Prince George's County has delayed the eviction of hundreds of low-income families from the South Laurel Homes project. The action came following mounting pressure from politicians and community groups, some of whom have charged that the county is attempting to force poor and minority families to leave the area.
After meeting Wednesday night with about 60 residents of the federally-subsidized project, two County Council members and a representative of the project's owners, county licenses and permits director Charles Degan extended the eviction deadline for 400 families in the project from next Thursday until March 30.
Yesterday, Deegan also reversed his original intention to order the entire 51-building project cleared if five vacant buildings were not secured and code violations in others were not corrected. Instead, Deegan said, he would allow the residents of 12 buildings free of code violations to remain in their homes indefinitely.
Deegan and other deputies of County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan remained firm in their intention to evacuate the other buildings March 30, and, in the absence of action by the owners to repair the project, order the defective buildings razed.
Yesterday, Louis Pohoryles, an attorney for three partnerships that own the project said that the code violation cited by building inspectors could not be repaired. "You can't just write a check for the kind of money that would cost," he said.
Pohoryles, several County Council members and community groups promised to oppose any attempt by the county to raze all or part of the project or evacuate large numbers of people. If necessary, Pohoryles said, the owners would take court action.
All of the various interests now involved with the project -- ranging from community activists in Laurel to politicians -- acknowledged yesterday that there are serious problems in many of the South Laurel buildings that made them unsafe for residents.
These groups are arguing that the county should concentrate on persuading either the project owners or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has financed it, to correct the problems, rather than evict tenants.
"Given the situation, the area would probably be better off if they evacuated the buildings, but you can't make the people the scapegoats," said Andrew Eppelmann, vice chairman of the Oakland Citizens Association, which is backing a plan that would turn the project into cooperatives managed by low-income tenants.
"These people are not going to find a place to stay in Prince George's," said County Council member Deborah R. Marshall."This is beginning to look like an effort to drive poor people, poor black people, out of the county."
Kenneth V. Duncan, the county's chief administrative officer, said yesterday, the county already is making plans to establish a task force to relocate families evicted from South Laure. But Marshall contended that there already were 2,000 low-income families waiting to be placed in housing in the county and that "the places just aren't there for them.
"I know there are county officials who feel we have been a dumping ground for low-income people," Marshall said. "But many of the people in South Laurel are our own people, Prince George's originals, and we have to be responsible about them.
"Sure, Montgomery and Fairfax haven't taken their fair share of poor people" Marshall said. "But we can't just dump these people on the street and expect Montgomery County and Fairfax to open their doors to them."
"I can't predict whether we will be able to find housing for all of these people," said Duncan. "But we are going to make a real effort and hopefully we will."
"From our viewpoint," said Deegan, "we are simply taking every legal action to enforce our order and put people in places where they will be safe."
Marshall and other officials emphasized yesterday that the current actions against the South Laurel Project -- along with a citation of dozens of other rental projects for code violations -- represent a significant change in policy by Hogan, a Republican, from the administration of former Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr., a Democrat.
When faced with similar problems at the federally subsidized Baber Village project in 1971, county officials spent two years relocating low-income families, then developed a plan under which the County Housing Authority took over the project and attempted to renovate it but encountered financing problems with the federal government. That project now is vacant.
The owners of the South Laurel project have filed appeals with the county's Landlord-Tenant Commission of both the county's condemnation of the buildings and its recocation of the owners' license. Those appeals will be heard next week. Either the county or the owners then may appeal the commission's decision to the Circuit Court.