Woman's struggle meets aid, hindrance

Housing laws pose quandary for family

March 18, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

For Ida Holland, this is a time of deepening anxiety but also rising hope.

The 37-year-old single mother rents a shack in southern Anne Arundel County that has no indoor plumbing. Now it seems likely she will have to move, because bringing the place up to code could cost upward of $90,000 - an investment the owner is probably unwilling to make.

Where she might go, she has no idea. Local housing officials have offered no ready solution besides public housing, the very environment she fled four years ago for her children's safety.

Yet Holland's story, profiled in a recent Sun article about the hundreds of people in Baltimore's suburbs who live without running water, has moved strangers to act on her behalf.

After reading the article, Pikesville resident Sandy Hoffman decided she wanted to help. Working with Baltimore lawyer Arthur L. Drager, she set up a fund for Holland, who earns $6.20 an hour at a Wendy's fast-food restaurant. Donations could help cover rent at a nicer apartment or maybe buy new clothes for her teen-age children.

"It sounds like she's not asking for handouts," Hoffman said. "She's working, trying to raise her family. She's struggling. Maybe she's too proud to ask, but somebody needs to do something for her."

Holland is attending financial counseling at Arundel Community Development Services Inc., the nonprofit group that serves as Anne Arundel's housing department. She hopes to find a better-paying job and a better place to live.

At the same time, the man who let Holland move into the former tenant house four years ago and collects her $125 monthly rent has been defended as someone just trying to help.

Christopher H. Wilson, a Harwood farmer who is chairman of the county Board of Appeals, which hears zoning disputes, said he didn't know it was illegal in Maryland to rent out properties without plumbing. He said he opened the rickety house after Holland's father begged him to help Ida and her kids escape the area around a tough Annapolis public housing project.

Since the article appeared Feb. 25, Wilson has said little publicly other than to emphasize that he manages the land but does not own it. He declined to be interviewed at length for this article.

"Poor man, he's getting told he's a horrible person because he did a favor for a friend who said this was better than where she was," said Kathleen M. Koch, executive director of Arundel Community Development Services.

After the Sun article appeared, Wilson offered to resign from the Board of Appeals, but was talked out of it by County Councilman John J. Klocko III, who appointed him. Then Wilson tried to step down as chairman, but the rest of the board dissuaded him.

Klocko says he wants to find ways to help people who must make do with an outhouse and haul water to their homes - part of what County Executive Janet S. Owens calls "a very fading way of life." But uprooting people in those conditions is not necessarily for the best, Klocko said.

Klocko has kind words for Wilson. "If he were defrauding [the Hollands], ripping them off, collecting rent on a weekly basis, I think I would be concerned," Klocko said. "What you're seeing is people who know him being supportive."

Early this month, officials from the county health department and Koch's group toured the house where Holland lives. They estimated the cost of necessary upgrades at $90,000 or more. In addition to the lack of plumbing, they reported finding substandard electrical wiring and noted that the structure is heated by portable kerosene heaters.

"We think the walls are OK," Koch said.

Even the thin walls are pocked with holes, and broken windows are covered with plastic sheets.

The health department will formally tell Wilson to correct the problems, but there is no firm deadline, said Bob Weber, the department's director of community and environmental health. "We know the solution is going to take time," Weber said.

The property owners could obtain a low-interest loan through initiatives such as the state's Indoor Plumbing Program. But Wilson said he doubts they would be interested - especially because a second house on the farm is in similarly bad shape. Holland's brother, Thomas Holland III, lives there, and also will be forced to leave unless his house is upgraded.

"They're in no mood to put $180,000 in there," Wilson said of the owners before ending the conversation. He has said he thinks they would probably shutter the buildings.

Property records list Thornton Holding LLC of Seattle as the owner of the property. Wilson has given county officials the names of two individuals to contact - Dr. William H. Hall V of Longwood, Fla., and Thomas Hornbaker. Neither could be reached for comment.

Koch questions the wisdom of fixing Ida Holland's house, considering one could build a house for the money required to bring it up to code. (The state program can't be used for new construction.) Even if it were improved, rent would probably go up, and Holland might have to move anyway.

A few days ago, Hoffman tracked down Holland by telephone and laid out her reasons for wanting to help financially. "It could just give you a boost, that's all," Hoffman told her.

With Holland's approval, Drager opened an account at Bank of America with $100. Holland said she appreciates the assistance because she has few other options.

Although Holland doesn't like living without plumbing, she wishes she could keep her quiet spot 15 miles south of Annapolis and the sense of security it gives her. "You got your own privacy," she said.

It's a far cry from the place she used to live, hard by the Newtowne 20 housing project. "People'd be shooting and everything, right by my window. You don't know what's going to happen," she said.

Contributions may be made to Arthur L. Drager as trustee for Ida Holland, Suite 620, 10 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21202.

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