Amid empty, aged mobile homes interspersed with vacant concrete pads, the remaining residents of the Aladdin Mobile Home Park in Jessup are nervously preparing for an uncertain future.
"There's a lot of empty ones now," said Mary Spindle, 72, who said she moved to Aladdin nearly five years ago when her former mobile home park closed in Gaithersburg, only to learn a month later that her new home was slated to close, too. Now, as more people leave, she said, children sometimes throw rocks at seemingly empty units, and homeless squatters occasionally move in.
"I've been anxious for a couple of years," the former union secretary said about the park's closing.
Along with 38 other residents, she is pensively waiting for Aladdin's owners to open a new transitional mobile home park a mile south on U.S. 1 at Mission Road, where their units are to be moved at no cost to the occupants.
For all other residents, Aladdin officially closed Thursday. It was the latest and largest loss of affordable housing in high-rent Howard County as mobile home parks slowly undergo redevelopment along the U.S. 1 corridor.
The changes can mean trouble for park residents who are retired, disabled or don't earn enough to afford an unsubsidized apartment in the county, where average monthly rents range from $1,000 to $1,500. Many mobile homes, which sit on rented lots, are too old to be moved, and with parks closing, there are few available new places for them.
Spindle said she searched as far as West Virginia for a place to move her home without success before being told her 1990 single-wide unit could go to the new park. She pays $525 a month rent, plus utilities.
Aladdin is the fourth Howard County park to close in recent years, leaving seven still open.
Aladdin's 241 mobile home sites on 40.6 acres are to be reborn starting next year, when work is to begin on 1,067 townhouses, apartments and condominiums, a 180-room hotel, 43,000 square feet of retail stores, and 174,400 square feet of office space, according to county planning records and Mark Levy, a developer.
Because of the loss of affordable housing, 25 percent of the new units are to be reserved for moderate-income families, said Kimberly Flowers, deputy county planning director.
Moderate-income homebuyers in Howard County may have maximum annual incomes ranging from $51,063 for one person to $96,290 for eight. Renters can qualify with incomes from $38,297 for one, to $72,218 for a family of eight.
With land values soaring in Howard County, businesses such as mobile home parks are slowly giving way to more profitable uses, encouraged by zoning changes the county adopted three years ago to help revitalize the U.S. 1 corridor.
Levy, a principal in H&H Rock Realty, the developer and owner of Aladdin, said his firm is spending more than $2 million to help residents relocate, including construction of the new 39-unit mobile home park that is supposed to remain open for up to 15 years.
Levy's firm and county housing officials have helped residents with moving expenses, and Rock Realty offered some up to $12,000 for their mobile homes.
"It's been a year and a half of hard work for us." he said. "We've tried to make it a positive experience."
Levy said it would likely take until December to move the homes to the new transitional park, and at least until spring to remove old trailers and prepare the site for the new project.
Other residents, such as Mary Koppers, 57, and Joe and Mary Morse, both 63 and both disabled, are expecting to move their double-wide units to the new park.
But Cynthia Bjornsen, 57, who is disabled, said she rents a room in a mobile home and can't afford to move.
"I've been here four years. Where am I going? Nowhere," she said, as the man from whom she's renting prepared to move out of the 34-year-old trailer where his mother had lived. "This is the second time I've been homeless." She cried as she sat in the warm sunshine on the old trailer's wooden porch.
"I can't work. I can't sit" for long periods, she said. Her only hope is that her landlord can make a last-minute deal to buy another, newer mobile home and relocate it to the new park. For now, she said, they're both sleeping on the trailer's floor after putting their furniture into storage.
Bennie Rice, 50, a nurse, said she was renting a 1978-vintage mobile home for $725 a month. She was packing her van last week to move to an apartment in Columbia's Oakland Mills village, which will cost $200 more a month.
"It was kind of rough, looking for housing," she said.
Koppers, an assistant manager of a movie theater in Greenbelt, said she moved to the park more than two years ago after a divorce, only to find out that Aladdin was going to be closed and redeveloped.
"If I knew when I moved in that we're going to have to move, I wouldn't have come," she said, worrying about how her 1993 unit will survive being split in half, moved and reassembled, a process that can cost well over $10,000. She paid $36,000 for her unit, she said, and has a dozen large plants and loads of possessions from her former home in Capitol Heights to pack.
If she had had to leave the park and abandon her unit, she would have received less than half of what she paid for it, she said.
Joe Morse, a retired stonemason, and Mary Morse, a former school bus driver with multiple sclerosis, said they've been told their 80-foot, 12-year-old single-wide will be moved to the new park, but they still worry.
"When I see it go up the street and they say you can move in, I'll be all right," Mary Morse said of her immaculate home.
They, like most of the others, said Levy's firm has treated them well.
"They've been fair with us," Mary Morse said.