ANNAPOLIS, MARCH 2 -- Takoma Park tenants facing eviction from their apartments under a controversial Montgomery County law took their case to state lawmakers today, showing a different side of a county often seen by legislators as affluent and problem free.
It is not all fat cats in Montgomery County, said Del. Dana L. Dembrow (D-Montgomery) as he urged a House committee to support a bill granting the City of Takoma Park certain zoning powers that would enable the city to stop the evictions.
Dembrow said that the county's problems with homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing would be worse if the county proceeds with plans to enforce a 10-year-old law phasing out apartments that were illegally carved out of houses in single-family zones throughout the city.
Dembrow and Dels. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) and Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) are sponsoring a bill that would give the Takoma Park City Council the power to allow the apartments to remain. The county now controls zoning in the city and has said it will enforce the law when it takes effect March 23.
Some of the tenants facing eviction -- a number estimated at several hundred to 1,000 -- appeared before the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee.
"Where can I go?" asked Evelyn Cameron, as she related the basic facts of her life -- an income of about $17,000, an alcoholic husband who contributes nothing, a dependency on public transportation, a household with five cats and "scads of books."
Jerry Jolles, a cashier making $5 an hour, said he pays $285 a month for a furnished room with a refrigerator and stove and simply cannot afford the $550 plus utilities that he said is the average price for an efficiency apartment in Montgomery County.
The tenants and one landlord who testified are members of HOME (Habitants Opposing Mass Evictions), which pitched a tent and signs outside the House of Delegates office building.
The group has previously taken the so-called Takoma Tent Towne to the homes of county officials.
The City of Takoma Park has taken no position on the proposed state legislation, but county government officials said they are opposed to it. Housing director Richard Ferrara termed it "an attempt to settle an internal political problem between the county and the City of Takoma Park by giving away the zoning powers piece by piece."
He said the County Council and executive spent a great deal of time looking at the issue before deciding to enforce the law.
Ferrara stressed that tenants would be helped and no one would be thrown out on the streets.
There were some raised eyebrows today by state officials over the County Council's refusal to hold a public hearing on the issues, a request made by tenants and the Takoma Park council. Asked why the County Council refused, Ferrara said, "I can't really answer that."
In an interview, Del. Michael R. Gordon (D-Montgomery), head of the county delegation and a member of the committee, faulted the council for not holding such a hearing. He said he had tried informally to get county officials to try to reach consensus with the city.
He said he is sympathetic to the arguments of tenants that there are housing problems that have emerged in the last decade that now call into question enforcement of the 1978 law.
Still, Gordon predicted that the proposed bill won't go anywhere because lawmakers in Annapolis don't like to interfere in purely local matters. "Annapolis should be the last resort," he said.
Dembrow and Franchot, however, said they hoped the bill would be voted out of committee for consideration by the full House. No committee vote has been set.