Amid Montgomery's affluence, plight of suburban poor worsens in downturn

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 10:31 PM

Their numbers are growing, but the suburban poor can be tough to spot amid the affluence that sometimes surrounds them. In few places is that more true than in Tobytown, a tiny enclave in Potomac still occupied by the descendants of former slaves who founded it in 1875.

The neighborhood off River Road, hidden from view on a woodsy stretch of Pennyfield Lock Road near the C&O Canal, is almost jarringly out of place. It nestles in the midst of great opulence - homes guarded by stone lions with lawns big enough for their own soccer fields.

Tobytown's 60 or so residents have struggled to break free of poverty for generations, and their circumstances have worsened in the recession.

People have lost jobs and face more difficulty finding transportation in and out of the neighborhood, which is so remote that it has no bus service. At the same time, Montgomery County has cut funds for a taxi voucher program and an after-school program for kids.

The economic downturn has affected people of all income levels, even in Potomac, where the median household income of $157,254 is three times that of the nation. On the very next street over from Tobytown, an eight-bedroom, $2.1 million home went into foreclosure this year.

Yet the recession has been far more brutal to those at the margins, the poor and those hovering just above the poverty line. Montgomery is still one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, but during the downturn its poverty rate rose to nearly 6 percent, according to census data. The figure was 5.4 percent in 2000, according to the Census Bureau.

"In Montgomery County, we think of ourselves as an affluent county, and it's easy for people to assume we don't have any poor people," said Tedi Osias, the director of legislative and public affairs for the county's housing authority, which oversees Tobytown. "They don't stand out. That's why they are invisible."

In Tobytown, the effects of hard times are clear.

"See the housing surrounding us?" Wesley Wilson, 53, an unemployed landscaper, asked as he sat playing dominoes in a courtyard one recent day. "If it's hurting them, you know how it's doing for us."

Securing stability

The recession has been hardest for Tobytown's younger generation, the 20-something grandchildren of those who were able to purchase the modest little houses over time.

They've stayed because they can live cheaply with family, scrounging rides to the nearest bus stop - five miles away - to get to jobs as store clerks and restaurant cooks. Like their forebears, they too dream of homeownership. But not here.

One recent afternoon, Shannon Braxton, 21, scooped up a free weekly from a stack of newspapers dropped at the community center and eagerly scanned the want ads for hotel or receptionist positions. She was disappointed.

"They don't have that much in here this week," she said.

A tall young woman with braids, Braxton lives rent-free in a house owned by her grandmother.

She was laid off from her full-time job as a restaurant manager earlier this year and scrambled to find a part-time job at a bar. She also volunteers for the Wheaton volunteer rescue squad, which gives her access to college-credit courses.

Transportation is a constant worry since her used Jetta sedan began overheating in August. To get to her 18-hour shift at the fire station, she first bums a ride to the bus stop, then transfers three times. It can take hours.

"I'm worried about it now: How am I going to get to work tomorrow?" she said. "I just want to get a full-time job, and I want to get my car working. I just want to be stable."

Poverty amid wealth

Scott W. Allard, a University of Chicago professor who co-authored a new Brookings Institution study on suburban poverty, said more poor people now live in the Washington suburbs than in the District, which mirrors what's happening elsewhere.

Nationally, the suburban poor exceed those in big cities by 1.5 million, the study found, and the demand for social services in those communities is soaring.

At the Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, for example, the number of people seeking help has jumped 45 percent during the downturn. The county's housing authority has 15,000 residents on the waiting list for housing vouchers.

Meanwhile, donations to some nonprofit groups have fallen, and state and local budgets have been slashed across the region.

This year Montgomery County cut its total spending for the first time in 40 years, slicing more than $200 million by cutting back on everything from emergency services to - at one point - toilet paper for senior centers.

Tobytown has long relied on help from the government.

For decades, its residents lived in tar-paper shacks with outhouses and no running water as estates rose around them.

In 1972, the housing authority used federal housing funds to build 26 duplexes and single-family homes and a small community center. The goal was for the low-income residents to eventually purchase the inexpensive dwellings.

Florice Martin, 49, a longtime resident who is now raising her grandchildren in Tobytown, grew up in the shacks and vividly remembers when the development was unveiled to great fanfare.

"All the rich people were here, the people that mean something," she said. There were journalists on hand, and a big reception. It was the first time she had seen caviar.

The glowing promise of the day was never fully realized. Over the years, 17 families purchased their own homes for about $16,000. But nine units remain in the control of the housing authority, which also maintains the community center and grounds.

"It seems like they forgot us," Martin said. "It seems like we're not here."

Distant neighbors

Allison Bryant, a business management consultant from Rockville, first discovered Tobytown in the 1980s, when he and his wife were driving around Potomac looking for a home to buy. He was surprised by what he saw.

"At first blush it did not seem like a depressed community," Bryant said. "Underneath the veil of suburbia was in fact a great deal of not only need but a community that had trouble integrating beyond its borders."

In response, he and others formed a group called Friends of Tobytown. They helped to set up a computer lab and a tutoring program and offer other support. But they grew frustrated when their efforts to "empower" residents met with resistance.

Bryant finally quit in 2007 after plans to create a homeowners association board for residents dissolved into endless squabbling. Friends of Tobytown fell apart after that.

These days Tobytown residents have little contact with their Potomac neighbors except for a smile and a wave on the way to the C&O Canal for a jog or a game of tennis in the park. In years past, the neighbors' faces were mostly white, but they've been joined by a wave of successful immigrants.

Regardless of ethnicity, most of the affluent residents whose homes surround Tobytown largely ignore it.

"They sort of wish it weren't there," said Al Vivino, the owner of the Travilah Oak Market up the road, which sells imported wine, Belgian truffle ice cream and sashimi- grade tuna. "They don't mess with it."

The isolation worsened when Tobytown lost a program for low-cost taxicab vouchers in May. One resident, Deborah Martin, said she had to quit her job as a store clerk after that because she had no way to get to work.

A Montgomery spokeswoman said that the county couldn't afford to put up matching funds for a federal transportation grant in a time of budget woes. Of $70,000 in vouchers available, only $21,000 were purchased, she said.

The county also slashed after-school programs across the county, including Tobytown's, which was cut from five days to four.

Rich friends

"The biggest problem is that we have nothing to do," said Willie Martin, 13, playing outside with his friends one recent afternoon. The sun glinted through the tall trees, and the sounds of skateboards scraping the pavement filled the air.

Willie - with a round face and puckish charm - came to live in Tobytown with his father and grandparents two years ago after the death of his mother.

After moving around a lot, he has found a sense of stability at Robert Frost Middle School. He has lots of friends. But he's well aware of the economic chasm separating him and the vast majority of his classmates.

"Everyone I know is rich," Willie said. "They have everything, and I have nothing. I've had these shorts for, like, three years." He gestured down to his baggy black cargos. "I can't afford to gain any weight or I'll grow out of them."

Money is so tight he can play his Xbox only for an hour or so a day lest he strain the family's electric bill.

He can't help but compare his lifestyle with those of the kids outside of Tobytown.

"We just bought a bike, they just bought an RV. We just paid our [utility] bill, they just got their house redone. It sucks," he said.

Martin, Braxton and her cousin India Shaw, 20, who works at Fashion Bug, often organize bingo nights to give Willie and other children something to do.

One recent evening, they gathered in the community center at folding tables. Braxton cranked a basket and called numbers as the kids marked their cards, competing for plastic toys from the Dollar Store. Hip-hop music streamed from a boombox in the corner. The kids ate hot dogs and hamburgers and sprinkle-decorated cupcakes Martin had made.

After a while, Shaw and Braxton took a cigarette break on the center's front porch. Braxton had been working long hours and seemed tired. She'd still like to get a full-time job, go back to college and become a nurse some day, but at that moment those dreams seemed as remote as the place where she was standing.

"People hear about this neighborhood and they say, "You, like, rich? You live in a big house?" she said. "I say, 'Ha ha ha.' Then I tell them what it's like and they say, 'Oh, you live in the ' hood. I don't live in the 'hood, I just live out in the middle of nowhere. And they say, 'How do you live like that?' "

Braxton kept smoking. There was no easy answer.

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