Housing activist to be honored Community: As the cost of homeownership in Columbia soared, May Ruth Seidel has been an advocate for affordable dwellings.

April 13, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Affordable housing activist May Ruth Seidel's Columbia neighborhood is how she'd like all of Howard County's developed areas to be -- a lot of homes on a little bit of land.

An activist for almost all of her time as a Columbia resident, Seidel, 73, has been closely involved in shaping the county's housing policies since 1979, fellow activists and county officials say.

She will be honored Friday for her work by Howard County Community Action Council -- a nonprofit help organization for low-income people -- at the group's fifth annual Rev. John W. Holland Humanitarian Award Dinner.

Seidel, a Hickory Village resident, has been an advocate for affordable housing during a period in which the price of housing in the county has soared to the highest level in the Baltimore area, making it difficult for even some middle-income families to find adequate housing.

Developing community

She pondered the pending honor and her work last week as she looked out of her patio door at her Sunny Spring neighborhood.

The 18 homes are each on one-tenth acre lots; two are group homes -- one providing assisted living for seniors, the other for retarded residents.

"This is how I feel about housing," Seidel says, citing her neighborhood as her ideal. "It does two things: It saves land, and it develops community. This is how Columbia should be."

For 13 years, Seidel was appointed to groups such as the Housing Task Force, the Housing and Community Development Board, the Columbia Housing Corporation and the Board of the Maryland Low Income Housing Coalition. She also had a role in forming groups, including the Howard County Housing Alliance and the Columbia Forum.

Seidel joined the Community Action Council board of directors in 1971 and served as its president from 1972 until 1975.

"Many people have recognized her talents. She's still committed to poor people and to the idea that all folk are entitled to a decent quality of life," said Dorothy Moore, the council's executive director, who was a caseworker when Seidel was president of the group's board.

Leonard S. Vaughan, executive director of the county Office of Housing and Community Development, said Seidel has picked a "difficult struggle" to engage in.

Setting the tone

"It's always difficult to get people to accept the fact that there are people in the area who are less fortunate," Vaughan said. "May Ruth is partly responsible for setting a tone in the county for affordable housing."

When he first became involved in housing issues, Vaughan said, Seidel helped him organize a conference with other activists and county officials that resulted in the Howard County Housing Plan that was drafted in 1991.

Preserving vision

In recent years, Seidel said, her other passion has been preserving Columbia's basic elements as envisioned by founder James W. Rouse: housing for a wide range of incomes, plenty of open space, a diversity of ideas, and retaining its status as an unincorporated town.

In 1970, the Seidel family moved from Baltimore to Columbia's Wilde Lake village, where they rented a house for 10 years before deciding to stay for good. About 18 years ago, Seidel and her husband, Harry, moved to Hickory Ridge village.

"It's the idealism that kept us here, and the diversity of friends we have," said Seidel, the mother of three grown sons. While in Baltimore, she taught school, then managed her husband's pediatrics office and worked for Planned Parenthood.

She began her volunteer activities in Columbia.

Four days after settling in the new town -- while she was still unpacking -- Seidel scanned a newspaper, saw an announcement for a League of Women Voters meeting and thus began her activism.

"I saw the problems created for low-income people when a rural area begins to rapidly become urban," Seidel said. "It's hard having a limited income in an affluent community."

Housing task force

Before the 1980s, the county didn't have a housing board or a housing commission, which were needed to gain greater access to state and federal money, she said.

The county did form a housing task force in the 1970s, of which she was a member. When a housing board was created, she was a member from 1980 to 1988.

Then she felt a need for another group to advocate density bonuses and geographic dispersion, so she helped form the Housing Alliance.

In later years, she also helped form Columbians for Howard County, which last year defeated a drive to incorporate Columbia. "Howard County has good government," Seidel said. "We don't need another group of politicians."

Now she's campaigning for Jean Freidberg to oust Mike Rethman as the Hickory Ridge village representative to the Columbia Council.

Said Seidel: "When I see a concern, I want to get involved. But everything I've done is like dipping a tablespoon in the ocean."

Pub Date: 4/13/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.