The prettiest snowfall can spell trouble for 87-year-old Cornelius Myers. Even more than a moonless night or driving rain or scorching heat.
When it snows, he and his rickety knees must plow a path across his Carroll County back yard. Past the swing, picnic table and shed to what passes for a bathroom - a white portable toilet on the edge of a cornfield.
"When you got two feet of snow, you gotta shovel your way out," Myers says, sitting in his easy chair and stroking his gray mustache. "But you gotta go. Yeah, you gotta go."
Myers, who worked in construction, has no running water, either. He pumps from a well outside his small, tidy house 25 miles west of Baltimore. To bathe, he heats water on a gas stove and pours it in a basin. Raising nine children, he says, left precious few dollars for creature comforts.
In Baltimore's suburbs, where some homes sell for a half-million dollars or more, hundreds of people lack indoor plumbing. The phenomenon persists 15 years after state legislators outlawed such conditions in rentals, and long after outhouses and "night buckets" gave way to modern amenities.
These residents are white and black, young and old. Some are renters; others own their homes. They endure rough conditions stoically, while hoping for improvement. In 1998, the Census Bureau estimated that 300 residences in metropolitan Baltimore had no flush toilet, 300 had no shower or bathtub, and 600 had no hot piped water. Housing experts believe that those estimates, the most recent available, are low.
"It is inexcusable, unconscionable that the wealthiest state in the nation cannot assure all households have indoor plumbing," says Deborah Povich, public policy director at the nonprofit Maryland Center for Community Development. Maryland's median household income is estimated at $51,000, among the highest in the nation.
Tackling the problem has proved difficult. The state's Indoor Plumbing Program offers low-interest loans to needy homeowners, and the poorest of the poor can defer payment indefinitely. But Myers and others say they've never heard of the program, and its director admits advertising is scant "because we might generate a demand we couldn't meet."
Although renters have the law on their side, local enforcement agencies rely on complaints, and some tenants fear eviction if they speak up. Landlords can qualify for low-interest state loans but must be willing to take on new debt; a well and septic system can easily cost $10,000. Among those who rent properties with no plumbing is the chairman of the Anne Arundel County Board of Appeals, which handles disputes involving zoning, licenses and permits.
Some residents have found relief through charities such as Habitat for Humanity. Others leave their fate to a higher power.
"When the Lord is ready for me to get a decent place, it will come through," says 50-year-old Sarah Green, who lives without plumbing in a rented farmhouse in southern Anne Arundel, 15 miles from Annapolis.
Taken together, interviews and records show, these factors - ineffective outreach, passive enforcement and compliant residents - have conspired against the lofty goals of Maryland lawmakers who passed a "minimum livability code" in 1986. The 14-year-old Indoor Plumbing Program has improved conditions from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland - about $4 million has been lent statewide since its inception - but not to the extent officials envisioned.
"We hoped over time it would completely, or virtually completely, eliminate the problem of people not having indoor plumbing," says Ardath Cade, a former assistant state housing secretary who helped craft the code and still thinks Maryland's approach is "way ahead" of most states.
"It's important that people have healthy and warm housing," Cade said. "Part of healthy housing is having indoor plumbing."
Fleeing urban ills
Ida Holland rents a shack in Lothian, a rural section of Anne Arundel where the occasional mini-mansion rises alongside fields and modest farmhouses. Her place is like a hand without a thumb: There isn't even a room where a bathroom could go, just a living room, bedroom, attic and sink-less kitchen.
Holland, 37, and her three teen-age children moved there four years ago to escape the Newtowne 20 public housing project in Annapolis. Worried about drugs and the threat of violence, Holland traded running water for a sense of security in an area where Washington commuters increasingly live among farmers.
The Hollands' story has a familiar ring. One couple in Harford County said they fled a drug-ridden neighborhood in Middle River years ago for a tranquil, if primitive, house a mile from Interstate 95. Others have lived this way for decades or their entire lives. It's all they know.