Monday, February 22, 2021

MoCo wants to create more affordable homes in wealthy neighborhoods. but when?

Montgomery County has a housing shortage, particularly for lower-priced homes. The median home price is now $500,000, 14% more than last year. Inside the Beltway and near the Red Line, prices can be significantly higher as people compete for a limited supply of houses.

Montgomery County wants to make it easier to build “missing middle” homes, like this triplex in Silver Spring. All photos by the author.

That’s happening in part because of single-family zoning, which was created in the early 20th century to keep Black people out of white and affluent neighborhoods by making townhomes and apartments illegal. This policy — along with racial covenants and redlining — still contributes to segregation today, but it also makes housing more expensive and inaccessible for everyone. That’s why places from Minneapolis to Sacramento are opening up their single-family zones.

In December, County Councilmember Will Jawando introduced a bill, ZTA 20-07, that would allow duplexes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings on “R-60” lots within one mile of Red Line stations. If passed, the bill would change planning permissions for about 24,000 lots where today you can only build one house and an accessory apartment.

“We must have an all hands on deck approach that includes multiple solutions” to address the housing shortage, he wrote in a letter to the County Council.

Montgomery County has a goal to build 41,000 homes by 2030 to meet the shortage. The Planning Department is already working on its own plans to create more “missing middle” homes, including one focused on downtown Silver Spring that could involve zoning changes and Thrive 2050, which looks at the entire county and will not involve any zoning changes. Both of these efforts will play out over the next several months, with many opportunities for public input.

Hurry up, or wait

So now there’s a debate: pass Jawando’s bill and allow more homes today, or take our time and potentially allow more homes in the near future?

Bill supporters - who were a slim majority at a public hearing on ZTA 20-07 two weeks ago - say we can’t wait to address our housing issues. (Supporters also had a slight edge during a hearing at the same time for Councilmember Jawando’s other housing bill, which would require rent control for apartments near transit.)

A new single-family home being built near downtown Silver Spring. This home was recently on the market for over $1.4 million.

Many speakers like Katie Nolan of Silver Spring talked about their struggles finding an affordable home here. “There aren’t a lot of apartments that allow pets or are near transit or fit our budget,” she said. “We need more housing in Montgomery County that people can actually afford.”

Habitat for Humanity Metro Maryland, which builds homes for low-income families, also supports the bill. “Single-family zoning created communities segregated by income and race. it’s imperative we dismantle segregation and ensure access to all neighborhoods,” said vice president of community development Sarah Reddinger.

Many bill opponents represented towns like Chevy Chase or Somerset, or neighborhoods in Bethesda and Silver Spring that primarily consist of single-family homes. These are the neighborhoods where home prices are increasing rapidly and teardowns and flips are increasingly common.

“We already struggle with stormwater management and parking problems,” said Carolyn Greis, councilmember for Chevy Chase Section 3, adding that townhomes and apartments would raise “compatibility concerns” with homes in her village.

Greis and others argued that the County Council should wait until after the Thrive 2050 plan was finished, though many of them made similar complaints about that plan, which recommends opening up single-family zones near rail and bus lines. It also talks about how wealthy neighborhoods exert influence over decision-making, which adds to our housing shortage.

Why not both?

The Planning Board recently weighed in on the bill, and said: why not both?

“It is critical that we expand Missing Middle Housing options in Montgomery County,” says Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson in a recent press release. “Councilmember Jawando’s ZTA is a good first step, but we need to consider it as part of a more comprehensive look at how to introduce a wider range of options and calibrate our approach to this issue to make sure it is as effective as possible.”

These townhomes under construction in downtown Silver Spring are part of a development with homes for low- and middle-income households.

The Planning Board is finishing a draft of the Thrive 2050 plan now and the Council will review it this spring. It doesn’t change zoning, so something like ZTA 20-07 is still needed. So the board offered ways to make the bill work better.

For starters, they suggested tweaking the zone’s height, size, and parking requirements. Jawando basically kept these same for townhomes, duplexes, and apartments as for a single house. The idea is to make sure new homes blend in, but they might be too restrictive and stifle new construction instead of encouraging it. That’s what Emily Hamilton, a housing researcher at George Mason University, (and GGWash contributor) found in a study of other communities who have opened up single-family zoning.

Another recommendation is to include R-40 and R-90 zoned lots, which are the same as R-60 but different sizes. That would add another 4,000 lots to the areas covered by the bill.

Doing nothing is not an option

The next step for Jawando’s bill is for the council’s Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee to review it, though other councilmembers suggest they’d like to wait until later this year to do so. If it passes that committee, the bill goes to the full County Council for a vote. Meanwhile, this spring the council will also get a draft of Thrive to review. The Silver Spring Downtown Plan is still being written, so it’ll be a while before we see anything there.

In the meantime, the Planning Board emphasizes that doing nothing will only make our housing issues worse. “Taking no action will depress the supply of homes, resulting in housing continuing to get more and more expensive,” reads their report. “Even small, modest numbers of duplexes, triplexes, and small apartment buildings could help combat teardowns and rebuilds.”

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