We're From the Government, We're Here to Help
Phyllis and Zabrina Johnson, mother and daughter, had run out of options. Their house in Lyttonsville near downtown Silver Spring was falling apart around them. The mother, disabled by two strokes, diabetes and heart problems, and the daughter, laid off from her job and responsible for her mother's care, reached out.
In 2005, they called Montgomery County: Could they get any help getting their house fixed?
Could they ever. The county, which occasionally replaces decrepit houses for low-income families, extended its legendary generosity. It tore down the Johnsons' house on Michigan Avenue, and, last fall, the county executive himself came to a gala ribbon-cutting and news conference to show off the first piece of the Johnsons' new prefab home, a gift from the county and the homebuilder.
Nearly seven months later, the family has, um, nothing. The county is paying $1,400 a month to put the Johnsons up in an apartment. Their new house -- or at least a chunk of it -- sits propped up on a parking lot at a county recreation center. Inside the padlocked cottage, you can still see the fluffy pillows and elegant canopy bed that were brought in for the press event.
"I just want people to know what really went on," said Phil Johnson, Phyllis's son. "It's been really rough." He says that as the months have gone by, his mother -- her house demolished, her land now a barren lot -- has felt abandoned, used, betrayed.
"At this point, I really don't know what to think," Phyllis Johnson said. "They're working on it, I guess."
The county, still optimistic that the Johnsons' house will be completed and delivered, started out to do the best it could for the family. Their house was beyond repair, its foundation falling apart. "The code issues were so severe, it wasn't worth trying to fix it," county spokesman Mary Anderson said.
Montgomery has an unusual housing replacement program. When low-income residents' homes are in such an advanced state of disrepair that they cannot be salvaged, they might qualify for a new house, free of charge. The county asks only that it get the profits whenever the family decides to sell the new house.
Then, last fall, the affordable housing advocates who designed the "Katrina cottages" that helped ease the post-hurricane housing crisis on the Gulf Coast made Montgomery an offer the county couldn't refuse. Eager to show that the small but architecturally impressive cottages built for storm victims could be an answer to the nation's shortage of affordable housing, the manufacturer offered to donate a prototype prefab house for a needy family in Montgomery County.
"We wanted to get into the national discussion about affordable housing," said Ben Brown, a publicist and affordable housing advocate who came up with the donation idea.
A deal was struck. The county would demolish the Johnsons' house. Housing International, the builder, would construct and deliver the new house. The company hurried to build the first piece of the house in just two weeks so there would be something to photograph at the news conference starring then-County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. More than 20 workers toiled in the rain until midnight the evening before the event, getting everything picture-perfect for the cameras. Volunteers from USA Weekend magazine helped the family move out of their house and into an apartment rented by the county.
Then reality hit. "It was all a little premature," said David Lohrey, chief executive of Housing International. "We tried to meet the timetable for the USA Weekend program. But it cost more and it was a little more involved than we'd thought." A house expected to cost $140,000 when it's in full production ended up costing $300,000 to build as a prototype. And the company didn't get its Louisiana factory up and running until a month ago.
"There were cost overruns at every level," Brown said. "Everything took longer and cost more. It just ballooned out of shape."
"This was a great project," Anderson added. "It's taken longer than we hoped, expected or wanted."
Lohrey said the remaining parts of the Johnsons' house are nearly ready, and it's now up to the county to prepare the site, dig a basement and hire a contractor to put the new house together.
Today, the Johnsons remain in their temporary apartment. The only remnant of the place that was their home for 22 years is a teetering mail box at the curb.
"She's a really great lady, and she was so trusting," Brown said of Mrs. Johnson. "It just feels terrible to have let her down. I just bit off way more than we could chew. I definitely over-promised. We put this woman out of her house."
By Marc Fisher |
May 20, 2007; 12:46 AM ET
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