Complex in Essex faces uncertainty

Dispute: Kingsley Park's owner has been criticized for poor management, but she says the county wants the property and has rebuffed her improvement efforts.

October 07, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Kingsley Park, a crime-ridden Essex apartment complex that is home to about 700 people, sits in the path of the most ambitious revitalization effort in Baltimore County history.

The 312-unit complex on the east side is the last remaining low-income housing in the redevelopment zone. It lies only blocks from three marinas that the county wants to convert into a major tourist draw - with restaurants, shops and a promenade - and from other projects the county hopes will attract young families, new businesses and jobs to an economically depressed area.

County officials call Kingsley Park a failed attempt at public housing, and they blame its owner, Judith S. Siegel, for not properly checking residents' criminal and credit backgrounds. They also claim that Siegel, who operates the complex under a federal housing contract that expires in 2003, took no action to head off a growing crime problem there.

"Kingsley Park should have worked, but it didn't because of poor management," said Mary Harvey, director of the county Office of Community Conservation. "It is unlikely such an obsolete facility will make it past the 2003 date. It could eventually be a candidate for redevelopment, but I don't know right now."

On Friday, County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said that if another owner took over, the property "could be well-managed with less crime, it could be an asset to the community, [providing] quality affordable housing."

Siegel rejects the county's criticisms, saying she has tried, without success, to work with officials to improve conditions. She said that for the last two years she attempted to obtain federal grants for more law enforcement and physical improvements at the complex, but was rebuffed by the county.

"What am I supposed to do, go barging into people's homes because I think they are violating their leases, sheltering a drug dealer, breaking the law?" Siegel asked in an interview. "I wanted, over the long haul, to aggressively address some of these problems but it became clear the county did not want that to happen."

"They want Kingsley Park because it stands in their way," she said. "And while I support efforts to revitalize Essex and Middle River, I am not going to let the county injure our reputation."

Near the revitalization zone around Kingsley Park, a private development team is brokering a deal for a vast waterfront tract owned by two interests - the group backing the $35 million Hopewell Pointe project and Daniel Hubers, who owns 60 acres along Middle River and is married to state Del. Nancy Hubers.

Kingsley Park, troubled by poverty, drug trafficking and violent crime, is one of the county's hottest crime zones. During the summer, at the county's request, the federal government intervened. Agents raided the homes of at least 70 tenants and terminated their eligibility for housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That assistance is funneled through the county housing office.

The tenants were charged under HUD's Housing Fraud Initiative with sheltering drug dealers or violent convicted felons, having live-in partners, and improper reporting of household income, all of which are lease violations.

A report issued last month by HUD's Office of Inspector General concluded that a "large percentage of the crime in or around Kingsley Park was being committed by non-reported household members."

Tenants who were charged face eviction for housing fraud, adding more financial uncertainty at the complex.

Although some county officials have been critical of Kingsley Park - Ruppersberger said the complex "pulls down our plan to reinvigorate the east side" - Harvey and others deny there is a campaign against Siegel, whose company, Landex Corp., owns the property.

"The fact is, Judy Siegel has had total control of the property since the late 1980s, and Kingsley Park has always been a problem," Harvey said. "She could have obtained grants, saying things would have gotten better, but we lost confidence that things would change for the better."

But Siegel and others argue that she has been trying to resolve problems at the east-side complex with little or no help from officials.

Some Kingsley Park residents say she has been a fair and effective property owner.

"She has tried her darnedest," said Helen Schuhart, 77, who has lived in the same apartment for 30 years. Siegel, Schuhart said, "was here on the property a lot, she was no absentee landlord. Now I am scared to death. Where do I go, to a nursing home?"

"It's pretty clear what the county is attempting to do," said Jim Moyer, longtime president of Kingsley Park's volunteer tenant association.

"Kingsley Park was a condemned property on Senate Bill 509," said Moyer, referring to the county's revitalization law, which voters rejected in 2000. "When that law was defeated, the county heightened its campaign to close us down another way. They got HUD in here, and now they would love to get the federal government to foreclose on the mortgage."

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