Tuesday, August 31, 2021

residents of a rich MoCo neighborhood provide a helpful list of places where cheaper homes can go

Second Avenue in Woodside
A view of Woodside with downtown Silver Spring in the background. Image by the author.

Montgomery County has a chronic housing shortage, particularly for low- and middle-income people. In Silver Spring’s Woodside Park neighborhood, nearly 200 residents signed a letter listing other places where those homes can go. It’s part of an ongoing campaign to keep affluent neighborhoods from opening up to new homes and new people.

The price of homes in Montgomery County are rising steadily

Home prices in Montgomery County increased 14% last year, and for the first time the median home price topped $500,000. For a single-family home, it’s nearly $800,000. This isn’t unique - jurisdictions across the Washington region and around the nation are struggling with rising home prices. What all of these places have in common is a chronic shortage of new home construction, particularly for lower-priced homes. Montgomery County needs to build over 80,000 homes in the coming decades to fill the gap. In 2020, it permitted just 1500.

It’s easy to lose track of all the things county leaders are doing to address high housing costs: tax incentives, rent stabilization,lifting a ban on new homes near crowded schools, letting people build accessory apartments. Now, they’re targeting what might be the biggest obstacle: in most of Montgomery County’s residential land, you can only build one house per lot due to single-family zoning.

Land uses in Montgomery County, courtesy of Montgomery Planning.

For the past few years, the county has looked at ways to allow modestly-priced duplexes, townhomes, and apartments (among other house types) in single-family zoned areas, at least near bus lines, train stations, or major roads like Connecticut Avenue. This fall, the County Council could vote to approve Thrive 2050, a vision for the next 30 years that would open the door for the zoning changes needed to actually build these homes.

fourplexes on nolte avenue
Fourplexes on Nolte Avenue, in East Silver Spring, are an example of the types of housing that could go in Woodside Park. Image by the author.

This could open up neighborhoods where people want to live, but a lack of homes and prohibitive costs put them off-limits to all but the wealthy. One of those places is Woodside Park, a 1920s-era neighborhood in Silver Spring where the average home sells for over $860,000. Nearly all of its roughly 500 residences are stand-alone houses on large lots, but as the neighborhood is within one mile of the Red and future Purple lines, Montgomery County is considering recommendations that could allow up to four homes on each lot.

People are BIG mad

Earlier this summer, 197 Woodside Park residents signed a letter to the County Council opposing the county’s housing efforts, claiming they would “deeply undermine the character, natural assets, and future stability” of the neighborhood.

Instead, they provided a helpful list of places where the county could build more affordable homes instead. Some locations were in vacant office buildings and underused parking lots.They specifically recommend putting those homes in three places: downtown Silver Spring, a portion of downtown called Fenton Village, and White Oak.

Those areas have two things in common. One is that they’re either zoned for or already building lots of new homes, including deeply affordable homes. They’re also majority-minority - Fenton Village in particular is known for its Ethiopian community - and less affluent than Montgomery County as a whole. Woodside Park is a majority-white neighborhood with significantly higher incomes than the county.

Some of the people who signed the letter are not white. Most would argue they are not bigots. But they live in a neighborhood that was built to exclude. Lots in Woodside Park were originally sold with covenants barring non-white residents and homes considered to be too modest. In 1937, the developer and residents sued a builder claiming his homes were “cheap in appearance and construction” and forced him to make them bigger.

For much of the 20th century, Montgomery County was a place where non-white people were restricted in where they could live, shop, and work. Woodside Park was one of those places. It appeared on redlining maps as an area where the government would back home loans, as opposed to less affluent or non-white communities. Like many parts of the county, it was also zoned almost entirely for single-family homes, a policy originally designed to keep non-white people out of wealthy, white communities. And in many parts of the county, it works as intended - for people of color as well as working-class people, and increasingly middle-class people.

That zoning also created a political process that favored people who could afford those places and wanted to keep others out. For decades, Woodside Park residents fought attempts to build townhomes or apartments within its limits, and most recently blocked affordable apartments for seniors from being built nearby.

Protected Bike Lane on Lockwood Drive
A bus rapid transit station in White Oak, where Woodside Park residents recommend affordable housing can go instead. Image by the author.

Woodside Park is just one of the groups fighting the county’s housing efforts, which include some of our wealthiest neighborhoods. One group launched Facebook ads showing a bomb landing on a house: “Upzoning is Coming! And Your Home is Ground Zero.” Another claims that affordable “$300-400k” single-family homes already exist (look for yourself, they do not) and that the county will replace them all with “dense rentals”. The Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights has a flyer trying to scare people with a really cute little apartment building.

Lots of neighbors are doing this now

Decisions about what types of homes can go where directly impact someone’s ability to access jobs, fresh food, medical care, friends and loved ones, or any of the things that make life worth living. Naturally, people in places like Woodside Park like having access to those things! But when they successfully fight to preserve their exclusive neighborhood, the rest of us bear the cost: segregated schools; racial disparities in wealth, health, and education; congested roads as the young, the working-class, and people of color get priced out; and a degraded environment from suburban sprawl and vehicle pollution.

Those issues were front of mind as Montgomery County planners began work on Thrive over two years ago. Since then, they’ve held over 160 community meetings, online and in person, including with the communities fighting it today. They also reached out to groups we don’t normally hear from, including renters, people of color, younger residents, and small business owners. Ads on buses and in Metro stations and materials in eight different languages put this work where people could see it and in ways they could understand it. At public hearings, a slim majority of residents spoke in favor of it.

Montgomery County is just one of dozens of cities, counties, and states looking at zoning as a way to address their housing crises, including Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, Norfolk, and Atlanta. After several tries, California finally passed a bill legalizing duplexes statewide. In each of those places there has been a backlash from affluent residents. Here’s how a planning commissioner in Charlottesville described it: “There’s fear and anger at being targeted. They don’t feel centered in this process. And they are correct.”

For a long time, even the possibility of this backlash kept reform off the table. In 2010, the Planning Department began exploring zoning changes to encourage duplexes, townhomes and little apartment buildings but quietly shut the project down. Montgomery County is a very different place today. Will officials be able to make a different decision, or will they lead us down the same old path of exclusion?

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