Refurbished home marks move to cut substandard housing Talbot County officials hope unit will be first of many in the area

September 01, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS -- It took a year to get Marcella Babes a new house -- one with a toilet, siding and a roof that doesn't leak. But after a lifetime of poverty lived on the edge of this well-to-do tourist town, Babes knows she won't be the last to benefit from a push to eliminate substandard housing in Talbot County.

State and local officials, with volunteers who are leading the effort, gathered yesterday in the dilapidated Chester Park neighborhood that lies blocks from upscale boutiques and restaurants, to celebrate the completion of a rebuilt home for Babes and her invalid husband, Charles. They vowed to make the project a model for the county and, perhaps, for the rest of the Eastern Shore.

"We feel that Marcella's house has really been a catalyst for Talbot County to take a serious look at substandard housing," said Dewees F. "Tripper" Showell III, a banker who is a member of Talbot's newly formed housing advisory board. "We want to use this as a blueprint for helping communities all over the county."

A member of the housekeeping staff at the posh Inn at Perry Cabin, Babes told co-workers about a year ago that doctors were refusing to allow her diabetic husband to return to their rundown modular home after he underwent surgery to amputate one leg.

Like most of the dozen shacks and trailers that line the unpaved street in Chester Park, the Babes' house did not have a working bathroom. Buckets serve as toilets for residents who once or twice a day dispose of waste in the thick woods that surround the community just outside the town limits of St. Michaels.

Surveying her refurbished two-bedroom home yesterday -- which was rehabilitated with about $60,000 in low-interest state loans -- Babes said she could hardly wait to get her furniture moved from the small apartment where she has been living. Soon, her husband, a retired crabber, will be able to come home.

"I really couldn't say anything at the ceremony," Babes said. "I was just about to cry. It's a wonderful day."

Once volunteers began organizing to help the Babes family, they pushed county officials to create a housing task force and, later, the Talbot County Housing Advisory Board, to find ways to improve an estimated 200 decrepit and unsafe homes in the county. Among the task force's first recommendations was hiring Austin Webster, the county's first full-time housing coordinator, who is charged with seeking state and federal loans and grants.

"I was motivated to help a co-worker," said Stephen Creese, general manager at the Inn at Perry Cabin. "But once we got involved, we all realized there was so much more."

With grant applications in the works to extend water and sewer service to the dozen or so houses in Chester Park -- which could cost $300,000 to $350,000 -- the county also plans to upgrade the neighborhood's dirt and gravel streets.

Buoyed by their first success, Talbot volunteers are moving ahead with plans for a meeting this month of church groups, housing advocates and local government officials from all nine Eastern Shore counties to talk about ways to pay for new housing programs.

"I believe that this is just the sort of thing that churches and government should be all about -- transforming communities," said the Rev. Ronald Hemphill, a task force member who is pastor at Union United Methodist Church in St. Michaels.

Pub Date: 9/01/98

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