From Stately Beginnings, a Not-So-Eloquent Turn as Residents Protest Using House for Homeless

Montgomery County bought this house off Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda last fall, intending to convert the surrounding land to a park.
Montgomery County bought this house off Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda last fall, intending to convert the surrounding land to a park. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Marc Fisher
Sunday, June 8, 2008

P hyllis Piotrow's motives were as gentle and elegant as the stately brick home she had lived in for so many years. The renowned Johns Hopkins professor merely sought to move from Bethesda to New Hampshire to be with family and set up the retirement phase of life.

So she finally listened to the developers who had been salivating for years over her 1.3 acres on a dramatic bluff just off Bradley Boulevard in the Hillmead neighborhood. But nothing's simple in Montgomery County. After many months of wrangling over whether her land could be subdivided, Piotrow won county permission, but by then the market had softened and the developers had slithered away.

Frustrated but determined to do right by her neighbors, Piotrow made a new deal -- with the county. She sold her house and property last fall for $2.5 million -- less than market value -- to Montgomery's parks commission, which intended to use the land to extend the adjacent community park. Everyone was happy.

Then somebody had an idea. The parks commission had planned to demolish Piotrow's 1930s house, at a cost of about $65,000. Instead, staffers at Montgomery's housing agency wondered, why not spend about twice the cost of demolition to renovate Piotrow's five-bedroom place and use it to house a large homeless family? After all, finding housing for large families is notoriously difficult, the county already shells out about $100,000 a year to keep a homeless family in a motel and at least six other houses in county parks are being used in similar fashion.

You will not be shocked to learn that the good people of Montgomery County thought this a very poor idea. You may, however, be a bit surprised by the vehemence with which they communicated their skepticism about the proposal:

"I simply cannot believe that anyone with an IQ above that of a retarded chicken would seriously consider putting a welfare brood sow and her 13 kids in a $2.5 million mansion paid for by the taxpayers of this county," Winston Dean wrote to council members.

"May I suggest that you let the poor family live next to you and you let us tear down the [Piotrow] house at Hillmead citizens' expense and . . . let the earth be green," wrote Hillmead resident Myriam Gaviria.

The battle over whether to demolish the house or let a homeless family reside in it (paying 30 percent of their income as rent) will come to a head Tuesday when the council must decide between dueling proposals by members Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who wants the house torn down, and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who wants it saved.

"It is not surprising that neighbors would fear not knowing who's going to be living next door," Leventhal says, "but we do need to house homeless families. We have an opportunity to provide safe, stable housing for a family who would otherwise be stuck in a motel room or shelter night after night, moving from place to place."

Leventhal has watched as a "Save Hillmead Park" campaign has apparently won over one after another of his colleagues on the council. But "save it from what?" he asks. The county already saved the Piotrow property from development, and the park will be expanded. No additional development is contemplated.

"If not Hillmead, where?" Leventhal asks. "If this neighborhood off Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda is just too special and too well situated to allow us to move a poor family in, where can we locate poor families in need of housing?"

Alana Dzurek, president of the Hillmead Citizens Association, says the opposition to keeping the house does not reflect fear of a homeless family. "This isn't about the homeless, it's about a flawed process," she says. "We were told we were going to get a park, and then we heard rumors about a different plan. We feel duped. The county should understand that people are sending those nasty letters because all they know are the rumors. If you leave people in a vacuum, they're going to get frustrated and act on rumors."

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