There once was a housing project in Prince George's kin Hill. The story of its metamorphosis from slum to slickness is rife with Cinderella overtones.
When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development assumed ownership of Pumpkin Hill in 1977, squatters were in the habit of burning cooking fires in its abandoned apartments. HUD hired armed guards to protect tenants living in the few units that were not condemned or flooded by broken pipes.
Within a cople of years, HUD was in agreement with county officials who wanted to demolish the project.
Enter Pumpkin Hill's fairy godmother, in the form of a Boston development firm with experience in rehabilitating failed federal housing projects. Corcoran, Mullins, Jennison Inc. eventually got a $13 million mortgage with HUD financing to take control of Pumpkin Hill, where the firm has proceeded to perform major surgery.
That was three years ago. Now the same officials who wanted to demolish Pumpkin Hill are calling the project -- renamed Villages at Montpelier -- "a model turnaround."
Lawns and landscaping now cover what were once barren clay lots. Buildings wear new coats of "earth tones" and interior landings are trimmed in oak and tile.
And finally, tenants have begun over the past two months to move into 15 of the 48 buildings expected to be finished and rented by next spring.
"Amazing. I don't believe it," said Joseph T. Healey, chief of the county's building inspectors, who once ordered his inspectors to forceably remove tenants from condemned Pumpkin Hill buildings. "It's the best looking job in the county."
"We're high on this one," said Charles Deegan, county license and permit department director. "This is the best thing that's ever happened to us. I'm telling everybody, 'This is how to run an apartment project in Prince George's County.'"
Pumpkin Hill's metamorphosis, officials say, stems from two factors:
First, the owners are following county regulations limiting the number of subsidized families to 20 percent, and mixing those families with higher income tenants who pay full rent. Management has retained about half of the subsidized lowor moderate-income tenants who were still living in the project when renovations began a year ago.
Second, the new owners have imposed strict management procedures. All prospective tenants are thoroughly screened. Maintenance is budgeted years in advance. And residents are offered a combination of services, such as job counseling and after-school programs, designed to instill a sense of community commitment to the project's success.
"This is impossible to do without subsidy programs," said J. Joseph Clarke, a vice president for Corcoran, Mullins who has spent the last year and a half working with local and federal officials and a slew of other people in setting up the Villages at Montpelier. "And yet, this is exactly what they [subsidy programs] should be doing: resurrecting existing housing at a minimal cost to the government."
In addition to subsidizing rents of the 104 low-income families the project will have, HUD loaned CMJ the full $13.1 million needed to buy and renovate the project. HUD gave the developing company a 40-year, 7.5-percent mortgage, according to Richard A. Kaiser, director of HUD's regional office in Washington.
Also, federal law allows 20 percent of the project -- those units rented by subsidized tenants -- to be depreciated over five years.
Ironically, $13 million is nearly the same amount that HUD put into the creation and sustenance of Pumpkin Hill, a project that the county's chief of inspectors Healy said "was on the way down from Day One."
When Pumpkin Hill, originally 600 units, first opened in 1968, it showed promise. It accepted moderate- as well as low-income tenants, and many of people employed at the National Security Agency, NASA and Fort Meade liked the location, which is halfway up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
But then there were layoffs at NASA Maintenance was on the decline and trash began to accumulate, and these relatively reliable tenants began to leave.
While the buildings and grounds continued to deteriorate, officials said, low-income families were allowed to fill vacancies. By the time Pumpkin Hill's owner -- developer Ralph D. Rocks -- turned most of the project back to HUD in 1977, county officials were condemning apartments whenever they became vacant.
Rocks and the partners he took on throughout the years appear to have made substantial sums through subsidies and tax write-offs, from the time he arranged the land deal in 1964 to the end 13 years later and after his management firms and partnerships had left HUD with years of suspended mortgage payments and deferred interest payments, according to a Washington Post review of HUD records on the project.
HUD found itself unable to manage an encampment of boarded-up buildings flooded with water from broken pipes, crawling with rats, mice and cockroaches; and overrun with violent crime. Even the parking lot was a shambles -- filled with dirt, debris and junked cars. County politicians campaigned to shut down and demolish Pumpkin Hill and six other fully subsidized projects.
Under an agreement with HUD, county officials did tear down Baber Village in Seat Pleasant, three of Pumpkin Hill's 51 buildings and several other apartment buildings at similar complexes. Meanwhile, 144 families, scattered among units sealed off with plywood and brick, remained at Pumpkin Hill.
Officials said Pumpkin Hill's failure came from shoddy maintenance and from allowing the project to fill up with poor families, leaving them stranded miles away from anything but a 7-Eleven store.
The approach Corcoran, Mullins has taken at projects in Lynn, Mass., and now at Pumpkin Hill is one that government housing authorities have long sought to revitalize failed projects.
"Tenant selection is part of it and so is the maintenance scheme," said Kenneth Duncan, County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan's chief administrative assistant. "Project management -- that's the whole story."
Managers at the complex have interviewed subsidized as well as full-paying tenants, screening out those with bad rental references or bad credit, according to Alice E. Avitabile, a marketing agent there. One-bedroom apartments at Pumpkin Hill rent for $355 per month, two-bedrooms for $450.
Since Corcoran, Mullins bought the project for $938,375 one year ago, the number of subsidized families living in the project has been whittled down to 78 from 144 as managers evicted those who were "problems," according to Peter O'Connell, the current project manager.
"We do a very careful background check to make sure they don't skip out and that they pay their bills," Jones said.
Those who stayed, said Jones, the company's vice president, are placed in apartments suitable to their family needs. The cost of moving into other quarters while their apartments were being renovated was paid by CMJ, Jones said.
"We've hired a full-time social services coordinator. And one of his responsibilities is to make sure that tenants who have been living here have no problems in adjusting," Jones said. "They've been through stressful circumstances. And they've been good tenants, and we don't want to lose them."
Managers set up a residents' association and asked members what they wanted in the rehabilitation project.
County officials said Montpelier's resident services are unlike any other project in the county.
"If your car doesn't start on a freezing cold morning, they'll come and give you a jump start. If you're a senior citizen or disabled and you can't get to the drug store, they'll pick up your prescription. If the weather's bad and you can't get out, they'll get your groceries for you," Healey said.
"They're spending $70,000 on recreation programs," said Deegan, the county's licensing and permits director. "When the kids get off school at 3:30, they've got something to be doing until their parents get home at 5:30."
"It's not just recreation; it's social services," Jones said."Ordinarily there are sociological problems that have to be dealt with at the same time you are dealing with housing problems. It's a broader concept than just providing people with a place to live."
Lawrence Miller, the social services director hired by CMJ, has started a Boy Scout troop, counseled tenants on getting job training and has helped them arrange high-school equivalency exams or sign up for college courses.
The buildings themselves have undergone a transformation from roof to basement. Jones pointed to the edges of the buildings, where he said backhoes dug out trenches that allowed contractors to waterproof exterior walls below ground level to halt leaks. Most of what used to be basement apartments have been converted into laundry and storage space.
In several buildings, the project designers have set up special apartments that can be readied to match six others designed for wheelchairs and fitted with ground floor ramps, large bathrooms and special doors.
Each apartment has a cable television hookup, although service is not yet available. Also, tenants can scan visitors by flicking the channels on their television sets to the camera aimed at each building's front door.
On the grounds, wood trim caps railings and fences. Landscaping is planted twice a year.
Gloria Davis, who works as a research assistant and in telephone sales to support her three children, has lived at the project since 1977. She has watched its transformation from Pumpkin Hill to HUD's South Laurel Mutual Homes and to the Villages at Montpelier.
"A lot of people moved, because they didn't believe anything was going to change," Davis said. "But from what I have seen, from the calibre of people they're looking for to fill up these apartments, I think it's going to work.
"They basically have new apartments after they're done" renovating, she said. "They showed us in films what they can do. And now they're showing us with bricks and wood what is possible. It is really possible."