Apartments in downtown Bethesda. Image by Kevin Harber licensed under Creative Commons.

Montgomery County wants to encourage developers to build more affordable housing in downtown Bethesda. But due to pressure from neighbors, the County Council voted to allow less affordable housing and shorter buildings instead.

County councilmembers clashed last week while discussing a proposal to allow taller buildings in some areas of Bethesda in exchange for building more apartments for low-income families. At a prior hearing discussing the issue, Councilmember Nancy Floreen, referring to vocal opposition from some neighbors, said, “When people say protect the neighborhood, I hear ‘Protect me from affordable housing.’” Council President Roger Berliner, who represents Bethesda, responded that the the council had a obligation to residents to protect the “edges.”

The council voted 7 to 2 to include properties recommended by the Housing Opportunities Commission(HOC) in the height incentive area, with only councilmembers Marc Elrich and Roger Berliner opposing. The council then voted 5-3 to restrict the areas where additional affordable housing could be built. Councilmembers Hans Riemer, Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich, Tom Hucker and Sidney Katz voted for the restrictions while Councilmembers Nancy Navarro, Nancy Floreen, and George Leventhal voted against the proposal.

This map of recent housing construction in Montgomery County shows that most new homes are being built far from transit. Image by Montgomery County Planning Department.

Montgomery County faces a rental housing crisis, in which 50% of renters are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% or more of their income on housing. One-quarter of renters spend 50% or more of their income on housing.

In recent years, county leaders have allowed developers in some areas to build taller or bigger buildings in exchange for more affordable units. In downtown Bethesda, where the County Council approved a new master plan this spring, new residential buildings must set aside 15% of all new homes for low-income families (called Moderately Priced Dwelling Units). That’s higher than the 12.5% required elsewhere in Montgomery County, and it’s could double the number of rent-restricted units in downtown Bethesda.

More transit-oriented development means more affordable housing options

But some councilmembers wanted to allow developers to build up to 12 feet higher than the limit if they agreed to increase the percentage of affordable apartments to 17.5%. It’s a policy the Obama administration endorsed in a 2016 white paper about how restrictive zoning reduces economic opportunities and discourages integration.

Height increases for more affordable units are consistent with county policy, but now the issue was where to allow the taller buildings. Last week, the Montgomery County Council debated a zoning text amendment (ZTA) that would decide what areas in the master plan would be subject to the new affordable housing height incentives.

Affordable housing solutions clash with neighbors' fears about height

Neighbors who live adjacent to downtown Bethesda opposed allowing slightly taller buildings near single-family homes. Groups like the Coalition of Bethesda Area Residents (CBAR) wanted firm height caps on properties at the edge of downtown. “The recommended maximum building heights for properties...should be the absolute maximum heights permitted, inclusive of any and all allowances for public benefits such as MPDUs,” CBAR noted in one of their letters to the council.

Meanwhile, affordable housing and transit advocates were pushing to ensure that opportunities for increased housing across all of downtown Bethesda. “The Council’s goal must be increased affordable housing and more housing overall in Downtown Bethesda and at all transit centers,” wrote the Action Committee for Transit. Montgomery Housing Partnership, a nonprofit affordable housing provider, also opposed removing height incentives from the master plan area, noting that it is sometimes necessary for increased affordability.

After a lengthy discussion, the Montgomery County Council voted on a compromise plan that would add a handful of properties at the edge of downtown Bethesda, while reducing heights and affordable housing allotments elsewhere.

“Protecting” single-family homes will make our rental crisis worse

Reducing the incentive to build affordable housing in parts of downtown Bethesda flies in the face of good housing policy. A boatload of research has come out that finds limiting the amount of housing a jurisdiction produces increases displacement and increases rent. California studied the effects of housing production in its cities, and found that rents have risen much more quickly for poor residents in places that limited housing production than those that embraced new housing.

The yellow areas show where additional height for affordable apartments will be allowed in downtown Bethesda. The white areas of downtown are where neighbors fought to have the incentive removed. Image by Montgomery County.

This is particularly acute in Montgomery County, where only 14% of the county’s rental housing has been built since 2000, but renters grew from 24% of the population in 2008 to 36% in 2016. Median gross rent in Montgomery County increased 81%, from $914 in 2000 to $1,656 in 2015, while median income has declined 5.8% since 2007 to $98,917, and is now lower than it was in 1999.

Rents will only continue to rise as the county has not been producing the amount of rental housing it needs to meet demand. George Mason University estimates that Montgomery County will have to produce 6,200 units per year to meet demand; currently, we are building barely half that.

This county can't prosper without supporting renters

Building affordable housing in transit served areas decreases congestion, increases social mobility and adds more money to our tax base. Who wins in a policy battle that limits incentives for affordable housing in a desirable area? Not renters like me who spend 42% of our after tax income on rent (and I live in an affordable unit!)

We already have an economic divide in Montgomery County, and limiting incentives for affordable housing exacerbates that problem. During the Great Recession, median income along the Route 29 corridor fell 12%, but only 1% in Bethesda. By limiting affordable housing in wealthy areas, we are doubling down on economic trends the county has been trying to tackle.

The county is expected to gain 274,390 jobs by 2040. But if we fail to build enough affordable housing in neighborhoods like Bethesda, close to jobs and transit, we will have more congestion and less social mobility. Residents will be forced to drive farther to find affordable housing, adding more cars to our roads. Poor families will be further pushed out from neighborhoods with good schools and resources.

This fight shows the distance between Montgomery County's progressive reputation and its actions. We can’t claim to be progressive on a $15 minimum wage and then, in the next breath, fight against height bonuses for affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods. It isn’t enough for neighbors to put out lawn signs that say “all are welcome here” if we deny lower income folks access to our communities. Likewise, councilmembers can’t vote for a renter protection bill and then vote against actually building housing for said renters.

Montgomery has been on the forefront of many progressive policies, and we should live up to that legacy. That means being pro-housing.

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Pete Tomao is the Montgomery County Advocacy Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth.  A former campaign staffer and union organizer, Pete is passionate about creating better transit options for the Washington, DC region. He graduated from American University with a degree in Political Science.