Vaughan said.

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