A map yesterday of Takoma Park detailing properties with zoning violations incorrectly included streets in Prince George's County. The violations involve properties in the Montgomery County portion of the city. (Published 1/28/88)
Home for Richard and Kim Hickmon is a three-bedroom apartment in a small white house in Takoma Park. The living room is scattered with the toys of their two blond daughters. Rent is $700 a month, and the Woodland Avenue apartment is near some of the old houses Richard Hickmon is restoring. The Hickmons do not want to move.
Two blocks away on Carroll Avenue, Joyce Fraser and James Hart share a cramped apartment on the top floor of a seven-unit house. For $225 a month, they get a kitchen and a room just large enough for a single bed, a chair and a portable television. The shared bathroom is down the hall. Bus and subway are nearby, enabling the two to get to work at the Silver Spring Tastee Diner. Fraser and Hart cannot afford to move.
Come March 23, the Hickmons and Fraser and Hart may have no choice. On that date, under a largely ignored Montgomery County law passed a decade ago, hundreds of tenants in Takoma Park face eviction because their apartments violate zoning laws allowing only single-family houses through much of the city. The numbers are in dispute, but estimates of people facing eviction range from several hundred to perhaps 1,000.
The law's primary target was the absentee landlords who have illegally subdivided houses. But, as the deadline nears, an emotional debate has formed over the tenants caught in the squeeze between landlords and the county government.
The situation dates to the post-World War II days when a flood of new residents into the Washington area and a shortage of housing prompted homeowners and landlords to carve up single-family houses into multiple dwellings with as many as seven units. The county tolerated the illegal apartments until the 1970s, when a group of homeowners, upset that the units were unsightly, overcrowded nuisances, sued Montgomery to get it to enforce zoning laws.
Under the gun from that lawsuit, the council passed a law in 1978 giving the owners of those units 10 years -- until March 23, 1988 -- to convert the houses back to single-family buildings.
County administration officials, who appeared before the County Council yesterday to discuss the issue, maintain that they will enforce the law, a move that has sparked controversy in Takoma Park, a community that boasts of the ethnic and economic diversity within its 2.2 square miles but feels the pressures of homeowners concerned about their neighborhoods and property values.
Violations could result in fines of up to $250 a day to landlords.
More than 250 residents packed a hearing before the Takoma Park City Council last night and through spirited songs, speeches, banners and posters called for help in getting the law repealed. Although County Council members showed little interest yesterday in changing the law, the Takoma Park council is set to consider on Feb. 8 a variety of proposals it might recommend to the county.
County officials thought that the issue was settled a decade ago. However, this time new questions are raised by the very 1980s concerns of an increasing homeless population and the lack of affordable housing in a county of skyrocketing housing prices.
"I can't imagine, with the homeless situation we have with poor people, that a thousand middle-class people may be thrown out on the streets," said Maureen Lillis, a public health nurse who faces eviction from the Sycamore Avenue apartment she shares with her husband.
Reporting to the County Council yesterday on how he will enforce the law, Environmental Protection Director John L. Menke said, "The specter of mass evictions on March 23 is just not true. It can't happen. It won't happen. Nor should it happen." The law applies only to the Montgomery County side of Takoma Park and not to the part of the city in Prince George's County.
Menke told the council that 150 units in 87 buildings will be affected. He said 375 multifamily units are not threatened because they received special exemptions.
Takoma Park Mayor Stephen J. Del Giudice said he believes that the number of illegal units is at least double, maybe triple, county estimates. Tenant activists say the county is purposely underestimating the numbers and that their door-to-door surveys suggest that as many as 1,000 people could be displaced.
The renters mirror the eclectic makeup of this city of 16,000. There are students who attend nearby Montgomery College, young professionals, displaced homemakers, widowed elderly, and workers new to the area, many of them immigrants. Because most of the apartments are small, there are few large families, according to local housing activists, who say there are many single-parent households.
Dorothy Lane is a displaced homemaker who has lived in a one-bedroom unit on Carroll Avenue for eight months. She likes the family flavor of Takoma Park and says it is important that her son and daughter live in such an environment.
Lane does not think that she can find a comparable place for the $350 a month she pays in rent, and she vows that she will not lose her home again. "This is the first time I have ever stood up and fought for something I believe in," said Lane, who has become active in Habitants Opposing Mass Eviction (HOME), a group of tenants and landlords fighting for repeal of the law.
County officials said yesterday that they have compassion for the tenants and will help them move, but they said they think that there are good reasons to enforce the law. "There ought to be standards," said Richard J. Ferrara, director of housing and community development.
Ellen Marsh, a Takoma Park resident for 25 years, vividly recalls the dirt floor in a basement apartment she saw in the 1970s, when she joined the lawsuit to enforce the zoning law. She said that such poorly maintained houses posed a threat to "neighborhood stability."
City Council member Marc Elrich agreed that some of the units are "disgusting" but said that the solution does not have to be "evicting all these people." He shares a position with HOME that the problem of substandard units can be addressed through more rigorous enforcement of housing codes.
Among the concerns cited by HOME are the rising number of homeless people -- county shelters are at capacity -- and the failure to keep pace with affordable housing.
To some people, the potential evictions are a sign that the character of Takoma Park is being threatened. Asked Richard Hickmon, "What's more important, the property values of a bunch of yuppies or the rights of some law- abiding taxpayers?"
William Eckert, president of the B.F. Gilbert Citizens Association, countered, "It's unfortunate that the homeowners are called elitists, or yuppies who don't want to live with renters, or minorities or whatever. If you're like that, you don't live in Takoma Park."