CLARIFICATION: A headline in yesterday's Metro section may have created the impression that the possible evictions of hundreds of residents of Takoma Park have been delayed. The decision on whether to delay enforcement for one year has not yet been made by the Montgomery County Council. (Published 2/23/88)
Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer has put a hold on his administration's efforts to enforce a 10-year-old law that could force the evictions of hundreds of Takoma Park tenants. The temporary move comes while Kramer considers a one-year delay in the evictions proposed by the Takoma Park City Council.
The City Council -- in a tempestuous session Tuesday that saw police summoned and the council retreat behind locked doors -- voted 4 to 3 to ask the county to extend for one year the March 23 deadline for the conversion of an estimated 150 illegal apartments. The apartments violate county zoning laws permitting only single-family houses through much of the city.
Kramer said he told housing and environmental protection officials not to send letters, scheduled to be sent last week to tenants and landlords affected by the change, until he had time to consider the city's proposal.
Kramer has set a meeting on the issue for today, when he may make his recommendation to the County Council, which has final authority. Last month, Kramer urged the County Council to begin enforcing the controversial law on March 23. He pledged "compassionate enforcement" and argued that nothing would be gained by a delay.
During the County Council's Jan. 26 discussion of the issue, a clear and strong majority of council members said they opposed a delay.
The dispute centers on an estimated 150 housing units created since World War II by homeowners and landlords who carved up single-family houses into multiple dwellings with as many as seven units. The county tolerated the illegal units until the 1970s, when a group of homeowners sued the county, citing unsightly, crowded conditions.
Council President Michael L. Subin said last week that he did not see any movement for further delay, but he added that a recommendation by the county executive could influence the council. Council member Isiah Leggett said yesterday he will introduce legislation this week seeking a one-year delay of enforcement. He said he was not optimistic about the bill's chances because it appears to have the support of only one council member, Bruce Adams.
The issue has built into an emotional, sometimes ugly controversy. Kramer in recent weeks indicated a willingness to consider the city's position. "I always had a strong feeling that local government is in the best position to deal with local issues," he told the Montgomery County Press Association Feb. 5. "I'd like to know what the mayor and City Council feel is a solution to the problem."
Last week's narrowly approved city action was not exactly the strong message sought by Kramer, and some say they believe that it forces him to take the lead. The resolution calls upon the County Council to delay enforcing the law for a year, but it proposes complicated changes to county zoning law. The changes -- seen as unacceptable and unworkable by many county planning experts -- would permit most of the illegal apartments to continue.
The split in the city vote was attributed by some to the disagreement about the zoning changes.
The conduct of the Takoma Park meeting -- the council hurriedly voted and rushed off the stage amid the jeers, shouts and protest songs of 250 tenants and their supporters, and police charged nine persons with failure to leave a public building -- tended to reinforce the view of some county officials that emotionalism, not realism, drives the city's politics.
"They are unrealistic as a corporate body," said a County Council member who echoed a view held by other county officials that city-county relations are not as harmonious as they could be.
Kramer said the City Council split and rowdy vote "muddy the waters." Still, he said, it is an action of the council.
"I think we did the job we had to do. I think we did the best we could," said City Council member James C. Douglas. Mayor Stephen J. Del Giudice, who does not have a vote, said that while there are parts of the resolution he does not favor, it represents "the will and judgment of the council."
Sources close to Kramer said last week that he seems torn by the arguments. On the one hand, sources said, he feels obligated to enforce the law and thinks it is a good one because it upholds housing and zoning standards.
But Kramer believes that a one-year extension might be in order because the city and county failed to inform people adequately about the approaching deadline. Also, sources said Kramer is mindful of the political fallout from the issue.
There are strong feelings on each side. Tenants and their supporters, who have formed Habitants Opposing Mass Eviction (HOME), say county officials have vastly underestimated the number of people who would be displaced -- estimates range from several hundred to 1,000. They argue that the evictions would worsen the county's homelessness problem.
In the past two weeks, the homeowner group whose lawsuit provoked the dilemma has been reactivated. Frances Phipps, a Holly Avenue resident who belongs to the Save Takoma Park Committee 1988, said landlords have had 10 years of income and should phase out the properties. The time has come, she said, "to bite the bullet."
According to County Council staff, it would take at least 31 days before the law could be changed to allow an extension. A bill pending in the General Assembly would give Takoma Park its own zoning power. Sponsors of that legislation have characterized it as an attempt to prod local officials to reach agreement.