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Howard seizes Guilford Gardens

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County officials took operating control yesterday of the Guilford Gardens housing complex, saying it had flunked health and safety inspections and had failed to pay at least $200,000 in bills.

County Executive Ken Ulman said the books of the tenant-run, affordable-housing cooperative on Oakland Mills Road were a "mess" and that the state's attorney's office and county investigators were trying to account for the unpaid bills.

Vendors, including the county, are owed the money, said Stacy L. Spann, director of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.

The county, which owns Guilford Gardens, dissolved the cooperative and fired Vision Realty Management LLC of Columbia, the manager of the property. Mario Lloyde, a partner in Vision Realty, said yesterday the county's estimation that Guilford Gardens was $200,000 in arrears was too high, and that items such as monthly land-lease payments to the county were not properly credited. He said many problems mentioned by the county existed before Vision Realty began managing the property in April 2005.

In assuming management of Guilford Gardens, county officials pledged to fix the health and safety problems and to move quickly on plans to renovate the complex using "green building" techniques to make it more energy efficient. The county manages the other affordable and public housing locations that it owns.

If Guilford Gardens does not receive a passing score in its next inspection, officials said, the property could lose about $80,000 a month in federal Section 8 rent subsidies. Most of the residents of 100-unit townhouse and apartment development built as public housing in 1980 receive Section 8 subsidies.

"Without that money, it would be a disaster," Ulman said.

In February, the state notified the county that Guilford Gardens had failed a safety and health inspection in November. The letter outlined problems ranging from electrical and plumbing deficiencies to broken door locks. An inspection by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in August also raised concerns about management issues, the county said.

Lloyde said the health and safety inspection found that tenants had removed batteries from smoke detectors and had unlocked doors to rooms housing heating and air-conditioning systems. "Residents would store laundry in that room, and that was a primary reason," for the failed inspection, Lloyde said.

Lloyde said he sent a letter to the county Dec. 6, saying that the health and safety problems were solved.

Spann said yesterday that the problems persisted. "If they had done what they said they did, then my staff would not have things to fix at the property," Spann said. County workers "have been there for three weeks addressing these issues."

Should Guilford Gardens lose Section 8 funding, Spann said, he did not know whether the county would help subsidize rents or whether tenants would be forced to pay more. Loss of funding "is not our intention, and that is the reason why we have" taken over the property, he said.

Efforts to reach Esther Drake, listed as the president of the Guilford Gardens cooperative board, were unsuccessful.

T. Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for county State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone, declined to comment on the investigation of the unpaid bills.

Ulman said the renovation of Guilford Gardens is part of the county's plan to "aggressively move forward and take a look at all the county's housing stock."

He said, "Everybody who is here will be given the opportunity to stay here, and we believe we can do the redevelopment without displacing residents and do it in a phased manner."

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