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Langley Park tests relationship with Prince George’s County

A man looks for a break in traffic to cross University Boulevard in Langley Park in May 2017. (Capital News Service photo by Rebecca Rainey)

A man looks for a break in traffic to cross University Boulevard in Langley Park in May 2017. (Capital News Service photo by Rebecca Rainey)

LANGLEY PARK — For decades, Prince George’s County had been criticized for neglecting Langley Park, a transient, low-income Latino neighborhood on its far northwest border.

That impression began to change in 2012, when Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III included the community in his signature “Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative,” which promised to deliver more government to places that needed it most.

And for the next four-plus years, Langley Park, an unincorporated area within Prince George’s, had the eyes and ears of the county as never before.

So community leaders were surprised when Baker announced last year that the county would no longer be directly involved in the Langley Park initiative. Starting this year, the county instead would work through the newly formed Langley Park Civic Association, an approach that has some worried that the county is pulling back on its engagement with the area.

No one was more surprised than the volunteer head of that nascent association, Norberto Martinez. He had been summoned to the meeting where Baker made his announcement, but had no idea that his organization was about to be handed the reins.

“I was there because they invited me, but I wasn’t sure that meant we were graduating. I found out later,” said Martinez, to whom Baker presented a glass trophy with a key in it at the event.

Langley Park: Land of change

And so began the next phase in the on-again, off-again relationship between Prince George’s County and Langley Park, one that goes back to well before the 1980s, when the area saw its first waves of Latino immigrants, most of them fleeing from violence in Central America.

Langley Park was once an estate owned by the McCormick-Goodhart family, whose mansion at 8151 15th Street is now the home to CASA, one of the largest Latino-focused non-profit social service organizations in the state.

The McCormick-Goodhart estate, named “Langley Park,” was partially sold in the ’40s and developed for housing aimed at returning World War II veterans. Latinos started arriving in numbers during the 1980s.

State Delegate Carlo Sanchez, 35, who represents Langley Park and grew up there during that time, didn’t recall the county being around much when he was a kid.

“When they saw this Latino influx coming in, it felt like they kinda pulled out a little bit,” said Sanchez, D-Prince George’s. “It wasn’t until the late ’90s, when we saw a lot of gang recruitment, that the county started coming back in.”

After a 1990 master plan for the area, Prince George’s wouldn’t produce another major planning document for Langley Park until 2003, when the county teamed with the city of Takoma Park on a commercial development plan that envisioned University Boulevard as “a future International Corridor that is a memorable place that celebrates its rich cultural diversity, not unlike Adams-Morgan in Washington.”

A background statement for the study displayed the county’s discomfort with its newest arrivals: “The new immigrants’ cultural differences, perceived absence of shared values, and failure to obey laws and follow established behavioral norms, when coupled with a perceived lack of government code enforcement, make established residents angry.”

By 2009, the county was back again, still on paper. In its Takoma/Langley Crossroads Plan that year, despite well-documented pedestrian safety and housing issues, the county decided a 25,000-square-foot multi-level library was necessary for Langley Park and approved $11,714,000 for it in the county’s capital improvement budget.

By 2016, the project was still being planned but had grown to 40,000 square feet, with a pricetag of $21,450,000.

For those who’ve witnessed the county’s efforts in Langley Park going back to the 1980s, like Erwin Mack, 84, founder and former president of the Takoma-Langley Crossroads Development Corp., the county’s track record is not debatable.

“They’ve done precious little,” said Mack, who also owned a business in Langley Park from 1982 to 1996.

Mack noted that he tried for years to get the county to put a simple “Welcome to Prince George’s” sign on the Langley Park border with Montgomery County, to no avail. Yet branding the area is listed as a “vision” in numerous county planning documents going back almost 20 years.

“The problem is simple,” said Doyle Niemann, a former state delegate who lost the county council election for District 2, which includes Langley Park, by six votes to Deni Taveras in 2014. “Langley Park is an incoming destination for large numbers of people, and with that comes all the problems associated with a high concentration of folks with low income. That’s kind of been the reality (in Langley Park) for many years. And that was known before the current (county) administration.”

Prince George’s big return

The Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative initially used crime data to decide which six communities in the county most urgently needed attention, which they would get in the form of a dedicated county agency director to develop an action plan and attend monthly community meetings for the next four years.

Betty Hager Francis, the deputy chief administrative officer in charge of health, human services and education for the county, was tasked with initial oversight of Langley Park’s TNI program.

“The thing that struck me the most was that the county government had really been ignoring Langley Park,” said Hager Francis. “We hadn’t really appreciated its international nature. We weren’t providing many services. Most people were scared of government and the police and weren’t reporting crimes, especially domestic violence. Lots of people were getting robbed and they were just sort of dealing with it.”

Gloria Brown Burnett, the director of social services for the county who was a regular attendee at the monthly Langley Park TNI meetings, expressed a similar sentiment.

“Before the TNI, I only had a passing understanding of the demographics of Langley Park,” she said. “Our (county social services) role was extremely limited. There were very few county services located within the area.”

Despite Prince George’s County’s admitted lack of familiarity with Langley Park, the community benefitted in ways big and small from being in the TNI. And the county took the program seriously, evinced by regular monthly meetings held at the Langley Park Community Center. Besides Hager Francis, other agency heads that regularly attended included Brown Burnett and Theresa Grant, the former acting director of family services.

Local leaders and county officials generally offer the same readout on the meetings — they were pivotal in connecting the community directly to government decision makers, who could often solve problems quickly.

“By having all the heads of all the county agencies at the meetings, it allowed us to make a lot of changes in the Langley Park area,” said Danitza Simpson, director of the Adelphi/Langley Park Family Support Center, who mentioned a slew of TNI accomplishments, including added street lighting, landscaping on various street medians and increased enforcement on housing code violations.

One of the most significant accomplishments by the TNI in Langley Park was to establish a bilingual multi-service center in La Union Mall on University Boulevard between Riggs Road and New Hampshire Avenue.

In addition to referring people to county services, the center offers on-site legal help, a family crisis unit, pregnancy testing and assistance with food stamps. It has a full-time staff of 10, plus a few others who rotate between Langley Park and other county offices throughout the week.

Since it opened in the spring of 2014, Mercedes Lemos, who runs the multi-service center for the county, said it has seen more than 21,000 clients.

Inside the data

Langley Park, along with the other five initial TNI communities, was selected in 2012 based on a single data point: crime.

It wasn’t until summer 2015 — three years into the TNI — that Benjamin Birge, manager of Prince George’s CountyStat (Prince George’s data management and analysis unit), was asked to evaluate the program using a fuller set of indicators like median income, households on SNAP, or food stamps, and 9th grade retention rate. The only prerequisite for a data point to be included was that it had to show that it was affected by either crime rate or property values.

“They (the Baker administration) knew once they decided on what type of info they wanted, the data (in the TNI model) was going to be used to determine where we were going (geographically) next with the program,” Birge said.

The matrix Birge and his team built in 2015 to evaluate the TNI ended up being simple, elegant and arguably flawed when it came to Langley Park.

Among the data points included in the model to evaluate Langley Park were things like incidents of domestic violence, food stamp participation and property violations — all things that are unlikely to be well-captured in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods like Langley Park.

Langley Park’s population of about 19,000, 76 percent of which is Latino, has a median income almost a third less than the state average and a poverty rate of 16 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. This probably isn’t accurate for Langley Park, as many of its residents are undocumented and don’t typically stand up to be counted.

Nor do they sign up for assistance programs without legal immigration status, call the police much or avail themselves of government services in large numbers — all of which makes it hard to know the true extent of their struggles.

Another considerable flaw in the data used to evaluate Langley Park was that it captured only the moment in time it was collected. It did not attempt to evaluate the TNI program during its initial phase from 2012 to 2016 to see if and where success was had. Birge said doing so would have been too complicated.

Had the county looked at available data for the first few years of the TNI in Langley Park — some of which is available on the TNI website — officials would have seen at least one alarming change: a large spike in crime, the sole data point that spawned the entire TNI program. From 2014 to 2015, the crime rate in Langley Park increased by 34 percent after decreasing by nearly 44 percent the year before.

In addition, none of the categories were weighted, meaning median income was statistically equal to litter complaints or the number of vacant houses. And total crime rate was on par with the amount of building permits issued or home foreclosures.

Langley Park scored the lowest, or best, of the six initial TNI communities.

“They (residents of Langley Park) don’t know they have the right to call in and ask for mitigation or help in creating a cleaner neighborhood,” said Deni Tevaris, who represents District 2 on Prince George’s County Council, which includes Langley Park. “So there goes that data point in how it’s reflective of problems at the grassroots level.”

In the end, Langley Park, whose highest-scoring problem was low median income, according to the data, was bumped from the TNI for neighborhoods that scored highest in litter complaints, foreclosures and high unemployment for those without a high school diploma.

The post-TNI era begins

According to Baker and Linda Turner, manager of the initiative, the TNI is not abandoning Langley Park.

“They’ll let us know what their plan is, what they working on, and we’ll help them with the resources we provide,” Turner said. “As far as we’re concerned, they’re still a part of the TNI program, just led by community leaders.”

But those leaders are nervous.

“I’m very pleased they feel that way,” said Baker, who announced in June that he will challenge Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, in 2018. “When we first launched the TNI, everyone was skeptical it could have an impact. Now that people are worried that it’s going to go in reverse, it means we made some progress.”

In March and July, at the first two meetings of the Langley Park TNI led by Martinez, Turner was the only senior staffer from the county in attendance.

“I think the community is ready (to be without the TNI),” said Martinez. “Most of the community that used to participate was there (at the meeting). The ones that were not was the county government.”

The concern that the county will simply move on from Langley Park is most prevalent among those who have the longest history with the area.

“I was sorry that it (the TNI) ended,” said Melanie Isis, executive director of the Takoma Langley Crossroads Authority for the last five years. “But I think it only worked because it was mandatory for the representatives of the county agencies.”

None of those former agency directors were present at the first community-led meeting of the TNI in Langley Park.

“My special assistant now attends,” said Brown Burnett. “Because they’ve added new TNI areas, we’re kinda focused on the new ones.”

CASA, which has a longer relationship with the county than any other organization in the community, wants Prince George’s to stay as involved as it was when the TNI began.

“If it was up to us, we’d keep the official TNI here versus the community-led model,” said Julio Murillo-Khadjibaeva, a CASA policy analyst. “It does take away when you don’t have the decision-maker involved directly in conversations.”

Going forward, Martinez says he is hopeful Langley Park’s issues will be heard by the county when they’re called on to help.

“I have been assured that they (the county) will be there to support us,” said Martinez. “We haven’t had any problems to this point, so I haven’t tested that.”