Repairs on, tenants out

Easton families face eviction so landlord can fix rundown homes

September 28, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

EASTON -- A month after citing a landlord for dozens of housing code violations, embarrassed Talbot County officials are struggling to find homes for eight low-income families who are facing eviction Sunday from dilapidated bungalows barely a stone's throw from the cafes and boutiques in this upscale county seat.

Landlord Norris E. Taylor ordered his tenants on Brickyard Lane to leave by Oct. 1 so he can repair the houses or demolish them. County officials issued more than 100 pages of emergency repair orders for the houses, which are just outside town.

"We don't know what's going to happen," says tenant Bambi Edwards, 28, who gave up a job as a veterinary assistant to care for her disabled mother. "This is the only place we could afford."

The forlorn community is little noticed in downtown Easton, which crops up all the time on lists of best small towns. In recent years, the county has become "the Hamptons of the Chesapeake," a playground for second-home buyers and wealthy retirees drawn by its 600 miles of waterfront.

Housing advocates blame county officials for ignoring Brickyard Lane, long an eyesore, and failing to toughen up a code that gives few options for renters with short-term leases. The eight families have month to month leases.

"The fault lies with local government," said Larry Neviaser, who heads the 12-member Talbot County Workforce Housing Coalition. "If you're cited for these kinds of violations, you shouldn't be able to turn tenants out and do nothing. Where's the responsibility?"

Robin Fernandez, who has become something of a spokeswoman for the tenants, says conditions have steadily deteriorated during the four years she has lived on Brickyard Lane.

Fernandez, 35, says she always steps gingerly over the threshold of the dank little house she shares with her mother and 6-year-old son, worried the floor might collapse. That's just what happened to a neighbor's kitchen floor two doors down.

"I've lived here this long because in this area, it's all we can afford," said Fernandez, who has been out of work since a car accident in June. "Everybody knows this is a rich area, at least for some people," she said. "But Brickyard Lane shouldn't be a surprise to the county. It's been here a long time and nobody ever did anything."

For his part, Taylor, 79, who owns about 100 rental units in Easton and Talbot County, says he responded to the county's repair orders with letters to Brickyard renters ordering them out because it's the only way he can repair the houses.

"There's no way they could stay there in those houses when there's this much work," Taylor said. "And there's no way in the world we could do all that in 30 days," as the order requires, he says. "Superman and 15 helpers couldn't do it in 30 days."

Taylor, who also owns an Easton concrete products and excavation company, says he's doing the best he can. He is recovering from heart surgery and says routine maintenance, generally handled by his employees when tenants complained, was slowed when one worker was hospitalized for several weeks.

In a county known for waterfront mansions, second-home buyers and wealthy retirees, the median family income is about $50,000, while the average cost of a house is $350,000 -- more than double the price a median-income family can afford.

For renters along the dirt and gravel Brickyard Lane, rents have ranged from $650 to $800 a month. Residents say they'd likely have to pay double anywhere else in the county.

"I think this ought to be a wake-up call for all of us," said Sandy Redd, who heads the non-profit Neighborhood Services Center, which is trying to help the tenants find apartments. "It looks bleak, but we're going to deal with this, whether it's one person at a time, or the whole community."

County lawmakers are considering legislation that would require landlords to foot a portion of relocation costs, but current county law doesn't offer relief for tenants without at least annual leases.

"These are deplorable, unthinkable conditions," said Councilwoman Hope Harrington. "Right now, it's the landlord's property and he can do whatever he chooses. It's a Catch-22 where any enforcement by the county comes back on the tenants."

Beyond enforcement, Neviaser says the housing task force, appointed last spring by the County Council, is looking for innovative ways to increase stock of affordable homes, including rentals.

"The unfortunate reality in Talbot County is that as bad as these places are, they do fill a need," Neviaser said. "There is a segment of our population that can only afford this kind of place."

Susan Devlin, director of the county's Habitat for Humanity chapter says advocates clearly have work to do. "We need to raise the consciousness and the political will to do something about this ... . You can't rent a thing for $650, even at the bottom end."

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