County has big plans for site

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County housing officials are seeking developers to transform Guilford Gardens, the 100-unit county-owned apartments and townhouses next to Guilford Elementary School, into a sparkling mixture of new market-rate housing and renovated or replaced subsidized homes.

"We want it to look like a world-class, high-quality development," said Stacy L. Spann, county housing director.

Spann's department took control of Guilford Gardens in April, alleging that a management company that administered the tenant-run affordable-housing complex had not done a good job, allowing debts, record-keeping problems and maintenance issues to accumulate.

James Pettiford, 39, a tenant for the past year, could be a prime example.

Pettiford said this week that he has been unemployed for months and so paid no rent, but he also said he was never issued a written lease for his apartment.

"They sent me a letter that they aren't going to renew my lease," he said Monday. "I don't have a lease." He said he is moving to Baltimore, where he was to begin a job-training program.

"They talk to you like trash," he said.

Spann said several apartments are vacant now for repairs, but only two tenants, including Pettiford, have been told to leave.

"We spent a good amount of time trying to get the administrative component in place. We are enforcing leases and re-doing leases. When individuals don't pay their rent, we're going to follow the appropriate course," Spann said.

"It's unfortunate that individuals can live there and not pay any rent. That's not acceptable," he said.

Deputy Housing Director Tom Carbo said rents are based on family income, so the county had to go through every tenant's case "reconstructing what their income has been."

The redevelopment project reflects a change in housing philosophy under Spann and County Executive Ken Ulman, who was elected in November.

Instead of using 5 acres of county-owned open land on the 18-acre site to build more subsidized affordable housing for limited-income families, Spann said, the idea is to convert the 27-year-old Oakland Mills Road complex to a mixed-economic community.

"This administration is strongly behind supporting maintenance of mixed-income communities. We don't intend our communities to be islands of nothing but affordable housing," Spann said.

He and Carbo said that as a mixed project, Guilford Gardens can be better maintained.

"We can make this project self-sufficient," Carbo said, and county funds saved on upkeep can be plowed back into other housing programs.

"It helps with cash-flow issues," Carbo said.

Six years ago, then-Housing Director Leonard S. Vaughan proposed selling many of the units to longtime residents, some of whom pay unsubsidized, market rents.

That drew fire from Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who was a County Council member when Guilford was built.

Her objection in 2001 was the loss of housing for limited-income people, especially as housing prices were starting their spectacular rise.

"As long as they don't sell the [subsidized] units, I don't see how it can hurt." Bobo said of the current plans.

County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, who represents the area where Guilford Gardens is located, said she has not been briefed on the plans but approves of the idea.

"I think it's a good thing," she said. "It seems to be somewhat neglected."

Spann said he is hoping to get "a very strong design" that will allow use of undeveloped portions of the 18-acre property, which is zoned to allow up to 270 housing units.

No residents would be displaced, Spann and Carbo said, though depending on what design is chosen, some buildings could be renovated or razed.

One-bedroom apartments at Guilford are 683 square feet, with little counter room in the kitchens, and no washers and dryers. The townhouses are 1,430 square feet, with four bedrooms.

"We want to see what we get back. There may be some phenomenal proposal that would involve rehabilitating the buildings. We don't know," Spann said.

The county isn't offering detailed specifications for the redevelopment because officials want a creative plan.

"We will interview teams and get it down to a short list -- then discuss which options we've got, prepare financing and a cost model. Hopefully by January, we'll have [a developer]," Spann said.

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