WOODS WORK: With government help, Rhode Island company plans to buy, refurbish Baltimore County low-income apartment complex


The mice have taken over the Lake in the Woods apartment complex in Lansdowne, some residents say. The creatures come and go at will, as does the cold air under ill-fitting steel doors and sewage that backs up into basement units, the residents say.

It's an old story, one that has put the 18-year-old, run-down complex on local television newscasts and in newspaper stories before.

Now, however, the situation may be changing.

With federal approval imminent, and lots of help from Baltimore County and state governments, a complicated series of loans is expected to enable a Rhode Island company to buy and refurbish the 303 units and build a new 4,000-square-foot community building, while keeping the low-income tenants for which the complex was built in 1972.

The $17.8 million deal includes $2.1 million in state money and $550,000 in county block grant funds provided by the federal government. Local and federal officials said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will approve the deal soon.

The arrangement would guarantee the units for low-income people for the next 30 years. It also would allow the Landex Corp. to buy and rebuild the 23-building garden apartment complex from the rutted, pot-holed parking lots to the broken windows, doors and rotting stairwells.

Another $4 million loan was made possible by guarantees from the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, and $6.8 million is to come from private investment. Landex also is to assume the $4 million still outstanding in debt. Interest and rents are to provide another $300,000.

A special feature in the agreement is the creation of a non-profit tenants' association, which would own 5 percent of the project. The arrangement is to allow the tenants to buy the complex and convert it to a co-op after 15 years. The new Circle Terrace Tenant Association also is to be active participants in managing the complex, according to the agreements, which call for security guards and social workers to keep the place from deteriorating again.

The prospect is exciting for Lynn Silver, a 36-year-old mother of three who is leading tenants in working on the conversion.

Complex roadways are so bad she has had extensive front-end damage to her car just from riding in and out, she said. She pays $465 a month for her two-bedroom unit and sleeps on the living room couch to give her kids the two bedrooms.

"We've been fighting . . . for 16 years, said Theresa Lowery, president of the Greater Bloomfield, Riverview, Lansdowne Improvement Association and an activist in the area. "They were allowed to build that [Lake in the Woods] at the very minimum standards."

Built around the watery remnants of one of the old quarries in southwestern Baltimore County, Lake in the Woods is located between the city line and the Harbor Tunnel Thruway intersection with the Beltway, just north of Hollins Ferry Road.

Leslie M. Pittler, director of Baltimore County's Department of Community Development, said the renovation deal is important because the complex otherwise likely would have been condemned, putting out hundreds of low income families.

"This [development] was in the most deplorable condition of any I've seen in four years, and it's getting worse every day," he said.

He credited the county's pressure through its new rental housing code, and efforts by the state and federal governments, Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd, and the private purchaser with bringing the renovation plans to fruition.

"It's gone down a lot," said Kim Satchell, 23, who has lived in the complex since she was 9. Now she has a 21-month-old daughter and an apartment of her own.

The steady decline in maintenance and the resulting physical deterioration has brought in a rougher element of people and only worsened conditions, she said.

Mice scamper in and out of her third-floor apartment through holes behind the gas stove and cracks in the door, she said. A gusty December wind blew in around the ill-fitting door as she talked. The open stairwells are adorned with graffiti. Trash is sometimes heaved over the fence around the nearby lake instead of being thrown into big green receptacles on the parking lots.

About 80 of the units, mostly basement ones, are empty, their windows boarded. The county has cited the complex for about 400 fire-code violations and more than 2,000 housing code violations since 1989, county officials said. In March, the county put up seven families in local motels after sewage backed up into their units.

County police COPE (Citizen Oriented Police Enforcement) officers have spent hundreds of hours trying to help tenants root out drug dealers and other undesirables.

Community Development officials began talking about some long-range solution to the problems in early 1989 and have been working for about a year to get federal approval for the complex financing arrangement.

Landex Corp., the buyer, has experience in the field, having refurbished the Kingsley Park Apartments in Essex. A delegation of Lansdowne residents inspected that job and came away pleased, Theresa Lowery said.

"If they do one-quarter of the job they did at Kingsley Park," she said, "it will be great."

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