Hilltop public housing an example for others

Residents give Howard neighborhood sense of community

August 13, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like many Howard County homes, the residence of Raymond Johnson and his mother, Eva, has a satellite dish, an attractive wooded setting, a backyard grill and a hefty monthly payment.

The Johnsons are attached to the carefully decorated three-bedroom Ellicott City townhouse, which they share with Raymond's brother Bernard, and they wouldn't consider leaving even though it's county-owned public housing.

"We just like it here. It's quiet," said Raymond Johnson, 58, who moved to the Hilltop complex when it was new, in 1969, with his family. He is now president of the tenants' association.

While Baltimore is razing its high-rise public housing buildings and smaller cities such as Annapolis struggle with problems of blight and crime in public housing, Howard's 30-year-old, locally funded and operated version is so valued by some residents that five tenants pay market rents up to $900 a month rather than move.

"Hilltop works because the people care about the place where they live. They are quick to identify problems and tell the county," said Herman Charity, a retired county police officer who is County Executive James N. Robey's chief trouble-shooter.

"It did what it was designed to do," said Darrell E. Drown, a former two-term Republican county councilman who has philosophical objections to government-operated public housing.

Tucked behind a screen of trees on Mount Ida Drive, the 94-unit Hilltop has provided a leafy haven for many over the years, so much so that a few families, including the Johnsons, want to buy their homes, which they say they were promised they could. The county won't sell.

Hilltop was built to replace dilapidated wooden houses on nearby, often-flooded Fels Lane, Ellicott City's segregation-era black community.

Raymond Johnson, whose family has lived in Ellicott City for generations, helped prod county officials to act after a 1965 fire in that community killed a woman and four children.

Hilltop has become a multiracial mixture of original tenants like the Johnsons and their friend Elsie "Cookie" Ham, and newer residents like Tanya and Coleman Bennett and their two children, who don't plan to stay long.

The complex costs about $150,000 a year in rent subsidies. A five-year, $1.25 million renovation program is entering its last stage.

A steppingstone

County officials say the 30-year tenants are the glue that has helped create a sense of community.

Still, "we sort of encourage people to leave" by working with them to improve their job prospects and by raising their rent as their incomes increase, said Leonard Vaughan, the county's housing administrator.

Vaughan, aware that there is little chance of building more public housing in Howard, wants to use Hilltop as a way up and out, a steppingstone rather than a destination.

The county has few places for needy families, often with young children, to find shelter and help for a few years until their incomes rise.

To that end, Vaughan carefully screens new tenants, evicting those who make cable television payments and then plead for help with the rent and moving tenants to smaller units when children grow up and move out or their parents die.

He also insists on stricter enforcement of rules and leases that state the market rent and then subtract the county subsidy, things to get tenants used to the world outside public housing. "People are held more accountable," Vaughan said.

Vaughan persuaded Dorothy L. "Dottie" Moore, director of the county's Community Action Council, that using Hilltop as a temporary way station for low-income people is better than allowing the old Fels Lane residents to buy their units there.

"I had strong feelings about that. Commitments are always being made to poor people and never followed through on," Moore said, adding that she thinks the former commissioners promised the Fels Lane people they could eventually buy the new homes. The situation has changed over the years, and she said she appreciates Vaughan's efforts to get people away from lives of dependence.

Fels Lane families angry

The few families left at Hilltop from the segregated days of Fels Lane resent what they consider a broken promise to let them buy the homes.

"We were fighting for a long time. The mistake we made is, we didn't think to get it in writing," said Eva Johnson, 82. Elsie Ham is more bitter, complaining that parents are forced to move to smaller quarters when their children grow up and move out.

"The sad thing is, when children come back, they have no place to come back to," she said.

Despite the conflicting opinions, most agree that Hilltop is serving a vital purpose in a mostly affluent county where the poor are sometimes overlooked.

"It's a great thing Howard County has been doing up here all these years," said Gail Huddleston, the county's public housing manager.

She oversees Hilltop, which accounts for roughly one-third of the county's mostly scattered public housing.

Hope for newcomers

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