Despite ardent and bitter protests from some Takoma Park residents, the Montgomery County Council has decided informally to allow 226 old Victorian homes that long ago had been divided and turned into apartment houses - in violation of county zoning laws - to remain as they are.
Some of the apartment houses, which are scattered throughout single-family neighborhoods in Takoma Park, technically have been in violation of the law for almost 50 years.
The council's tentative decision is expected to be formally voted upon tomorrow. The decision follows months of controversy that has divided the Takoma Park community. While one group of residents wrote letters and filed a lawsuit demanding that the apartments - many of them rundown houses - be phased out, another group claimed such a move would displace respectable tenants and landlords and evaporate the city's remaining cheap housing.
Although the city of Takoma Park ordered all multi-unit house owners to register their units with the city in 1954 and outlawed any further conversion of homes, some city residents contend the practice has continued during the past 24 years.
The county council tentatively decided last week to allow units that existed before 1954 and have been operating since - provided owners can prove both - to remain open. The owners of units constructed after 1954 will be 12 months to phase out their apartments after the law takes effect, expected to be Sept. 1. Approximately 50 apartment houses would be affected, although the council is considering a plan for granting some exceptions.
In answer to Takoma Park residents who long have protested that the units are eyesores in the community, the council is studying the possibility of tightening regulations governing both interior and exterior maintenance of the apartment houses.
The converted apartment houses, which residents began campaigning against at the time their new master plan was started several years ago, have created a predicament for the county. Because they are multi-units in an area zoned for single-family homes, the apartment houses are in violation of the county's zoning laws, but enforcement has become complicated by the dual jurisdiction of the county and Takoma Park.
Frances Abrams, head of the county Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), readily admits that her agency has not enforced the zoning laws. One difficulty, she explained, was that county zoning inspectors do not have the same right of entry into homes that housing code inspectors do. the housing code, however, is under the jurisdictiion of Takoma Park, not the county, Abrams said.
There is another reason, however, why the county has not enforced zoning regulations in Takoma Park - which has more of these violations than any other place in the county: tradition.
For years, said council President Elizabeth Scull, there were no objections to multi-unit housing. "In fact, from time to time, the city encouraged these uses," Scull said. "During the war time, there were people moving to Washington to help out with the war effort and people in Takoma Park who had big homes were encouraged to open them up."
The converted apartment houses produced incomes for elderly landlords and provided low-cost quarters for elderly tenants who often had nowhere else to go, according to Scull.
Since the start of the new master plan, some Takoma Park residents, who pride themselves on their inexpensive, Victorian homes on narrow, tree-lined streets, have complained about the multi-unit houses scattered among them. They were often run-down houses with unkept front lawns, trash in the backyards and tenants' cars crowded on the streets.
"I can look out my kitchen window (onto Carroll Avenue) and see four garbage cans overflowing in the front of a multi-unit house," reported Bob Melvin, chairman of the Takoma organization called ZONE (Zone Our Neighborhoods Effectively).
Residents of Takoma Park organized to get the multi-units phased out. They testified before city and county councils. They escorted council members in the middle of a hot July on a select walking tour of the best and worst of Takoma Park multi-units. ZONE took a 14-person, nine-street poll of multi-units in Takoma Park and gathered information on how many people were living in what apartments.
Recently ZONE filed a $10 million class action suit against the county for failing to enforce the zoning laws, which the multi-units technically have violated ever since the first zoning laws were enacted in 1927.
"We've been in a difficult position," said Abrams, who noted that there are many cases where the zoning laws are not enforced."For example, we don't enforce trailer homes. We want that issue addressed legislatively. We didn't want to go in and throw people out (of multi-units) because we thought that was inhumane. We want the council to address this."
Some residents charge that the apartment houses are a danger to the community. "It's a little hrse-and-buggy town," said Ellen Marsh, community historian and activist against multi-units. "It was laid out before the auto and it's not equipped to deal with high desity housing."
The opening of the Metro station in Takoma Park will only offer more incentives for people to continue, add to or illegally begin more multi-unit housing, according to Bob Melvin.
"These are not high-quality apartments for families," said Melvin. "They are one-room apartments - not one bedroom, one room."
Those against multi-unit say landlords should convert back to single-family residences. "We had an apartment here and we reconverted," said Marsh, sitting in the living room of her immaculate and intricately decorated house. "It was no big deal."
But landlord Ron Nicholson, a member of a group of landlords and tenants called PLUS (Please Let Us Stay), said it would cost him $30,000 to reconvert one of his multi-unit houses. "I own several apartments and any one of them is as good as or better than my own house," said Nicholson. "I have more of an investment in Takoma Park than anyone else. If I let my apartments run down, in investment goes down."
But the residents of the Old Takoma section of Takoma Park are not convinced. They are not accepting the wartime excuse for the present-day multi-units - "World War II didn't affect Bethesda or Silver Spring," said Stephanie Melvin, the secretay of ZONE.
They don't agree that many elderly tenants will be homeless - "Seven percent of the tenants in multi-units are elderly," said Stephanie Melvin, who participated in the poll with ZONE conducted, "5.5 percent are elderly landlords. Less than 10 percent of the tenants are families. We're essentially talking about a very mobile, very transient group of mainly singles or some couples without children."
The residents who say Takoma Park has long been a dumping ground for undesirable county projects - residents who fought proposed commercialization around the Metro station and the "freeway fighters" who fought the proposed North Central Freeway that would have changed the landscape of the city - say this is just one in a long line of things they have fought. "All we want is the zoning code to be enforced just like it is everywhere else in the county," said Melvin.