Closure disturbs calm at Tranquility Place

Vacate: Residents are angered over the short notice they say they were given about the demolition of their development.

September 05, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

About 600 tenants of the Tranquility Place Townhomes received notice Monday that they will have to vacate their apartments by the end of the month to make way for demolition.

When bulldozers in the coming months knock down the walls of the Havre de Grace complex, which rents to mostly low-income tenants, one of the few affordable housing developments in Harford County will vanish.

Management says it will give 30-day extensions to its tenants on a case-by-case basis. But many residents, who live on fixed incomes and pay between $375 and $675 for one- to three-bedroom units, say they are angry. They say they were not given adequate notice and are worried that they might not be able to find a place to live.

"So we're supposed to be out by the 30th. We can have extensions. But how are we going to pay for the extension and also the move?" said Debbie Bradford, who moved to Tranquility Place with her 15-year-old daughter in March. "There's people here who go from paycheck to paycheck. How am I going to pay [the owner] $400 and save $400 to move?"

Bradford is considering sharing a four-bedroom home with her older daughter and grandchildren in Havre de Grace, although the rent will be about $100 more a month. "I'd rather stay here," she said. "I know why [the owner] sold this. The city wants to make their taxes. Look at Bulle Rock [golf course] up on the hill. They want this to look like that," she said.

Owner Stanley Lewis, managing member for property owner Wilson Street LLC, said his staff is available to tenants, who have month-to-month leases, seven days a week to assist them in finding alternative housing.

Lewis, 62, an ordained rabbi who has spent the past 11 years splitting his time between Havre de Grace and Israel, where his family lives, says he is tired. Earlier this year, he considered selling the units to renters. But only six tenants expressed interest.

So instead, Lewis plans to sell the property early next year and return to Israel and his wife and 6-year-old daughter. He is negotiating with a potential buyer. The first step, he said, is to relocate the tenants before winter and then clear the land for development.

Community revival

Lewis purchased Tranquility Place in 1995 in hopes of revitalizing the decrepit, 1940s-era housing development known for illegal drug deals and unsafe living conditions. He made it his mission to create a community out of the chaos.

And, according to some long-time residents, he succeeded.

Lewis initiated his plans immediately, offering tenants money to identify drug traffickers in the area. With the help of local police, he evicted about 20 known or suspected drug dealers. To further deter dealers from living on the premises, Lewis required residents to be fingerprinted. He also required all adult tenants to have a GED, and provided babysitting services to assist them. For younger residents, he established a school grades reward system, where children were given $1 for As, 50 cents for Bs and gifts - such as CDs or Nike shoes - for improving their grades.

And he formed a work force from within the development, hiring out-of-work tenants as contractors and getting them trained in specialties such as lead-paint abatement.

Many of the units on the 22 acres were upgraded: Kitchens were renovated, insulation was improved, older windows were replaced and wall-to-wall carpeting was installed.

"We're all sad to leave," said Angela Farrington, a self-described former "welfare mom" whom Lewis hired 12 years ago to work in the rental office and later to help manage the property.

Farrington moved in February to Aberdeen, where next week she will start her new job, managing a trailer park.

During her tenure at Tranquility, she witnessed the community's transformation. "I wouldn't even walk my kids by myself to the park," she said. "After a very short time here, the change was so drastic. By the time I became property manager, I would go out at midnight to check water meters by myself. Mr. Lewis made such tremendous gains with this property.

"I used to always say it was the best-kept secret in Havre de Grace. It was our own little world," Farrington said.

Staff assistance

Lewis and his staff insist that they made their intentions clear to all residents.

"I'm out there every day cutting grass and talking to the tenants, and they feel like they weren't warned," said Mark Bell, a Tranquility Place maintenance worker and resident. "I know they were. We sent fliers out. I delivered them. And we've constantly been updating them on what's been going on."

And the staff says it is actively seeking other places for relocation.

"We've called most of the larger apartment complexes and private landlords that we know. We've tried to get a count of available units and to not overload them by sending 200 people to one place," said property manager Kathy Jones.

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