Weary tenants finally find peace

Complex: After living in a `war zone,' former Kingsley Park residents have moved on to quieter surroundings.

September 26, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Barbara Thomas still can't believe it.

"Look at this," she says, escorting a visitor through her new home, a two-bedroom apartment in The Commons at White Marsh in eastern Baltimore County. "Wall-to-wall carpeting. ... Walk-in closets. ... My own washer-dryer."

But more than anything, she savors the comforting sounds of silence.

Her newfound peace is in sharp contrast to the gunshots, police sirens and helicopters she heard so often during the two years she lived in Kingsley Park, a dilapidated apartment complex in Middle River. Now, Baltimore County is poised to demolish those apartments to make way for new housing, and the county has set aside $750,000 to help Thomas and her former neighbors make fresh starts at new addresses.

Each Kingsley Park tenant received about $650 in moving expenses and other money for start-up fees such as utility hook-ups and security deposits, county officials said. In many cases, county workers drove dislocated residents to prospective new homes.

June McCord, who lived in Kingsley Park for more than a year, now has an apartment in Dundalk.

`I've found heaven'

"They helped me find a nice place, helped with expenses and followed up after I moved," she said. "I've found heaven when I think of where I used to live."

McCord said she has nothing but unpleasant memories of Kingsley Park.

"I seldom left my apartment," she said. "One night in particular I heard gunshots near my apartment and I crawled on the floor from my bed and squeezed between my couch and the wall. I slept there that night."

Kingsley Park, a complex of low-slung, brick buildings on 18 acres on Back River Neck Road, was built in the early 1940s to house defense workers. It deteriorated into a haven for drug dealers and violent crime. Last year, officials said police were spending about 400 hours a week responding to calls there.

Meanwhile, county and federal housing inspectors found hundreds of violations, including malfunctioning furnaces, rodent and insect infestation, missing window screens and interior walls, lack of air conditioning, and ovens and refrigerators not working properly.

In the past, officials at Landex Corp., owner of the complex, have contended that the residents were primarily to blame for the conditions in the apartments and for the crime.

As a deal for the county to take control of the property neared completion this year, an attorney for the complex's owner said his client lost money on Kingsley Park for years because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development prevented rent increases, so the income generated by the property was insufficient to cover maintenance.

The deal requires the county to pay Landex Corp. $2.2 million. The county also assumes about $600,000 in back payments for unpaid utilities and other bills. The county announced last week that it had formally acquired the property from HUD for $10.

The county plans to demolish the buildings and attract a developer for the property, which is in the heart of an area undergoing a revitalization. Initial plans call for housing for seniors and affordable homes designed to attract young families.

Mary Harvey, director of the Office of Community Conservation, said the average annual income for Kingsley residents is $5,460, among the lowest in the county. Those moved or being relocated include 187 families, 86 disabled persons and five elderly people. The majority receive public assistance.

"First and foremost, this gives the families of Kingsley Park the opportunity to choose the community where they live and raise their children," County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said through a spokeswoman.

Officials say more than half the Kingsley Park residents have moved, and they hope to move all residents by winter because of concerns about the heating systems.

The residents were also given federal housing vouchers for their new homes, Harvey said. Some Kingsley Park residents elected to move as far as South Carolina while others chose locations in the city or on the county's east side.

New hope

Relocated Kingsley Park residents are expressing new hope.

Norman and Georgia Taylor moved to Kingsley Park when they had no other place to turn. They stayed seven years.

"I had major heart surgery, related health problems, so we had to sell our house," said Norman Taylor, 67, a retired machinist. "Suddenly, we had our backs against the wall, and here we were in Kingsley Park."

The Taylors now live in a clean, spacious apartment in Kings Mill at the Greens in Essex.

Barbara Thomas said her experience in Kingsley Park was her "first time in the system. For all my life I was a very self-sufficient person, but the bottom dropped out of my life."

She was raised in a military family. She said she trained in ballet for 14 years, served four years in the Marine Corps and held a good job laying fiber-optic cable.

"But, boom, my marriage of 17 years ended abruptly, I fell apart," she said. First, she was in a women's shelter, then on Gail Road in Kingsley Park, a place she calls a "war zone."

On July 27 last year, the ceiling in her living room collapsed, knocking her unconscious. She remains under medical care for neck pain, dizzy spells and headaches.

"I am still putting my life back together," said Thomas, who moved Sept. 1. "But the county did everything they said they would, and I am sitting in this beautiful apartment because of what they did."

Her new home, off Middle River Road, is in a complex of townhomes and apartments surrounded by trees. She said, "I am not afraid to talk to people. They seem more friendly."

She wants to eventually buy new living room furniture and a small luxury, a vacuum cleaner.

"And maybe the biggest change will be getting accustomed to the quiet here in my new home," Thomas said. "It should be very pleasant."

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