As low-income public housing projects go, Parkway Woods is tiny. There are no rows of identical apartment buildings, no gray skyscrapers in the development, nestled off Twinbrook Parkway in Rockville -- just 24 two-story, cedar and brick townhouses with neat, square lawns and a basketball court in back.
Parkway Woods, which will house only two dozen of the 9,500 families and individuals whose names are on Montgomery County's waiting list for subsidized housing, hardly seems a cause for celebration.
But at the project's dedication two weeks ago, the gang was all there: the commissioners and staff of the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), which is responsible for all subsidized housing in the county and which contracted and financed Parkway Woods; several of Montgomery's state legislators; County Council members; park and planning board members; representatives of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; civic leaders; and the residents of the new houses. They gathered on Parkway Woods' basketball court to hear a minister and a rabbi bless the modest homes.
After the benedictions, several local officials offered their own prayers, though not for Parkway Woods. Their speeches focused on defense of the agency responsible for the project, the HOC, which is currently under attack from politicians and a growing coalition of civic groups.
The opponents, according to Sandy Spring community leader Gwen Edsall, want to "revamp" the organization and stop it from "forcing public housing down our throats."
In the process, they may stop HOC altogether, say the commission's supporters. Backed by numerous homeowners' organizations, four county legislators recently proposed 15 bills they say would change the housing commission's operating procedures and make it accountable to the people who live in neighborhoods where public housing is planned. But members of HOC say the proposed legislation, if passed, "would put HOC out of the development business," said HOC executive director Bernard Tetreault.
HOC's opponents believe the proposed legislation will impose a now-missing system of checks and balances. The agency's commissioners counter that it was restructured in 1974 to avoid just that kind of local involvement. Insulated as they now are from the political process and community pressures, commissioners argue, they are able to do what is best for the whole county and for the politically powerless -- the poor.
As an example of legislation that would severely restrict HOC activity, Tetreault cited a bill that would compel the commission to hold an unlimited number of public hearings as soon as a prospective location for a low-income project is chosen, then wait 90 days before letting out bids. He charged that the proposed law is intended to give community groups time to stop a project through whatever means they can devise.
Among the 15 bills, several would make public HOC's files and budget, and the financial records of the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children and spouses of HOC's five commissioners, as well as those of the commissioners themselves. Another would compel the HOC to present its budget at a public hearing before it is approved by the County Council.
One of five bills aimed at changing the agency's commissioner selection process would require that "appointees . . . be confirmed only after a public hearing." Several of the bills would allow the County Council to veto HOC funds even when the money came from the federal government.
The proposed legislation will be the subject of public hearings Oct. 20 in Montgomery before it is sent to the state House of Delegates for consideration during the General Assembly session beginning in January. Introduced by delegates Joel Chasnoff (D), Sheila Hixson (D), Robin Ficker (R) and Ida Ruben (D), the bills probably will be consolidated as a package before they go on to the assembly. Most delegates say they are keeping an open mind about the proposed bills until the public hearings.
At the dedication of Parkway Woods, speakers did not discuss the legislation, but instead referred to "HOC's challenge in the next decade." Members of the commission suggested that the attacks on the agency are symptomatic of the county's -- and nation's -- growing conservative mood. Others spoke of hard times and the resurgence of social prejudices they may bring.
Said County Council member Esther Gelman in an interview: "Much of the attack on HOC is against people helping people and reaching out a hand to people less fortunate then they are. . . . We're turning our backs on our own children, our own teachers, our firemen, our friends and neighbors. We should remember HOC has done some excellent things for the homeless."
Until 1974, HOC -- a public corporation authorized by state and local laws to build, own and manage housing for people of low and moderate income in Montgomery County -- was allowed to build only public housing projects. But that year, the state legislature, at the request of Montgomery delegates, greatly expanded the commission's functions, empowering the HOC to oversee all forms of subsidized housing.
For example, the commission now administers federal, state and local housing assistance funds to offer rental and home-ownership opportunities to persons of low and moderate means (a family of four pays 25 percent of its income in rent if it earns less than $17,400 a year after taxes) and for the elderly and the handicapped. HOC finances purchases with below-market interest rates of 14 percent, and through a program called "scattered-site housing," it buys houses throughout the county and resells them at below-market prices to families who need financial help.
Seven men and women appointed by the county executive and council for terms of five years serve as HOC commissioners, and in that capacity set the organization's policy for acquisition of land, potential project locations, density and financing.
With a yearly budget of $14 million, HOC owns and manages 600 parcels of land. Some are single-family houses in quiet neighborhoods. Others, such as Emory Grove Village and Magruder's Discovery, house more than 100 families and individuals in low-rise apartment buildings on one site. The commission provides or helps with the housing of more than 6,000 families and individuals and has a waiting list of 9,500 names -- 6,000 households awaiting public housing and 3,500 for HOC's other financing programs.
Although most of the opposition is focused on the agency's public housing projects, only a fraction of its time and money are spent on that department. In the past seven years, HOC has built only two housing developments with a total of 43 units: Ken-Gar in Kensington, with 19 townhouses, and Parkway Woods.
Currently, however, HOC is planning to build more than 200 units of public housing on four plots: 60 dwellings at the Patterson Tract in Sandy Spring, 55 at the Boswell development in Olney, 43 units at a site off Mateney Road in Germantown, and 48 units at the proposed Broadmore townhouse development in Colesville.
It is around these four projects that the opposition has gathered, gained strength and set in motion the legislative attack on the agency's operations.
Leading the opposition is Gwen Edsall, who heads a civic group called GAGE -- Guardians Against Government Encroachment.
Like many other residents of communities where HOC has planned developments, Edsall said her main gripe is that the housing agency won't listen to local opinion.
"The way I'd like to see it would be if HOC let citizens say, 'Look, we know our communities, . . . we know where public housing can go so it won't disrupt our neighborhood.'
"The problem is," Edsall said, "that HOC doesn't have to answer to anyone. We'd like to make them answerable to us."
Much controversy has surrounded the planned development at Sandy Spring, where HOC had hoped to build 60 town houses as low-income housing. Community leaders said their neighborhood could absorb only 30 units. The negotiations between the community and the housing agency have reached a stalemate.
Also at an impasse is the Broadmore development in Colesville, where neighborhood organizations of surrounding areas banded together to stop the proposed 48 units of low-income housing. In what is becoming a typical tactic, two groups, the Tamarac Triangle Association and the Greater Colesville Citizens Association, approached local and state politicians and HUD officials in their effort to halt plans for the project.
Their claim -- that public housing will destroy the quality of their neighborhood -- often is used as an argument against HOC's efforts to install public housing.
Said Rose Crenca, a County Council member who strongly supports the proposed legislation: "Our problem is not one of black and white. It's one of green -- that's the color of money. People don't want to live in an area where there is a lower socioeconomic class." She said she favors the agency's scattered-site program.
Crenca says poor people tend to bring crime into neighborhoods and lower test scores into local schools. "It may be arrogance, but in Montgomery County, we are proud of our schools. People don't want their schools destroyed by children with lower test scores. . . . They'd rather take their kids out."
She continued, "I'm not going to say that all poor people are slobs. There are rich slobs and poor slobs. But rich people can pay someone to clean up after them. Poor people cannot. . . . Poor people may not be as likely to paint their houses and keep up their lawns."
To every charge against it, the housing commission has a response.
Their first defense is to cite some of the county's HOC housing:
Leafy House, a low-rise, 141-unit development for the elderly that HOC manages. It is an example of "shelter care," where the staff supplies three meals a day and medical care to people who otherwise would be placed in nursing homes.
Ken-Gar, one of the agency's few identifiable public housing projects, is a mixture of single-family houses and four-family town houses of cedar and brick for a total of 19 families. The project has had a tenant turnover rate of just 2 percent. Its lawns are well kept and small children play in front of the homes while mothers in aprons look on. "Does this look like a slum?" asks HOC public relations director Joyce Siegal.
At Parkway Woods, HOC's most recent project, residents sit outside their new homes and talk about the joys of finally "being able to breathe easy."
"I feel like I can live a while now," said Myra Clark, who used to live in Silver Spring, where her rent took almost all her pay and government aid. On HOC's waiting list since 1976, Clark said, "It's a wonderful feeling here. Everyone smiles at each other. It's like you won the Maryland lottery and you're on top of the world."
"Living in a place like this gives you dignity. . . . You've got a place to call home," said her neighbor, Mertie Mason.
HOC also will direct you to what they call their "warts" -- Emory Grove in Gaithersburg, Bel Pre Square and Washington Village, which many residents consider isolated from all but other low-income projects. Others say the development's drab architecture makes it a depressing place, and HOC opponents point to these projects as examples of the noise, crime and poor maintenance that come with public housing.
"We've made our mistakes, and we'll make more," said commissioner Cathy Bernard. "But we speak for the people who need public housing. . . . They are our constituents."
Staffers at HOC believe there is no direct relation between crime and public housing, and that their residents usually care for their homes as well as other members of the community.
HOC executive director Tetreault acknowledges that the average middle-income family has worked hard for its home and probably resents those who are getting HOC aid. "Times are tough," Tetreault said, "People have started seeing their homes as economic assets. They don't want anything to challenge that."
Echoing Tetreault is former county planning board chairman Royce Hanson: "The total amount of housing production is way down and costs are way up. People are worried about living near anyone with a different status. It might lower their property values. This goes beyond racism, I'm afraid; it's more a question of social and class prejudice."
Both sides of the controversy say the battle is just beginning.
"The ironic thing about this is when it's all over, and if the bills are passed, they will have stopped HOC's ability to administer all of its programs, not just public housing," said Tetreault.
Referring to the civic groups behind the legislation, he said, "They may know that, and they may not.
"And then again, they may not care."