Disaster's result: a career in housing


Tropical Storm Agnes brought death and destruction to Pennsylvania, but amid the despair and suffering, Carole MacPhee found a sense of purpose.

MacPhee laughingly explains her career as a "fluke." While it wasn't planned, it'd be a mistake to dismiss the last 32 years as nothing but an accident.

She has devoted most of her adult life to finding shelter for others, including the past 16 years with the Columbia Housing Corp., which provides housing for low- and moderate-income families.

"There are so many families who are trying to make it and can use the help they get from the government for a short period of time to get a leg up," says MacPhee, executive director of the Housing Corp. for the last nine years.

Perhaps one of MacPhee's most important - but least known - actions was spearheading a protracted effort to buy back 300 units, which the Housing Corp. had sold in 1984 to Columbia Homes Limited Partnership, a for-profit business. The units are at five sites in the Wilde Lake and Harper's Choice villages in Columbia.

The latest deal, completed at the end of last year, was important for two reasons, she says. It preserved the units for low- and moderate-income families and thus prevented steep increases in rents or replacement with expensive townhouses; and it sustained one of James W. Rouse's core principles when planning Columbia.

"Inclusion of all types of people, regardless of income or circumstances or background, was always to be a part of the community," MacPhee says. "One of the first things that he [Rouse] did was put affordable housing in his master plan."

The acquisition of the 300 units came neither quickly nor easily. It consumed five years, included litigation, and involved HUD officials in Baltimore and Washington, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and state Del. Elizabeth Bobo. When the dust settled, on Dec. 31, the Housing Corp. paid about $3.3 million for the property, took a $5 million loan and secured a 20-year extension of HUD's payment assistance program, vital to maintaining services to low-income families.

"This was a big, big undertaking," says MacPhee, who will celebrate her 62nd birthday next month. "A lot of people pitched in. They knew what it would mean if [the 300 units] were lost."

Housing was never on MacPhee's mind while growing up, except perhaps when she thought of the three-bedroom home that she and seven siblings shared with their parents in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

"We were four to a bed for a while," she says.

Her father was a coal miner before World War II, and a welder afterward, and realized the value of an education. That explains why he was proud of Carole when she graduated from high school with honors, and furious with her for rejecting three scholarships to college in favor of marriage.

"My daddy was not happy," MacPhee says in what she acknowledges is understatement. "I thought I could do both, but that was not going to happen."

Ten years later, in 1972, she had been married, become a mother of two sons and divorced. She was still living in Wilkes-Barre and her future was uncertain, though she was scheduled to begin classes at the local college in September.

That June, Agnes struck, ultimately killing 118 people from Florida to New York and causing billions of dollars in damage. Eighteen inches of rain fell on Wilkes-Barre, resulting in widespread flooding as the Susquehanna River rose to more than 40 feet.

"It was devastating. It felt as though a bomb had hit the city," MacPhee says. "We could see fires raging. ... Bodies had popped out of the cemetery."

She and her sisters volunteered to help move books from the college basement, but were warned to leave after the dike broke, sending 9 feet of water into the town square.

Two weeks later, MacPhee went to a local school to help and met a former schoolmate who was working with HUD and in charge of taking applications for assistance from displaced families. He immediately enlisted MacPhee as a temporary employee.

She remained temporary for 18 months, as HUD handled about 22,000 applications for housing assistance. "It was massive," MacPhee says. "I worked every day 6 a.m. to 10, 10:30 at night."

MacPhee remarried in 1974. "My husband asked, 'What's the one thing you want?' and I said, 'I want to go to college.'"

The couple moved to West Virginia, where MacPhee graduated in 1978 from then-West Virginia State College. She majored in business administration and political science, though she planned to become a librarian. "I have a great love of books," she says.

But MacPhee never escaped housing. She worked for the Charleston Housing Authority for 10 years, a private property-management firm and, for the past 16 years, the Columbia Housing Corp., which has branched into helping first-time buyers get homes, managing property and providing housing for the elderly.

MacPhee never became a librarian, but she is content knowing that she is helped others.

"People helped me in my life. I need to give back," she says. "There are people who don't have everything you've had. But the difference is that you can see when people want to help themselves, and if you can be the conduit to supporting someone, the success stories are great - watching them move to their potential."

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