The housing lot of the have-nots

Shore county known for wealth is home to subpar dwellings

`Contrast is so stark'

January 29, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

PUNCH POINT - When Joe Hall needs to go to the bathroom, he steps carefully through briars and bramble to a rickety outhouse that sits behind a burned-out, abandoned mobile home. When he needs water, he fills plastic jugs from a hose across the street from his cluttered trailer, which has neither running water nor a toilet.

Disabled by a heart attack, the 63-year-old Hall is one of six residents living in Punch Point - a cluster of 15 houses and trailers tucked out of sight on a soggy 6-acre tract about halfway between St. Michaels and Tilghman Island.

Known for its expansive waterfront estates, glitzy tourist shops and quaint historic villages, Talbot County has 200 to 400 houses and trailers that lack plumbing and full kitchens or that are overcrowded, the hallmarks of substandard housing as measured by the Census Bureau.

In rural enclaves scattered around the county, sometimes within sight of posh homesteads of the newly rich and the old-money farms and weekend retreats along Talbot's 588 miles of shoreline, people are living in conditions that local activists say can only be described as deplorable.

Housing advocates expect new census data to show a slight decrease, but they acknowledge it could take decades to eliminate substandard units. Some say the task might never be achieved, despite an increasingly active county government and the best efforts of a growing number of citizen volunteers who are tackling the problem one house at a time.

"When somebody leaves or dies, it doesn't necessarily mean the problem is getting better," says Bill Shrieves, a retired telephone company sales executive who helped form a volunteer group that has been working in Punch Point. "The demand [for low-income housing] is enough that somebody, a renter or a family member, is going to move into that house, regardless of the condition. A leaky roof is better than no roof."

For his part, Joe Hall says he would love to have water and septic service, but he's not interested in moving.

"I haven't really lived too many places that had a bathroom," says Hall, who spent most of his life working in seafood packing houses and has lived nearly 30 years in Punch Point. "I like this place down here. It's nice and quiet, just what I like."

As many as 2.5 million Americans live in substandard housing. Rural areas, which account for less than 20 percent of the nation's population, have nearly 50 percent of all substandard housing, according to the National Rural Housing Coalition.

`Untold stories'

"One of the untold stories in this country is that poverty in rural areas is worse than in the cities," says Robert A. Papoza, the coalition's executive secretary. "The economies of most rural areas aren't as strong or diverse."

Statewide, Maryland has an estimated 57,000 substandard units, the vast majority in the Baltimore-Washington area. On the Eastern Shore, Somerset and Dorchester counties have the highest percentage of substandard units in Maryland at 6 percent and 5 percent. In Western Maryland, 4 percent of Garrett County's housing is classified as substandard.

The problem is not as great in Talbot, where 3 percent of the housing is substandard. But the contrast is more striking in a county that has Maryland's second-highest per-capita income, trailing affluent Montgomery County.

Concern fades

Housing advocates say the issue seems to percolate into public consciousness every few years, create an outpouring of interest and concern, then fade from the limelight.

A series of newspaper articles in the mid-1980s about substandard housing - a labor camp in Worcester County and a collection of decrepit shanties that housed seafood packing house workers at Kent Narrows - resulted in demolition. But little changed for others living in squalor.

"On the Shore, we don't have the homeless the way you'd think of them in the cities," says Peter Scanlon, housing director in Queen Anne's County. "People move in with family or friends with maybe three or four families in one place."

In Talbot, a seven-part newspaper series written four years ago by housing activist Will Howard is credited with sparking public outrage at squalid conditions in a neighborhood called Chester Park - blocks from the elegant Inn at Perry Cabin, where room rates range from $350 to $485 a night, more on weekends.

`I was shocked'

"The contrast is so stark in Talbot," says Howard, a filmmaker who lives outside Easton. "I was shocked the first time I saw Chester Park and a lot of other people were shocked. It was the worst I had ever seen."

Hastily, a group of St. Michaels business and civic leaders formed the Chester Park Task Force. Within a year, the group had organized volunteers who hauled tons of trash and debris from the neighborhood and helped line up state loans to rebuild one home. By June 1999, the task force bought a modest home for an elderly woman in the community.

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