Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has begun a campaign against the county's low-quality housing that may shut down hundreds of rental units and force thousands of people to find new homes in the coming months.
County housing inspectors condemned a large federally subsidized, low-income housing project Thursday, and will order 413 families to find new housing by the end of the month. Unless the owners of the project, South Laurel Mutual Homes, known until recently as Pumpkin Hill, correct thousands of building and fire code violations by Feb. 28, county officials plan to destroy all 51 apartment buildings in the complex.
In addition, county officials have suspended the rental licenses of 18 apartment complexes since Hogan took office, and have scheduled hearings on the licenses of 16 other projects during the coming month.
Hogan has already approved the razing of part of the federally subsidized Gregory Estates project in Seat Pleasant and has rejected a proposal by a group of developers to rehabilitate what remains of the project with federal funds.
"These places are either going to come up to code, or we are going to run them out of business," said Joseph T. Healy, deputy director of the county Department of Licenses and Permits. "I know it's a hard line for us to be evicting these people, but we can't continue to let them live in these conditions."
"Prince George's County has the highest percentage of low income and the lowest percentage of high income residents in the metropolitan area," Hogan said yesterday. "Projects like Gregory Estates are just perpetuating this."
Hogan's attempts to shut down federal housing projects -- even those with serious code violations -- are likely to be opposed by federal authorties, however, Last year federal officials obtained a court order preventing former executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. from razing part of the Baber Village federal housing project.
"I assume (a court action) is what we have to do," said A1 Goldstein, an economist with the area office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. "We understand that there have been some real problems with projects like Pumpkin Hill, but we don't want to see all the people dislocated from them. We want to rehabilitate them."
"Hogan seems to be going overboard," Goldstein said: "We know that Hogan has problems with some of these projects, and his complaints are justified.But there is a shrinking number of rental units in the area, and we don't want it to shrink further because of these subtle condemnation tactics. Low-income housing is something that needs to be preserved."
The South Laurel Mutual Homes project was declared unfit for human habitation after housing inspectors said the complex was filled with trash, and had rodents, fire hazards and serious building code violations. Sewer pipes were frozen in many areas, officials said, and many families were without heat or running water.
The residents of the project were notified yesterday that they must move. However, most did not know by yesterday afternoon that they had only 10 days in which to find other accommodations.
Technically, county housing inspectors can allow the project to remain open after Feb. 28 if violations are corrected, but officials said yesterday that the project's management has said that it will not spend any money to correct violations. "We're going to seek a court order to raze it on Feb. 28," Healey said yesterday.
William Strode, who manages the Laurel project for Multi-Services Housing Inc., could not be reached for comment yesterday. The 10-year-old project is owned by developers Ralph D. Rocks and William L. Kahler, according to the county.
Eleven families were evacuated from the project yesterday because they had no heat or water in their homes. Meanwhile, dozens of other residents were beginning to feel the shock of having 10 days to find a new apartment.
"I can't believe this," said Margaret Schaffery who lives in the project with her daughter and son and is supported by social security checks. "Good grief, no one told us we had to leave by the 28th. We can't do it -- we don't have the money now."
"I'm in shock," said another resident who lives in a three-bedroom apartment with five children. "How could they do this to us? I can't find another apartment that soon. I'm going to have to pull my kids out of school, and I've got no place to take them."
Charles Ross, deputy director of the county housing authority, said yesterday 51 families in the project who are now supported by federal rent subsidies would receive assistance in finding other accommodations. "The others are going to be pretty much on their own," he added.
Hogan's press aide, Barbara Coleman, said last night that the county Department of Social Services would also "be involved" in finding new homes for displaced families. According to county officials, about 70 percent of the residents of the South Laurel complex are black.
"We're concerned about the safety of the people there," said Healy. "I would rather have these people move out and stay with someone else, where it's safe, than have a fire there and get two or three kids killed. Then everyone would say that the county didn't do anything to prevent it," he said.
Multi-Service Housing officials have appealed the condemnation of their project to the county Landlord-Tenant Commission. A hearing will be held Wednesday, officials said.
The county's decision to order about half of the 30 buildings in the Gregory Estates project in Seat Pleasant demolished came after "thousands of violations" and "at least 478 police and fire calls" were reported at the project since October, according to Healy.
"The owners said one year ago they would redevelop it with HUD money," Healy said. "But they've done absolutely nothing. Nothing has happened out there," he said.
John Lally, attorney for James Brucket, a major investor in Gregory Estates and president of the Bank of Columbia in Washington, said his group "had already taken measures to make the vacant building more secure. We're working with Edgewood Management and H. R. Crawford on that now. H. R. is throwing the drug addicts, the winos, out now. We are being good managers."
A Gregory Estates-Brucket proposal to renovate the three-story, red-brick buildings with HUD financing has been rejected by Hogan, however. Hogan said the plan, which would require that at least 60 percent of the units be supported by federal subsidies, would be "the last thing Seat Pleasant would want.
"We are just going to get some more outside investors who come in and rehabilitate and make a fast buck on it," Hogan said.
Seat Pleasant Mayor Henry Arrington supports the Brucket-Gregory Estates proposal for the housing project. "The mayor's position is very strong," said Prince George's County Council member Floyd Wilson, who attended the meeting. "There is no one in Tantallon saying they'll take low-income housing. The staff is telling Hogan it's the entrance to the county. They think it should look like Chevy Chase. But it's not practical for the area. You can't develop all the county in $85,000 to $125,000 houses," he said.