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Is This House Too Nice For The Homeless?

Phyllis Piotrow's motives were as gentle and elegant as the stately brick home she had lived in for so many years. The renowned Johns Hopkins professor merely sought to move from Bethesda to New Hampshire to be with family and set up the retirement phase of life.

So she finally listened to the developers who had been salivating for years over her 1.3 acres on a dramatic bluff just off Bradley Boulevard in the Hillmead neighborhood. But nothing's simple in Montgomery County. After many months of wrangling over whether her land could be subdivided, Piotrow won county permission, but by then the market had softened and the developers had slithered away.

Frustrated but determined to do right by her neighbors, Piotrow made a new deal -- with the county. She sold her house and property last fall for $2.5 million -- less than market value -- to Montgomery's parks commission, which intended to use the land to extend the adjacent community park. Everyone was happy.

Then somebody had an idea. The parks commission had planned to demolish Piotrow's 1930s house, at a cost of about $65,000. Instead, staffers at Montgomery's housing agency wondered, why not spend about twice the cost of demolition to renovate Piotrow's five-bedroom place and use it to house a large homeless family? After all, finding housing for large families is notoriously difficult, the county already shells out about $100,000 a year to keep a homeless family in a motel and at least six other houses in county parks are being used in similar fashion.

You will not be shocked to learn that the good people of Montgomery County thought this a very poor idea. You may, however, be a bit surprised by the vehemence with which they communicated their skepticism about the proposal:

"I simply cannot believe that anyone with an IQ above that of a retarded chicken would seriously consider putting a welfare brood sow and her 13 kids in a $2.5 million mansion paid for by the taxpayers of this county," Winston Dean wrote to council members.

"May I suggest that you let the poor family live next to you and you let us tear down the [Piotrow] house at Hillmead citizens' expense and . . . let the earth be green," wrote Hillmead resident Myriam Gaviria.

The battle over whether to demolish the house or let a homeless family reside in it (paying 30 percent of their income as rent) will come to a head Tuesday when the council must decide between dueling proposals by members Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who wants the house torn down, and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who wants it saved. (Council member Nancy Floreen, an early advocate of the plan to use the house for a homeless family, is also vocally supportive of renovating it.)

"It is not surprising that neighbors would fear not knowing who's going to be living next door," Leventhal says, "but we do need to house homeless families. We have an opportunity to provide safe, stable housing for a family who would otherwise be stuck in a motel room or shelter night after night, moving from place to place."

Leventhal has watched as a "Save Hillmead Park" campaign has apparently won over one after another of his colleagues on the council. But "save it from what?" he asks. The county already saved the Piotrow property from development, and the park will be expanded. No additional development is contemplated.

"If not Hillmead, where?" Leventhal asks. "If this neighborhood off Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda is just too special and too well situated to allow us to move a poor family in, where can we locate poor families in need of housing?"

Alana Dzurek, president of the Hillmead Citizens Association, says the opposition to keeping the house does not reflect fear of a homeless family. "This isn't about the homeless, it's about a flawed process," she says. "We were told we were going to get a park, and then we heard rumors about a different plan. We feel duped. The county should understand that people are sending those nasty letters because all they know are the rumors. If you leave people in a vacuum, they're going to get frustrated and act on rumors."

(As for Piotrow, she's happily living in New Hampshire and wants to stay far from the neighborhood fray.)

Dzurek is right about the process. It's been cumbersome and confused. If you saw the stack of documents and studies produced by at least four county agencies about this one house, you'd begin to understand why taxes are so high.

But this dispute is not just about process. It is, indeed, about the prospect of a homeless family coming into a pretty neighborhood of top-dollar houses.

Leventhal's view stems in part from his experience in 1969, when his was the first Jewish family to move into Glen Echo Heights, where covenants had prohibited sales to people of the "Hebrew" or "colored" persuasion.

In Hillmead, he says, "we will find stable housing for a needy family, and the neighborhood will adjust." The alternative is to tell people in Silver Spring, Wheaton or Gaithersburg "that they have to absorb all of our low-income and formerly homeless population because the residents just aren't 'up to par' for Bethesda."

By Marc Fisher |  June 8, 2008; 8:25 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I have less than zero sympathy for anyone who would describe someone in need as a brood sow. IMO he lost all ground for argument at that point.

Posted by: Who me? | June 8, 2008 9:17 AM

... but also very offensive is the official's statement, "It is not surprising that neighbors would fear not knowing who's going to be living next door." The neighbors (of which I am not one, by the way) aren't fearing the unknown, but rather expressing frustration with the known. Long term homeless persons -- that's what the county is talking about, not someone who needs temporary help -- in almost all cases are that way due to repeated, community-destroying antisocial behavior. Anyone who has worked with the homeless, as I have, will admit this (at least, when not quoted on the record). Alcohol and sometimes drug abuse, petty crime or worse crime, petty assault or worse assault, and little things that harm a community -- like defecating on the sidewalk and rampant littering -- are almost certain to follow if the house is turned into housing for the long-term homeless. Yes, I know it hurts some to hear these truths, but (a) find a counterexample if you want to argue, and (b) how can we address the problem honestly if we don't talk about it honestly?

This doesn't answer the question of whether this property is the right place for a de facto shelter. It might be. I don't know the property. And that "brood sow" quote is out of line. But demonizing the neighbors for their reasonable expectations about negative impacts is just not fair.

Posted by: True, that's offensive | June 8, 2008 9:37 AM

"like defecating on the sidewalk" ... what? I have never seen that by a human here in DC. Maybe urinating, but not defecating. Man, the homeless in Monty County are crazy. But, I can't help laughing at the residents there.

Hee hee hee (multiplied one million times). Our city is becoming that shining place on the hill while there's becomes perverted and full of sh__.

Posted by: johng1 | June 8, 2008 9:57 AM

Marc, I want you to comment on how you would feel if this property were next door to YOU. I am not saying I know how you would feel; I don't, and that's why I'm asking.

Posted by: PQ | June 8, 2008 9:58 AM

True, that's offensive -- Interesting signature -- What you fail to mention is that long term homeless facilities have to go somewhere. So do maintance yards, sewer treatment facilities and jails. Government can either spread these facilites thourghout the entire jurisdiction or concentrate them in one place. If they are all clustered together, it send a clear signal that certain neighborhoods are designated dumping grounds and others are privilaged. One of the reasons I moved out of Arlington was because South Arlington was a dumping ground and I couldn't afford North Arlington. It is not quite as bad now but a quick drive from one end of Glebe raod to the other shows who has clout and who doesn't.

Also, part of the problem you describe stems from the beauracracy's willingness to tolereate antisocial behavior as long as it is isolated in less desirable neghborhoods. The proper answer to such behavior is not subsidized housing in bad neghborhoods but subsidized housing in a jail cell for as long as it takes to get the point across. If upper income neighborhoods are going to be sheltered from undesirables, low income neighborhoods deserve equal consideration. Unless and until individuals are willing to treat their neighbors with respect, they belong in jail. But if they are willing to be good neighbors than there is no reason not to take advantage of housing opportunities in high income areas.

Posted by: Woodbridge Va | June 8, 2008 10:23 AM

Fair question, PQ. I like to think that I would see the wisdom of the county's position and would want to maintain the house and have it be lived in by a family that otherwise couldn't afford that space. But I would insist that the house not merely be handed over to a random homeless family, but rented instead to a family that had been carefully screened to assure that they could handle the maintenance of a large and complicated facility, which that big house in Bethesda very much is. Council member George Leventhal says that's exactly what Montgomery County is doing, making certain that the family that would get the Hillmead house is screened to be sure there are no drug or alcohol issues and that the adults are well on their way toward re-establishing themselves in the world of work. That sounds like a good plan, though as several of you have said, it certainly involves risk.

Posted by: Fisher | June 8, 2008 11:04 AM

Some of the comments by the neighbors are a little harsh - the wrong place, time, and circumstances and perhaps they could be homeless, too.

But if you were told that the big house in your neighborhood was going to be parkland, and then an at-large representative of your county decided they wanted it to be a home for a 14-member homeless family, wouldn't you be the slightest bit frustrated?

In one of the articles that was linked to in this posting, a neighbor pointed out that if Montgomery County was concerned about the plight of the homeless, then the money they spent on this property was misplaced.

I'm sure they aren't a totally heartless bunch of people, but they were told one thing and one representative decided they wanted something else. It does seem as if some steps were missed in the decision process here.

And yes, if they renovate that house, they will probably find asbestos. I used to do inspections - I don't think I saw a single house built in the 1930's that didn't have it. So instead of doing a safe demolition, they may have to embark on a more expensive safe renovation. For the money, what kind of services to the homeless could have been utilized?

It's just a weird case.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 8, 2008 11:12 AM

Having worked with the "Friends in Action" program and actually met some of these "homeless" families I know that many of them are folks who didn't start off real well, got along, but then had trouble and ended up on the street. They aren't demons, they're people.

I really don't think that the neighbors need to worry about it. MoCo can be pretty nanny-like with those on public assistance -social-workers, contracts - the list of motivators these folks can be subject to is long. A family who would land a nice house like that would be working with the County and various organizations to keep themselves stable.

An equally important issue is whether the area is good for a family that most likely would need to use public transportation. Plopping a large family in an area with no bus service would be dumb.

Posted by: RoseG | June 8, 2008 11:16 AM

I've spoken to quite a few homeless men on account of my father. He befriended dozens he met over the years outside the metro station near his office downtown. I only met the gentlemen a few times - when I helped Dad or when he had them over to do some yard work for him. All the gentlemen I met were pleasant and polite and certainly seemed like good people. I realize this is not an entire sampling of the homeless population, but I know for a fact there are decent, respectful people among them.

I'm certainly not the humanitarian my father is. If I heard of a home like that being established in my neighborhood, I'm sure my first reaction would be apprehension. I dare say, if I'm being honest, I would even vent and complain about it to friends or neighbors. I would be mollified to hear of the screening process that is being used.

What I would NOT do, is even contemplate talking about a human being as an animal. An animal! What kind of hateful person says something like that? I've only ever heard such language out of the mouth of a psychopath in a movie - the one that goes on killing spree because he sees his fellow human as some slaughterhouse piece of meat.

Posted by: Lisa Greaves | June 8, 2008 12:01 PM

Leventhal is running for his position in 2010. All those who think his idea to push this family into a neighborhood that isn't appropriate should vote him out. (This will include me). I do not live in Hillmead but that doesn't mean a logical person can draw a conclusion. The residents were told one thing and may receive something else. Plus, why it is wrong to be successful, make a good living, live in a nice neighborhood, and not want those who are always taking from society in your neighborhood?

Posted by: HW | June 8, 2008 3:39 PM

If Fisher and Leventhal are truly as compassionate as they pretend I don't know
why they shouldn't open their personal residences to house the homeless.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 8, 2008 4:04 PM

Why in god's name would you tear down a house like this when you could use it for something like housing a homeless family? Seriously? It's not like the neighborhood doesn't already have a park; this was just going to be an expansion on that park. Not demolishing the house and instead providing housing for a homeless family is a much better idea.

I was a contributor to Leventhal's last campaign, and I am so very proud of him today. He's doing what's right, not what's politically expedient. I hope he stands firm on this issue.

Posted by: Kate | June 8, 2008 4:23 PM

A little clarification: The limousines are seen coming from the OTHER side of the Bethesda tracks from Hillmead. It's the SUV Neocons who are responsible for the nasty, nasty comments about the homeless.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 8, 2008 4:56 PM

Demonize the good citizens?

No need, they will never be that good.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | June 8, 2008 5:59 PM

"If Fisher and Leventhal are truly as compassionate as they pretend I don't know
why they shouldn't open their personal residences to house the homeless."

Just a personal note of curiosity. Is this attitude natural or do you have to study to get that way? I bet you also ask people who want us to win in Iraq when they are leaving for the war. We are a democracy and we participate in planning just as much as in implementation. This discussion is about planning. Pay attention.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | June 8, 2008 6:03 PM

I question the county spending such exhobitant amounts of money on homeless families. That only supports whatever behavior led them to be homeless. If someone gives you a free house, it's not free, someone else paid for it. I'm not trying to condemn the county but welfare doesn't work, charity does work. Keeping the family together by spending this amount of money to keep them together makes no sense to me.

Posted by: Falls Church, VA | June 8, 2008 6:44 PM

Before you comment on this situation you need to understand and know most of the people who live in Bethesda. They are overwhelming liberal and will vote for Obama in the fall. But let the mere mention of a potentially black family moving into the neighborhood happen and they recoil in terror. I've had many interactions with these phonies and they will make you think that they decry discrimination of any sort, they are the first to call the police at the sight of a black man walking down their street.

Posted by: JT | June 8, 2008 8:59 PM

Thankfully this article is not about something that is going to be put in my neighborhood.

The best solution is to insure that George Leventhal is removed from office. If there is a recall process, use it. If not, wait till the next election and make sure the idiot is gone.

Posted by: No More Idiots | June 8, 2008 9:02 PM

You have neglected to mention the National Center for Children and Families adjacent to the Hillmead neighborhood.


Posted by: WhyOmitFacts? | June 8, 2008 9:21 PM

Wilson Dean may be a bastard himself.

Posted by: Karl | June 8, 2008 9:32 PM

Perhaps they could locate a second and third homeless residence in Mr. Fishers' and Leventhals' neighborhood. I am sure their neighbors would band together and open their hearts to these family's and applaud the actions.

Posted by: lawrence | June 8, 2008 10:53 PM

As a Silver Spring resident, I'll be sure to vote for George Leventhal whenever I get the chance. About time Bethesda started backing up its liberal talk with actions, as unwilling as they may be to do so.

Posted by: Lindemann | June 9, 2008 5:39 AM

Sounds like the MC Council needs a bit of a gut check related to their budgetary process. $2.5M for one house?? One house? If the Council was honest at the outset of this situation, so many feathers may not have been so ruffled. For the Council members in favor of keeping this house, it seems a bit unfair to make the issue about a few very angry and offensive residents of this neighborhood. With a little more planning, the Council could have purchased a small 4-6 unit apartment building closer to services to help people that need so much help. It may seem like a great solution to place a family in one of the most expensive parts of the county, but where are they supposed to buy their food, at Balducci's? Give these homeless families a fighting chance by placing them in an area set up to help them with job placement services and other county supported programs. Is it really economically viable for the homeless to be on their own in this part of the county? At a minimun the Council's discussion needs to address their flawed process and the wisdom of setting a struggling family up to fail.

Posted by: Bait and Switch | June 9, 2008 7:51 AM

Marc Fisher -- this doesn't pass the smell test. Why in the world should taxpayers foot the bill to house 1 homeless family in a $2.5 million house?


And lest you Bethesda bashers forget --there is a homeless shelter down the street on Greentree Rd.

Posted by: taxpayer | June 9, 2008 9:57 AM

"Is it really economically viable for the homeless to be on their own in this part of the county?"

Translation: All homeless people should be housed in other places.

Posted by: Lindemann | June 9, 2008 11:14 AM

"But this dispute is not just about process. It is, indeed, about the prospect of a homeless family coming into a pretty neighborhood of top-dollar houses." Taken from the article.

How convenient for Marc Fisher to dismiss the fact the Montgomery County Council pulled a bait and switch on the Hillmead neighborhood. If the DC Government pulled a similar bait and switch on his neighborhood you better believe he'd be up in arms over it.

Fisher, thy name is hypocrite. Never let the facts get in the way of your shoddy commentary.

Posted by: Please take the next buy out | June 9, 2008 11:15 AM

If not Hillmead, where?" Leventhal asks. "If this neighborhood off Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda is just too special and too well situated to allow us to move a poor family in, where can we locate poor families in need of housing?"
This is typical of Mr. Leventhals approach to Hillmeads concerns, demonize us. There is a large shelter facility bordering on Hillmead right now! The Bethesda Home for Women and Children with 45 families. Oh my gosh , and it has been there for a long, long time, peacefully co-existing with Hillmead. Hillmead is a wonderful place to live with very good and caring people.
The land in question was supposed to be turned into a extension of a very small public park. With the house left on the site the expansion is meaningless. The house fills the only level space on the whole 1.3 acres. This is how Mr. Leventhal wants to spend 2.5 million dollars of Montgomery counties tax dollars. Not to mention the 100 to 200 thousand dollars for renovations and the ongoing cost of upkeep.
Should we in Hillmead be singled out homeless haters? I think not and Marc Fisher's article, with a quote from someone who doesn't even live in our neighborhood, is slanted and uninformed. He bought Mr. Leventhals arguments without checking his facts.

Posted by: Scott Houston | June 9, 2008 11:53 AM

Why not include the fact that bordering Hillmead is 45-family shelter for formerly homeless families?

Also, why use a quote - a despicable one at that - from someone who doesn't live in the neighborhood?

Please get your facts straight!

Posted by: tennessee1224 | June 9, 2008 12:01 PM

It is curious why Mr. Leventhal used the words "this neighborhood off of Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda" to describe Hillmead. Why not the neighborhood off of Greentree Road in Bethesda that is right next to The Bethesda Home for Women and Children that houses 45 homeless and needy families. I guess we all would not look like the horrible people being painted by him, the Post and some commentors here. And for Mr. Fisher directly, could you please comment in your own Blog to inform the readers that Mr. Winston Dean, whose comments were so vulgar, and implied by you to be a Hillmead resident, is NOT indeed, a resident there.

Posted by: DebV | June 9, 2008 12:30 PM

Mr. Fisher - While I understand your opinion is just that, opinion, you still have a responsibility to fulfill your duties as a columnist for The Washington Post ethically. If it were the Enquirer I would not bother to write. The central focus of your piece, that the residents of Hillmead think they are too good for a homeless family to live in the most expensive house in the neighborhood, is supported almost entirely by a lie. You intentionally deceive readers into believing that Mr. Dean is a resident of Hillmead, which he is not.

He told you he was from Rockville during a phone conversation. In that same conversation, he told you he didn't even know where Hillmead was. Yet you saw fit to portray his inflammatory remarks as though they expressed the opinion of a Hillmead resident speaking for Hillmead residents. Over the past eighteen months, I have talked to a many of my neighbors, in public and in private, and no one, not one single person I have talked to, has even come close to expressing the sentiments of your real person with a real quote.

Is that your idea of sizzle, Mr. Fisher? Lying? It's just shabby journalism.

As for a cold splash of reality, perhaps you need to get a grip on your own moral reality.

Posted by: Hillmead Resident #560 | June 9, 2008 2:16 PM

I think that several of these comments should be published in the editorial section of the printed Washington Post. Marc Fisher owes Hillmead neighbors and Bethesda a huge apology for writing a "dramatic" article to incite people that is NOT based on FACTS and REALITY. Hillmead residents ARE NOT rich and spoiled. Hillmead DOES border on a shelter. Mr. Dean DOES NOT speak for Hillmead and Bethesda residents. And as for Lindemann, it's hard to figure out why you resent people who live in this neighborhood -- have you ever visited it?

Posted by: annoyed | June 9, 2008 3:30 PM

Fellow Montgomery County taxpayers, before you jump to the conclusion that this 1.3 acre parcel can be both park and shelter, please visit the site. The site is on a hill, surrounded by trees. The only usable space is the area on which the home, front yard, and driveway sit. If it is used as housing, the county will have spent almost $3 million (once necessary improvements are made) for one structure, with no usable expansion to the park. That's your money and my money, and there's no getting around the fact that there is no park expansion with the house intact. If it is used for housing we should all demand that the county reimburse the park fund that purchased the land, because that money is gone and can't be used to buy other green space.

Posted by: Park user | June 9, 2008 5:20 PM

What Fisher almost didn't mention is that the county is not great at following up once a homeless family receives a house. I was a mentor to a girl of six children and only the mother and children are allowed to live in the house. The house is a revolving door of her relatives. Giving this huge, expensive to maintain house, is giving an invitation for the family's relatives to move in. Unless the county can guarantee surprise spot inspections every week or other week, the county will fail this neighborhood again. Why not try Habitat for Humanity for this family on another property? Another poster was correct to write that just giving a house to a family will not solve the problems. They will probably get worse.

Posted by: HW | June 9, 2008 7:14 PM

Marc Fisher, you should be ashamed of yourself. Didn't you learn in journalism school that you are supposed to research the facts BEFORE you write the article? I don't care if it is an opinion piece. Certainly if I were going to express my opinion publicly about something, I would be sure to have done my homework. Perhaps a refresher course is in order.

By the way, is Leventhal a frat brother of yours or something? Or did he just supply you with all the ridiculous quotes?

Posted by: peaceandjoy | June 10, 2008 12:23 AM

To all you rich folk in the neighborhood trying to keep a homeless family from joining you snobs: I hope all your kids at Whitman are rejected by Ivy League schools and have to settle for (shudder) state universities. Oh, the shame!

Posted by: Vincent | June 10, 2008 1:16 PM

Wow, don't bother with your comments. Just last week we found out that a family of 15, single mom is moving in front of us with a NEW 5.000 sf home at all of our expenses. All of you are not in my back yard folks. And we get to hear constant construction for a week. Then Montgomery County & Extreme Makeover the House Edition will fawn over an albatross of a house on a 1.3 acre lot and how they fulfilled this family's dream. They even had an arborist come in and look at a 100 year old tree, yep, but the residents in the community got the information first hand from the Extreme Makeover show, NOT MOntgomery County.

Shows how your tax dollars are spent.

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