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In wealthy Howard County, poor feel trapped, look for ways to make do

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Each month, retirees Neal and Hattie Vaughn live on what the average Howard County household earns in a week -- making do in their Jessup mobile home on $751 in Social Security and $112 in food stamps.

Rosie Cole, a 36-year-old single mother of four, has lived on welfare for most of her life in an Ellicott City housing project -- trapped there, she says, by the county's high cost of living.

They are among the 5,784 people who live below the poverty line in Howard, one of Maryland's wealthiest and most expensive counties, where the median household income tops $60,000 and the average single-family home costs $188,676.

With less than 3 percent of all residents considered poor by the federal standard, Howard's poverty problem is the smallest in the state. And it often is not even recognized by some of the county's wealthier residents.

But tensions between rich and poor have risen to the surface in recent debates over school redistricting, low-cost housing and the impact that low-income projects might have on neighborhood property values.

"Poverty in Howard County is a very sensitive issue," says Berit Droenburg, a planner with the county's Community Action Council, a nonprofit agency serving the poor. "People don't like to acknowledge that there's a problem . . ."

That's something of an irony for a county that prides itself on its high standard of living. There are no ghettos in Howard, local officials say. The county poverty rate is less than 40 percent of the statewide average.

And county policy calls for the poor population to be dispersed, rather than clustered in any one neighborhood.

The idea, says Leonard S. Vaughan, director of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development, is to help break the cycle of poverty by mixing poor and affluent in the same communities.

"They learn from those experiences; they pick up those values," he says of low-income residents living near wealthier residents. "One of the things we try to do is avoid creating any kind of ghetto."

But in several parts of Howard, the county has fallen short of thagoal, partly because of the high cost of housing and partly because of government housing programs that serve to concentrate the poor.

Forty percent of Howard's low-income residents live in seven of the county's 29 census tracts, according to the 1990 census.

That's a disproportionate number, because those same seven high-poverty areas have 23 percent of the county's total population.

Those census tracts include parts of Ellicott City that are home to county-owned apartment complexes; East Columbia, where many residents live in federally subsidized apartments and townhouses; and Jessup and Elkridge, where mobile home parks offer low-cost lodgings.

It's a pattern of concentration that county officials acknowledge, even as they cite Howard's unusually low level of poverty.

"Certain communities are getting an overabundance of poor residents, even though we try to disperse them," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Housing prices have a lot to do with that.

With one-bedroom apartment rents in Howard starting at more than $500 a month, low-income residents gravitate to areas of the county with lower rents -- the Jessup-Elkridge corridor, for example -- or to subsidized housing in northeastern Ellicott City and Columbia.

"One of the things Howard County lacks is a sufficient stock of low- and moderate-income housing," says Manus J. O'Donnell, director of the county Department of Citizen Services. "Land costs so much here, builders can't afford to build low-cost housing."

When government steps in to fill that void, it tends to concentrate low-income residents in certain places, rather than dispersing them throughout the community.

For example, the county owns Guilford Gardens Apartments in East Columbia, a 100-unit complex managed by a private company; Harmony Lane Apartments, a 28-unit townhouse community in North Laurel; and Hilltop Apartments, a 94-unit complex overlooking the Ellicott City Historic District.

In addition, the Howard County Housing Commission, a nonprofit agency overseen by the county, owns the 24-unit Alffa Pines Apartments as well as 40 townhouses and apartments scattered throughout the county. The commission is building 36 more low-income townhouses in the Columbia Executive Park off Route 100.

And earlier this month, Gov. Parris N. Glendening awarded the county an $8,000 grant to study the feasibility of building more low-income rental units at Hilltop.

The federal Section 8 housing programs also tends to draw low-income residents to certain parts of the county. The program encourages landlords and developers to set aside a portion of their private apartments as subsidized units.

In Howard, apartments generally are clustered in a few areas, such as Long Reach and Wilde Lake in Columbia and Normandy Woods in Ellicott City.

The result -- a relatively high portion of low-income residents in a few sections -- runs counter to the intentions of county planners and those who work with the poor.

"I think it places a stigma on those communities," said Dorothy L. Moore, executive director of the Howard County Community Action Council, a nonprofit advocate for the poor. "I think dispersing the poor is a plus."

Some Howard residents don't always see it that way. Homeowners in affluent communities sometimes fear that property values will drop when lower-income residents move onto their block.

In the Kendall Ridge section of Long Reach village, neighbors raised an uproar over plans by the Rouse Co. and the Enterprise Foundation to build a 64-townhouse, low- to moderate-income development.

"Long Reach has a lot of low-income housing already," said fTC Kendall Ridge resident Stephen Murray. "Low-income housing does deface the value of my property. I wish I would have known about it before I purchased my home."

Such tensions also surface in the schools, especially in perennial debates over school boundary lines, decisions that can profoundly affect a school's socioeconomic mix.

In 1994, parents from the Longfellow, Hobbit's Glen and Beaverbrook neighborhoods in Columbia opposed plans to shift their children from Centennial High School to Wilde Lake High School.

They cited Wilde Lake's lower test scores as the main factor. But poverty was an unspoken factor, because Wilde Lake's school district includes some neighborhoods with some of the county's highest levels of poverty, such as Bryant Woods.

And at Dunloggin Middle School, in a upper-middle-class area of Ellicott City, tensions still linger among some parents upset by a redistricting decision three years ago that transferred some poorer students from Patapsco Middle School.

To avoid such tensions, the county needs to be sensitive to the way it integrates low-income residents into the rest of the population, said Ms. Moore.

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