When the $715 rent comes due on the apartment she shares with her son, daughter and mother in the Glenmont area of Montgomery County, Maggie Beckford hands over virtually her entire monthly take-home pay from two jobs.
"Everything I earn goes for rent," said Beckford, 29, a native of Panama who works full time as a receptionist and part time as a drug store clerk, and who says her life has been a financial struggle since her divorce several years ago.
Beckford said she would like to move to a less expensive place, but has been unable to find another three-bedroom apartment for under $800 a month. Montgomery County had the second-highest rents among counties in the nation in the last census. By 1985, three-bedroom apartments in Montgomery were averaging $664 a month, nearly $100 above the average for the metropolitan area.
A few miles south of Beckford's apartment building, in a neighborhood of modest houses a short walk from Wheaton Plaza, is a potential answer to her housing problems: an abandoned shell of a 40-year-old elementary school called Pleasant View. Closed since 1982, Pleasant View is slated for use as a county-sponsored living center, including day care and counseling, for 50 single-parent families trying to live on well under $20,000 a year each.
But at Pleasant View, public policy has run up against a wall of community resistance, reflecting the difficulty encountered when a county's goal of helping poor families conflicts with the goals and fears of neighborhoods.
Strong opposition has arisen in Wheaton, from both older homeowners anxious to preserve the value of property they worked hard to buy, and from younger town house and condominium buyers worried about an influx of young children.
The dispute over Pleasant View is a replay of a similar community uproar that arose three years ago when similar low-income housing was proposed for the abandoned Belt Junior High School in Wheaton.
"There isn't any place in Montgomery County where you can introduce anything without a flap," said veteran low-income housing consultant Peg McRory, a board member of Crossways Community, the nonprofit organization that hopes to manage Pleasant View.
While subsidized housing is often accepted by a community once it is established, no section of Montgomery opens its arms initially, according to spokesmen for county housing agencies. The county has an inventory of 63 surplus schools, including several that have been used or approved for housing the elderly, but none have been used for young or poor families.
"No matter where you put the 50 units of this type of housing, you're going to put a tremendous stress on the neighborhood," said Norman Knoff, an attorney for civic associations and 300 homeowners in a suit against the county. "That's why people throughout the United States no longer build concentrated units like this: It's 1940s planning in the 1980s."
Knoff recently filed a second lawsuit against the county on behalf of the Pleasant View neighbors, who say they are personally sympathetic to the needs of single parents and their children. But as retired persons and others on moderate incomes, they say they are uneasy about the zoning implications of a multifamily building in their midst.
The neighbors regard the trash-strewn, post-World War II school as an eyesore. But civic association leader Harry Maragides, who has lived nearby on College View Drive for 28 years, said converting it to multifamily use might serve only as a "Trojan horse" for development. Allowing it could ultimately open the way for exceptions to single-family zoning at a time when Metro-related development in Wheaton is accelerating, he maintained.
Montgomery County officials intend to spend more than $3 million to convert the vandalized facility at 3015 Upton Dr. into apartments for single parents with no more than three children. No children over the age of 12 would be allowed and families could live there for two years, paying monthly rents of $200 to $400.
The neighborhood's three civic associations had not raised major objections several years ago when the county initially considered converting the school into apartments for the elderly. Many living nearby in $100,000, three-bedroom houses are themselves past retirement.
Crossways was begun six years ago to assist single parents, whose ranks are growing and whose problems cut across lines of class, income and race. Women's rights groups say divorce has led to the "feminization of poverty" as newly divorced mothers help expand the ranks of the working poor in many areas of the country.
Nationally, a fourth of all families are headed by single parents, and half of them have incomes that put them below the federal poverty standards, according to federal statistics. In Montgomery, divorced, separated or widowed women with children dominate the waiting list of more than 5,000 people seeking publicly assisted housing. The county has up to 23,000 families headed by single parents, according to Crossways.
Low-income families' search for housing has been further complicated in recent years because condominium and adults-only conversions have trimmed thousands of rental units from the market for families, housing officials say.
Children in poor families suffer most when proposed housing projects such as Pleasant View are blocked, said McRory of Crossways. "Turning our backs on the future is what we're doing . . . . It's crazy. It's worth fighting for."
Civic activists and officials opposed to the concept of concentrated housing for low-income families, including County Council President Rose Crenca, the only council member to oppose Pleasant View, contend that the answer to the housing needs of the Maggie Beckfords of Montgomery County is to scatter assisted families in apartments throughout the county.
"This is not a question of 'not in my neighborhood,' " said Crenca, who said there is suitable apartment space in her area of eastern Silver Spring and says she supports rent subsidies for low-income families. Housing advocates, on the other hand, say Crenca has voted against scattered-site housing proposals in the past.
Maggie Beckford scrapes by with a little assistance from her mother, a nursing home employe. During the Christmas season, she is shortchanging herself on sleep to earn $200 a week more in an additional full-time job as an overnight stock clerk at a Bradlee's department store.
The $300 her husband sends for child support barely covers child care when her mother is not available to look after the children, Beckford said.
"I do what I can for the kids," she said. But "the more we look" for suitable apartments, said Beckford of single mothers, "the less we find." She has been on the waiting list for assisted housing since last year, Beckford said.