George de Ramos did not know when he moved into Lexington Manor that people wanted to tear down the old cinder block houses. He was just looking for a home for his family.
When they moved here from the Philippines two years ago, he and his wife and children stayed with family for a while before looking for an apartment. They quickly found out how hard it would be without a local credit history to find a place to live. In a tight housing market, landlords did not want to take a chance on them. Then someone told them about Lexington Manor, better known as the "Flattops," the neighborhood across from Patuxent River Naval Air Station. They moved in for $375 a month, which was one-half to one-third of what they would pay most other places.
"We have no choice," he said recently, sitting in the living room, where his five sons sleep at night. "All the apartments are so high [in rent]. And we're just starting. We're just starting here."
He is finding it hard to get a foothold in America. Just months after he and his family moved into the Flattops, he heard that politicians were trying to wipe out the neighborhood, which had deteriorated for years under the previous ownership. He heard that some of the 342 houses, most of them abandoned now, are in the protected airspace of the Navy jets at Pax River.
It took years, persistence and cooperation for people to come up with an agreement and more than $13 million in county, state and federal funding for redevelopment of the Flattops.
Now, some say, comes the hard part: finding new places for the residents to live.
"It's an enormous problem," said Robert Tourigny, housing administrator for the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee, a private nonprofit agency that coordinates and provides social services. "There's just not enough existing housing stock available to absorb the number of units that will be displaced -- and certainly nothing being offered at the same affordability level as Lexington Manor. The market is just so much more expensive than Lexington Manor."
The average rent is about $350 a month for the units, which have from two to four bedrooms, said Tom Watts, manager of Essex South Management LLC, which bought the property this winter and began extensive cleanup and repairs to the run-down area.
Most three-bedroom apartments in St. Mary's County rent for at least $900 a month, Tourigny said.
"We've got a waiting list of people that want to move in," Watts said.
Last week, St. Mary's County commissioners held a public hearing on a proposed pilot program to waive or defer the impact fees charged for new construction if the housing is intended for low-income residents. If approved, it could save developers thousands of dollars per unit, perhaps providing an incentive to create more affordable housing.
The county is planning to build 100 low-income housing units nearby and will help Flattops tenants find new quarters and cover increased rent for several years. Housing Authority officials have begun working with some tenants.
"We'll be working with each individual family, figuring out what the individual needs are, looking and looking and looking to find the right place," said John Savich, director of economic and community development for St. Mary's.
The Tri-County Community Action Committee is trying to find money to build affordable housing, too.
"Hopefully, the tenants will be able to have newer, more efficient housing," Watts said.
Then the Navy would not have to worry about housing too close to the base, and the county would not have to worry about deteriorating housing in the middle of Lexington Park, a place local leaders have been working to revitalize with a new library, stores and many other improvements.
"If that all works out, everyone comes out of this a winner," Watts said.
Many tenants, though, are worried.
"We don't trust what the government is doing," said Lori Mellott, a vocal member of the Lexington Manor Survival Team. "They keep saying they're going to relocate us. We're like, 'Where?' There are projects in the works, but they're in such a hurry to get us out."
Some tenants worry about their bad credit ratings. Some worry that without a car, they will never find housing as convenient to stores and buses and jobs as the Flattops. Some worry that rent will keep going up.
De Ramos worries about how crowded his family is in the Flattops and about the roaches and the gunshots he heard one night. But he is more worried about where he and his family will go. Even with several of them working at a Holiday Inn and Wal-Mart, after they send money home to his parents in the Philippines and pay for food and gas and other essentials, they have not been able to save much -- and that is with the low Flattops rent.
"I think it's final," he said, looking down at the linoleum floor, mattresses propped up against the wall behind him. "They want us out of here."
The de Ramoses had been hoping to buy a house. They borrowed money from friends and family and thought they had a beautiful one being built on a corner lot. They took photos of the kids standing in front of the shell as it went up and planned their life there.
But at the very last minute, they found out their loan was denied. They still do not know where they will be able to live. "We are very sad," de Ramos said, "and very depressed."