Balto. Co. tenants forced out for homes

Villa Gardens' residents, many elderly, say they'll miss friends, cheap rents

February 12, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

During World War II, the Villa Gardens apartment complex was home for many workers at the Glenn L. Martin airplane factory in Middle River. These days, apartments still rent for as low as $235 a month, and most of the tenants are elderly.

But now more than 400 Villa Gardens residents have been told they must move by the end of the year to make way for new housing that is part of the continuing redevelopment of Baltimore County's east side.

This project differs from earlier east-side revitalization programs, which targeted crime-ridden apartment complexes. And while the plan to relocate Villa Gardens residents lacks the contention that marked previous efforts at other complexes, the thought of moving is still tough on people like 66-year-old Natalie Brewer.

"I've been crying for two weeks since finding out I will have to move," said Brewer, who has lived in the complex for 14 years. "The place is run-down, and I realize it has to eventually end, but what can a senior like me do? There is no way I can move into another comfortable place like this and pay just $350 a month rent."

To those affected, moving represents more than losing the security of an affordable home. The elderly residents see a loss of their independence, their longtime friendships, their memories.

For Henry and Helen Harbin, moving will symbolize the loss of a major portion of their lives together - 42 years - on Randolph Road.

"We raised our five children here in this house," Helen Harbin said. She said several of the couple's daughters will offer them permanent places to live, "but I just don't want to leave.

"My husband was a young bricklayer when we moved here and paid $79 a month rent," she said. "Now we pay $330, and that is great. We had our garden outside every summer, grew green beans and tomatoes. This here was the center of our lives."

The 408-unit complex consists of one-story buildings, some with vinyl siding and others with composition board that resembles stucco.

The Villa Gardens residents were notified by mail last week that they must move to make way for affordable single-family homes - part of county officials' blueprint to attract young families back to the eastside. It is the latest step in an ambitious waterfront revitalization strategy for Essex, Middle River and Dundalk that began in the mid-1990s and so far has cost more than $800 million.

In place of the old buildings, Ryland Homes plans a village of about 700 homes whose prices are to range from $169,000 to more than $250,000. A senior housing building will include 100 rental apartments.

Ed Gold, president of Ryland Homes' Maryland division, said residents of Villa Gardens who wish to purchase new homes can do so at below-market prices, a savings of several thousand dollars.

The waterfront communities were once home to thriving steel, shipbuilding and auto manufacturing plants and were places where young families enjoyed comfortable lives.

R. Bruce Campbell, president of Wallace H. Campbell, the company that manages Villa Gardens, said the apartments offered affordable rentals to many who lived as young adults in the World War II era, either serving in the military or working at the Martin plant that turned Middle River into a boomtown.

"It was an interesting place," Campbell said. "We saw in some cases two generations of families who lived at Villa Gardens.

"We've managed it for 10 years and have never raised the rents. Lots of these folks have enjoyed low rents and none is subsidized by the government."

Over the years, however, tens of thousands of jobs in the area were lost, and many apartment complexes went into decline, becoming centers of violent crime.

Riverdale Apartments and Villages of Tall Trees were demolished, replaced by a new housing development and a large park. The hundreds of low-income residents complained about being forced from the aging complexes.

In Villa Gardens, which has not suffered a significant crime problem, Baltimore County officials and representatives of the management company are interviewing residents to see how they can be helped to find housing. Tenants will have the option to purchase or rent when the new homes go up, according to a letter sent to the residents.

"The Ryland people were quick to ask us for advice to help people either find new rental properties or become first-time home owners," said Mary Harvey, director of the county Office of Community Conservation. She said Villa Gardens residents can get help from a grant program for new home settlement expenses and can use rental assistance programs.

Campbell, of the management company, said tenants would request and receive early releases from their leases.

Doris Whitman, 71, manages to be realistic.

"I've enjoyed it here for 40 years, and I guess that it's time to move on," Whitman said.

She said she found life in her home comfortable because the rent for a three-bedroom apartment is $330, her brother Vernon lives next door and two of her sisters are no more than two blocks away.

Like some of her neighbors, she and her husband added improvements to their home, including a back patio and a front porch. Whitman, whose husband died in 1985, plans to move to her daughter's home in Bowleys Quarters, where she will enjoy more time with her three grandchildren.

"I guess there is a little mixed emotion moving because this was, and pretty much is, a tight-knit community," she said.

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