Arwell Court works for a turnaround on street of townhouses

Arundel, condo group, new owner join to help overcome years of neglect

November 11, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

For much of the past decade, Arwell Court could not shake its reputation as one of Severn's most dangerous streets, a blighted block dead-ending into a court known for shootings, drug deals, broken windows and despair.

But thanks to county resources, an active condominium association and an ambitious new owner, the cluster of townhouses in Pioneer City may have turned a corner. Several houses have been renovated, with new windows replacing broken glass and gleaming white doors replacing the old, paint-chipped entryways.

Many residents say they feel safer, and several landlords say they're getting more reliable tenants. Health inspectors see less trash, and police see less evidence of crime and drugs.

"It's very encouraging," said Robert J. Weber, director of Anne Arundel County's Division of Community and Environmental Health. "You never expect it to take as long as it takes, when it's a drawn-out case like this. But you have to be prepared for the long haul, if you want to get things done."

For nearly a decade, county and state officials tried to force absentee and neglectful landlords to take care of Arwell Court, once a quiet street of mostly owner-occupied townhouses favored by soldiers living at Fort Meade.

But the street continued its downward spiral, with homeowners moving out and the area becoming largely rental units. The violence seemed out of control by May last year, when Marcellis L. Anderson was shot in broad daylight while children rode their bicycles nearby. Anderson, who served four years in prison for shooting a man on Arwell Court in a drug deal gone awry, survived the shooting.

Three years ago, the Health Department conducted a survey of all property on Arwell Court - at the condominium association's request - in hopes of forcing neglectful landlords to fix homes. The department cited almost everyone, and most fixed their properties quickly.

Mohammad Zuberi of Ellicott City had more than 1,000 violations in the 30 homes he owned. The department took him to court last year in hopes of forcing him to fix the properties. But Zuberi, who filed for bankruptcy five years ago, told the judge he was broke and had no money to make repairs.

In February, Virginia businessman Mark Woods bought most of Zuberi's properties at auction, then began buying out other landlords. He owns nearly 30 units and is managing several others. More than half of Woods' properties are rented.

Longtime landlords David Blanch and Robert Farmer said they are still not sure what to make of Woods. But they're impressed that he is on site almost every day, and that the area is looking better.

"We seem, for some reason, to be getting more respectable people renting from us," said Blanch, who owns three properties on the street.

Arwell Court tenants say that even slow change is an improvement. "I sit outside and everything," said Maureen Smith, who moved into the neighborhood in August because her son lived there. "Things are getting better, you can tell. The place is a lot better than what it was."

Added Catherine Alston, who rents from Blanch: "I don't see as many thugs here as I used to."

Woods, who became interested in Arwell Court after seeing a newspaper ad for a property on nearby Pioneer Drive, said he knows the other landlords had doubts about him. But he said he will inspire confidence when the renovations are done and homes are rented.

"I don't care necessarily what they think about me," he said. "I'm more concerned about what I have to get done."

Anne Arundel County police Officer T.J. Smith, who is assigned to the community, said the people moving into Arwell Court now are less likely to loiter outside and quickly disperse when they see his car.

"Now you're starting to get more people, but they don't seem to be the same type of people as before," he said.

Smith said there hasn't been a shooting on Arwell Court since Anderson was wounded 18 months ago. Last year, there were five shootings.

Despite the progress, challenges remain. Several of Woods' prospective tenants have been less than truthful about their employment and criminal history. Vandals ransacked a corner unit, ruining several days of renovation work.

"This is what disappoints me. It makes me sad," said Rita Lynch, Woods' property manager, as she stood in a bedroom where vandals had ripped out walls. "You want it to be perfect. You think, `Who would do something like this?' "

The condominium association board members also worry about what will happen next. The board still has not received several thousand dollars in condominium fees from the Circuit Court, which is holding the proceeds of the auction. Farmer, the board president, worries the association will not be able to pay its water and insurance bills if the funds are not released.

County spokesman Matt Diehl said the county has agreed to waive penalties and interest if bills are paid by year's end, but has no mechanism to grant or lend money to the association.

Even with the worries, Lynch is confident that Arwell Court will once again be like the Arwell Court she remembers from childhood days, the one that lived up to the sign planted at its entry gates: "A Fine Community of Townhomes."

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