Off a dirt road in rural Sandy Spring, on land that has been passed down from generation to generation, chickens waddle around a discarded refrigerator, bicycles and a white cinderblock house. Six families -- 17 people, all related -- live in the six-room house. They are the Thorntons, and they feel crowded.
Like other black families who live incrowded or substandard housing on the back roads of this Montgomery County community, the Thorntons do not want to leave the village. Their ancestors came here 200 years ago as slaves, were freed by the Quakers and given parcels of land, that have been passed down within each family ever since.
These families would like to move into subsidized housing that the county planners have proposed building about a mile away, along Sandy Spring's main street. But the middle class and wealthy residents of Sandy Spring -- some of whom have lived in the village for only a few years -- are fighting the housing.
"We moved to Sandy Spring because it's rural," said Gwen Edsall, who has lived in the village three years. "We're concerned that if we increase the density all in one spot we'll ruin the rural character."
Such arguments do not make sense to the residents who need housing. "We are the rural character of this community," said Alice Thomas, who lives in a trailer on her mother's property because of the lack of housing in Sandy Spring. "We have more of a stake than they do."
The housing shortage in Sandy Spring first became a severe problem in the late 1950s. Since then, some Sandy Spring residents who grew up in homes along the back roads have compensated by purchasing used trailers, which they parked on their parents' property. Others moved away but would like to return. Still others, like the Thorntons, have continued to live in their parent's homes even after having children of their own.
There is now a waiting list of 53 current residents and 29 former residents who would move into the proposed housing. About one-fourth of the current residents who need the housing live in condemned or condemnable houses or in dilapidated trailers, according to figures supplied by the Housing Opportunity Commission, the county agency that builds subsidized housing.
The housing proposed for Sandy Spring would consists of 85 town houses on a 14-acre tract of land along Olney-Sandy Spring road, just yards away from Sandy Spring's three-block-long business district that consists of a restaurant, a few clothing stores, a fire department and a gas station.
Some of the town houses would be rented by persons who would receive subsidies from the commission and pay only one-fourth of their incomes for rent.Others would borrow money for a down payment through commission programs, and acquire mortgages after they have paid enough rent to equal a down payment.
The houses will be built within three years, if the County Council approves the proposal later this year.
Thelma Taylor, 24, who lives in a dilapidated trailer that the county lists as "condemnable," is one of those who would like to move.
The trailer, parked in her mother-in-law's backyard, does not have running water, electricity or heat. Every time Taylor needs water, she walks to her mother-in-law's house for it. When she needs heat, she turns on the gas burners of her stove.
"I need to move out of here," Taylor says, her hand on her hip. "My son couldn't live with me last winter because it was so cold in here he caught pneumonia."
Like Taylor, Mary Thornton, 21, who shares a double bed in the Thornton house with her two children, says she wants a home of her own. Not only is the house crowded, but her "brothers and sisters' kids wreck my stuff," she says.
Yet, neither woman wants to move away from Sandy Spring.
"If you took me away from Sandy Spring, I couldn't stand it," said Thornton. "I couldn't leave my family or friends."
Until last week, home owners who live near the proposed building site argued that they did not want any houses to be built there. Now, they say they would agree to 28 units on the property -- 57 fewer than the county proposed.
"We don't think there should be any houses on that property," says Edsall, the housewife who is leading the fight against the housing. "But we understand that there's a need for more housing so we'll compromise."
In addition to the "rural character" argument, the home owners say they are opposed to the proposed 85 units because several acres of the property contain springs and swamps.
"They can't build on that land," said Virginia Brown, whose house is next to the property. "And if they do, the runoff will flood our homes and the Patuxent watershed will be ruined."
Although most of the housing opponents are white, several are black. Unlike the blacks who need the housing, the blacks who are opposed generally live in larger homes along the main roads.
One is Harold Howard, a retired manager, who says he is against increasing the housing density in Sandy Spring. He also believes that residents who live along the back roads should be given money to upgrade their homes and trailers, instead of being encouraged to move.
Howard and others say the county should build houses on several parcels of land in Sandy Spring instead of increasing the density all in one spot. Herb Levey of the Housing Opportunities Commission says that such a move would be "impractical" and is merely a maneuver to prevent the county from building on the land it already owns.
Most black and white residents insist that race is not an issue in the housing dispute. A waitress in the Sandy Spring restaurant believes it is.
"I'm afraid it will bring a lot of black people right here," said Janice Stull. "They tend to hang out a lot and put beer bottles all over. They'll make property go down in value."
"I would love to keep Sandy Spring the way it is," says Snowdon. "But how can you when people are being born and growing up? This is the real world and we have to plan for the future."
Caroline Snowdon, who lives in a house on a back road of Sandy Spring and works for the National Institutes of Health, says a few residents who live on the backroads are alcoholics because the cramped, poor living conditions affect their mental health.