Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Montgomery County's elected officials continue to say one thing, and do quite another, when it comes to affordable housing.

One myth postulated by developer-backed "smart growth" advocates and politicians, is that this form of planning will generate affordable housing. But in practice, Montgomery's smart growth sector plan and zoning rewrites do the opposite.

You may recall that, a few months ago, the County Council and Planning Board endorsed demolition of hundreds of relatively-affordable housing units on Battery Lane in Bethesda. In return, the county will get a handful of MPDUs it will control.

This pattern is repeating itself all over lower Montgomery County.

The typical ratio is anywhere from 10-20 moderately-priced units generated for every 100+ apartments demolished.

Just do the math.

The latest example came up at last night's public hearing on the Chevy Chase Lake sector plan before the County Council.

While the loss of affordable units in Chevy Chase Lake will be far less than in Wheaton or Glenmont, due to its smaller land area, the unnecessary inclusion of existing housing in the plan is reminiscent of those two rewrites.

Newdale Mews is - relative to usual Chevy Chase living costs - an affordable apartment complex.  Rents start around $1300-1400.  The apartments are not brand new by any means. But that doesn't mean they cannot be renovated.

But should the sector plan pass as-is, Newdale Mews will be demolished, and replaced by luxury apartments for the rich.  According to nearby homeowner Jeff Rule, who testified against the plan last night, only 10-12 MPDUs would be in the new luxury complex.

Again, do the math.

I'm still trying to do the math for the current Glenmont sector plan rewrite. With the exception of the plan to tear down the beautifully-landscaped Privacy World apartments - which has such an overkill of new units planned (1000+!), it could possibly equal the number of affordable units destroyed - several other apartment complexes have been explicitly targeted by planners for demolition.


Developer greed.

When I testified before the council last year against the zoning changes in downtown Wheaton, I presented an alternative plan.  One that would exempt existing affordable housing, and shopping centers with small businesses (many with Asian or Latino owners), from rezoning.

Instead, I suggested, limit rezoning to properties where the business owner also owns the land.  That way, struggling folks don't get forced out of their homes and shops by landlords who want to cash in on the new zoning.

The bottom-line question was, if you don't mean for these apartment buildings to be demolished, and the occupants tossed out on the street, why in the world would you apply the new zoning to them?

But, predictably, the council went ahead anyway.  They're also going to give a small fortune to a construction company, to build a completely-unnecessary government building on the current parking for Wheaton Triangle businesses. With parking difficult, customers will be turned away. And that means that - guess what? - more shops go out of business. It's an ingenious plan to speed redevelopment of the Wheaton Triangle shopping centers at the expense of taxpayers, and business owners.

And how about affordable housing? Not to long ago, I heard that a plan is coming forward to redevelop the Ambassador apartments. That is one of the affordable apartment buildings I referred to in my testimony. No one is saying it's the Ritz Carlton. But where are those folks going to go?

And which building is next?

Even an affordable complex dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt herself, on the edge of downtown Silver Spring, is now facing the wrecking ball. What would she say about that? Don't worry, a developer could probably give a smart aleck answer that would be favorable to new development. Save it for the Planning Board.

Problems in development-crazed Washington, DC, are giving us a glimpse of Montgomery County's future, should we continue on this path.

A spike in the number of DC residents, including hundreds of children, trying to get into homeless shelters. Others are moving to Prince Georges County. Recent news stories have cited the loss of affordable housing as the primary cause of the surge.

Meanwhile, unit after unit of affordable housing is demolished in DC, and replaced by luxury apartments. Wealthy politicians, developers and residents lecture us on the success of "vibrant, walkable, smart growth" redevelopment.

Sound familiar?

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