Dedicated to a Columbia concept

Housing: Advocates gathered recently near Wilde Lake Village Center to celebrate winning a long fight to preserve 300 homes for low-income people.

July 29, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When Barbara Reed's family moved into a subsidized Community Homes townhouse in Columbia 31 years ago, she personified a key Rouse Co. goal - to build a town where people of all income levels could live.

Reed and her husband both worked, she for Social Security, and her husband, Arthur, for University of Maryland Hospital. They wanted to move from Baltimore to Howard County so their 9-year-old daughter could attend school here, Barbara Reed said.

"I had been driving back and forth out there, looking at the area. I just felt we couldn't afford it," she said.

Then a friend told her about Community Homes.

Those initial 300 homes - built on five sites in the adjoining villages of Wilde Lake and Harper's Choice by a nonprofit, faith-based ecumenical alliance called Interfaith Housing - are still standing and in good shape with at least 20 more years of federal rent subsidies guaranteed. But plans to fulfill Rouse's original goal by building hundreds more units like them never materialized.

Now, economic conditions are vastly different.

Last month, the average sale price for a home in Howard County was $451,871, and apartment rents range up to $1,800 a month. Instead of those first low-income homes becoming a vanguard for hundreds more, they have become a sort of housing oasis for working families in a desert of increasingly unaffordable homes.

"What's left is a kind of remnant - like a vestige of a once-grand dream," said retired Rabbi Martin Siegel.

He was involved in the creation of Interfaith Housing, the alliance between Baltimore's Catholic Archdiocese and Protestant and Jewish members of Columbia Combined Ministries that built those first units. Interfaith Housing later morphed into Columbia Housing Corp., which owns and manages the units.

A January 1969 study done by the Rouse Co. suggested that 3,250 low-income units - estimated at 25 percent of the demand - could be built over time, according to a copy in the town's archives.

"It was supposed to be in every village," said Barbara Hope, associate for social ministry at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia. "If that had come to fruition, there would be so many more opportunities for people who worked here to live here."

Corporation leaders, Reed, who is retired and a homeowner in Randallstown, and other low-income housing advocates gathered recently near Wilde Lake Village Center to celebrate winning a long legal fight to preserve those 300 homes. Community Homes was sold in 1984 to raise more capital, but Columbia Housing Corp. won a battle at the end of last year to repurchase them for $5 million, to preserve them as low-income housing.

The rededication ceremony was held at Roslyn Rise, the first 58 units built in 1970 next to Wilde Lake Village Center.

The townhouses were built with $4.3 million in federal funds. Another $2 million was spent on extensive renovations during the mid-1990s and $200,000 a year goes for maintenance, said Carole MacPhee, the corporation's executive director.

Rents vary from $455 for a one-bedroom unit to $769 for four bedrooms. In 1970, when the first homes were built, rents hovered around $100 a month and a family of four could earn no more than $7,000 a year. Now, most residents earn less than $20,000 a year, MacPhee said, though the eligibility ceiling is $67,700 for the same four-member family.

Although building blocks of homes for low-income people fell out of favor in the late 1970s, Columbia's experiment was, and is, successful, advocates said.

"This obviously has worked," said Sherman Howell, chairman of the African American Coalition of Howard County and a board member of the Columbia Housing Corp.

"I started out in Stevens Forest with a house on Camelback Lane. I paid $29,000 for a house and I can sell it [now] for a half-million dollars. So what's the impact?" he said, noting that the home he kept as an investment is near subsidized apartments next to Oakland Mills Village Center.

Homes for low-income people help Columbia as well as the residents, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who lives in Wilde Lake and has served on the County Council and as Howard County executive.

"There are many people who want to be living in a diverse community, racially and economically," she said.

To keep the community desirable and the original homes looking good, MacPhee said long-term residents such as Reed have been invaluable.

"We really cherish her," MacPhee said about Reed, who moved to Randallstown about 18 months ago after nearly 30 years in subsidized housing.

Community Homes has had problems over the years, from maintenance concerns in the 1970s to occasional crime problems, but strict screening and watchful resident-leaders like Reed have earned the five locations a relatively low profile.

"When there were drug problems at Roslyn Rise [in 1989], she cooperated with the police. She was motivating people," MacPhee said of Reed, who worked for CHC while she lived there.

Although Reed eventually became a community stalwart, she said she hated the homes when she first moved from Baltimore.

But Reed said she decided "to work with the problem." She helped organize other residents, made persistent demands of management "and started things pushing," she said.

She became a senior site manager.

"I've got a very big mouth, and I'm a very persistent person," Reed said. Over time, things improved.

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