At Patuxent Woods, a rural Southern Maryland slum less than an hour's drive from Washington, poor families lived on dirt roads in run-down houses without plumbing.
The properties, the Charles County commissioners were surprised to learn, belonged to them. Furthermore, the former landlord was still collecting rent from the residents, five years after he had forfeited ownership for failing to pay property taxes.
That was in April 1991. Today, the families all live elsewhere in subsidized housing the county found for them. The former landlord, William D. Zantzinger, 52, was fined $50,000 and is serving 18 months in a work-release program. The county has razed the unfit houses it owned and is working to build affordable housing in their place -- an effort that won praise from the National Association of Counties.
Patuxent Woods quickly became emblematic of lingering problems of rural poverty hidden off the main roads just beyond Washington's suburbs.
The Maryland Real Estate Commission, in fining Zantzinger $2,000 this past April, described the Patuxent Woods houses as "ramshackle, primitive structures reminiscent of slave quarters." Zantzinger has appealed the fine.
When the story of Patuxent Woods surfaced, the county commissioners considered civil action against Zantzinger to recover the rents he charged, but that hasn't happened. "There was some feeling among the commissioners that since he got the maximum fine of $50,000, and 50 percent goes to the county general treasury, that that was tantamount to a recovery," said County Attorney Roger Fink.
Zantzinger's real estate license expired in March and wasn't renewed, but he still is allowed to manage property, sell new houses and maintain his auctioneer business. In addition, he helps his wife run an antique shop in Newburg, said Lt. Charles "Casey" McDevitt, the county jail director.
In 1963, Zantzinger was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Hattie Carroll, a black barmaid and grandmother, who suffered a fatal stroke after Zantzinger struck her with a cane at a society ball in Baltimore. He served six months in jail, and the incident inspired Bob Dylan to write a song about it, "The Lonely Death of Hattie Carroll."
The county commissioners decided to spend their entire federal community development block grant of $370,000 on Patuxent Woods, passing over other projects an advisory panel had recommended.
In June, the county issued a news release trumpeting the award it received from the National Association of Counties, which said its remedial efforts at Patuxent Woods had "successfully addressed significant concerns in your county."
The news release prompted the Waldorf Independent to suggest in an editorial that the county should have received a geography award instead "for finally finding a place it had owned" for several years.