Deep in the rolling hills of southeastern Prince George's County lie the remnants of the Prince George's of old -- home of tobacco plantations and a genteel Whig aristocracy.
The scenery has changed to a diversity found in few U.S. suburban communities. The stately brick homes on country estates look out over scenic woodlands. Middle-class residential neighborhoods have spread through the fields.
And among the old tobacco plantations and new subdivisions, longtime residents of Prince George's live in some of the most crushing poverty in the metropolitan area.
"The whole situation down there is pretty hard to believe," said Greg Groves, a community development worker. "When I tell my friends that within 30 minutes of the White House, there is a place where people still use outhouses, they just don't believe me. Nobody wants to believe that conditions like this really exist in metropolitan Washington."
Thirty percent of the houses in the area are gray, wooden shanties with little or no indoor plumbing. A third of all the substandard housing in Prince George's is located here, according to county studies.
These residents once farmed the tobacco fields and have remained on the land they had sharecropped.
Some bought the land when it was cheap, before mechanization and the spread of development out from the city made small tobacco farms unprofitable. Now the residents subsist on sparse incomes, clinging to the land that can no longer support them, land where they have lived for generations.
Lucille Brooks, 50, and her family bought their 15 acres in 1947. Today, the roof leans over the front of the house, making the structure look as if it were about to tip over, and patchwork tile covers holes on the outside of the house.
Brooks, a widow, lives with four of her children and one grandchild in the tiny rooms, crowded with old furniture.
The family has had electricity and a telephone for nearly five years, but there still is no toilet, no bathtub, no kitchen sink. The Brooks children take turns getting the day's water from a rusty iron pump not far from the back door.
No matter how cold the weather or how dark the night, the Brookses must walk to a wooden outhouse about 60 yards behind the house.
Cold air streams through the crevices in the wood plank floor and the plastic covering the windows, according to one county worker who visited the house.
"The thing that struck me most was that the children put everything you could imagine on their bodies when they went to bed at night -- I mean pajamas, coats, linen, towels, everything that would add warmth. It's kind of mind-boggling," said the worker.
The Brooks family is but one among several hundred in the area, where indoor plumbing is sometimes a status symbol, not a facility to be taken for granted. Most of the families are black.
In 1970, the southern areas now targeted by the county for a housing rehabilitation program had only 5.7 percent of the county's population, but 29 percent of the deteriorating housing units in Prince George's. And county administrators say that those figures have changed little in the last 10 years. a
"It's kind of ironic that this (southern) area was once the backbone of Prince George's County, and now that the rest of the county has developed and tobacco is no longer king, it's almost been forgotten," said Evelyn Taylor, now on a year's leave from her position as director of the county's Community Development Administration office in Brandywine.
Conditions in the area have not gone totally unnoticed in the last 10 years.
In 1974, a task force appointed by the Prince George's County Council concluded that many residents in communities like Eagle Harbour, Westwood, Brandywine, Aquasco and Cheltenham faced severe problems.
The report concluded that the "consensus of testimony indicates that approximately 100 families are in critical need for housing out of the 900 very low-income families in southern Prince George's County alone . . .
"Broken windows, leaking roofs, lack of heating, little or no plumbing, contaminated wells, malfunctioning septic systems, and occasional dirt floors are too often the rule rather than the exception."
Median incomes in the Eagle Harbor area, the poorest section, were $6,500 for all families and $5,352 for black families, according to the report.
The study also showed that while 96 percent of all homes in Prince George's County had access to public water and sewer services, only 4 percent of those in Census Tracts 9 and 10 -- Eagle Harbor, Baden and Aquasco -- had similar access.
While residents who had enough money used on-site wells and septic systems, many of the lower-income residents were still using outhouses and shallow wells -- both of which are viewed as hazards by health officials.
The magnitude of the problem of substandard housing in southern Prince George's is not easy to gauge. The best demographic statistics are 10 years old and the low-income housing is not clustered as it usually is in urban areas. It is spread out over the hills and dales of the county's most sparsely populated region.
Moreover, most of those who live in the deteriorating housing without plumbing don't like to talk about their plight.
As one noted, "People have pride, you know. Who wants everybody in the community to know they don't have a bathroom? That's embarrassing."
Over the past four years, the county government has tried to upgrade some of the poor housing with the help of money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It has spent about $375,000 a year rehabilitating homes and installing on-site water and septic facilities.
Each house is allowed a maximum of $5,000 for structural rehabilitation and $6,000 for installation of a plumbing system.
On occasion, the county's Community Development Administration, which runs the program, has been able to get additional money from the federal Farmers Homes Administration to help pay for unusually expensive projects.
Repairs ranging from reroofing to replacement of siding have been made to 56 houses so far. The county plans over the next three years to rehabilitate and weatherize another 150 homes.
The county government has proposed a $577,000 budget for the program for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, an increase over the $476,000 budgeted for this year.
The problems have been many. Much of the land does not pass percolation tests, which measure the absorption rate of the soil. Unless the rate is fairly high, there is a danger of contamination of the well by septic systems, state health officials warn. County officials also have had problems finding money to complete some of the projects.
In many ways the Brooks case is one of the most extreme. The county has been trying for the last four years to find a way to help the family. Because the Brooks land has failed the percolation test, the county has been unable to put either a deep well or a septic system on the property.
Moreover, county officials believe the Brooks home is in such bad shape that money would best be used to replace the old structure.
"That house is in such a shambles, there isn't much that $5,000 worth of rehabilitation work could do," said Greg Groves, a member of the Community Development Administration staff in Brandywine. "In that case, what's needed is replacement housing, but what kind of replacement housing can you get with $5,000?"
Lucille Brooks wonders whether she will ever get help.
"They've been saying they wanted to do something for a long time, but after a while you kind of give up. We don't want to move someplace else, and we want to keep our land," she said.
According to Groves, the spending limits for work on substandard housing have handicapped rehabilitation efforts.
"The deep weels the state now requires on such projects are far more expensive than the shallow wells required when this program first started.And when you add inflation, you absolutely have to get less with $11,000 than you could previously," said Groves.
The county also has problems reaching the residents affected by the problems of substandard housing and no plumbing. They are spread out over vast stretches of land in an area without adequate transportation.
"Even when we reach some of the people we're trying to help, we have a difficult time convincing them that they can get as much as $11,000 in grants or loans for work on their homes," said Robert Simpson, who heads the county's rural rehabilitation program.
"We have a lot of problems, but we think we're making a dent in them," said Taylor, who has headed the Brandywine office for about four years and is presently participating in a year-long HUD program. "We just need more money to help more people."