Elrich at the Progressive Neighbors forum. Screenshot from a video by Ryan Miner.

As the Purple Line begins construction, many are worried about the potential impact on working-class immigrant neighborhoods. How can we ensure that people can afford to stay in their neighborhood as the land around the line grows in value?

Two candidates for Montgomery County executive presented wildly different visions at a recent forum, with one accusing the Planning Board of promoting "ethnic cleansing" along the corridor. 

The 16-mile light rail line, which broke ground in August, will run between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George’s County. Its 21 stations will serve a series of inner suburban neighborhoods with large working-class, minority, and immigrant populations including Long Branch, which is located near the border of the two counties in Silver Spring.

Marc Elrich, a candidate for county executive, made the accusation while speaking at a candidate forum earlier this week hosted by liberal group Progressive Neighbors in downtown Silver Spring. Elrich appeared alongside his opponent George Leventhal, who is also a Democrat and an at-large county councilmember. (There are four other candidates, but they didn’t show up.)

Blogger Ryan Miner recorded this video and shared it on his site, A Miner Detail. Moderator Joan King asked the candidates what they can do to help make Montgomery County an affordable place for renters to live. Elrich replied:

“I support rent stabilization, and I think we need to be honest with ourselves about this. We threw up our hands and said, ‘The market will determine the price of housing, and the market alone will determine that.’ And we are going to wipe out neighborhood after neighborhood in Montgomery County.

You can bet, if we don’t do rent stabilization at the Purple Line stops for example, the neighborhoods around the Purple Line will not continue to exist. It will be bought, it will be repurposed, it will go to other people. When we did the Long Branch plan, and Park and Planning came in and said we want to rezone all of the existing housing in Long Branch, I accused the Planning Board of ethnic cleansing. Some people do it with a gun, you are doing it with a pen. But the truth is those folks will be gone, and they will be gone forever.”

And Leventhal said:

So, Montgomery County is very successful. It’s very desirable. We have an excellent school system, we have safe neighborhoods, we have thriving urban centers like Silver Spring and Bethesda, and we’re trying to improve our placemaking and the excitement and urban life in places like Wheaton and, we hope, Glenmont. We do have market affordable housing in places like Wheaton and Glenmont. In Bethesda, we have just adopted the highest price control mandate in the county’s history. Fifteen percent of all new housing that comes online in downtown Bethesda will have to be price controlled below market rate.

The reality is that housing prices are controlled by supply and demand, and as long as there is high demand for housing here, prices will be high. There are communities that have very low housing prices, and those by and large are places you don’t want to live. So, we are investing $51 million this year in our Housing Initiative Fund, more than ever before in the county’s history.

The best way to get more affordable housing is to allow more housing, and that addresses the supply side of the equation

This is not ethnic cleansing

Let’s be clear: ethnic cleansing is the systematic expulsion or killing of members of a specific ethnic or religious group. It’s how the Sudanese government oversaw the killing of 300,000 people in the ongoing conflict in Darfur, or how Myanmar has driven more than 600,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic group out of that country over the past year.

This is not that.

Marc Elrich voted against preserving affordable housing in Long Branch

The Long Branch Sector Plan, passed in 2013, is a vision for long-term development near the intersection of Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road where two Purple Line stations are being built. In recent years, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have crafted similar plans for other communities along the Purple Line corridor including downtown Bethesda, Chevy Chase Lake, Lyttonsville, Takoma-Langley, College Park, and New Carrollton.

In many of these communities, there are real concerns that the Purple Line could increase the demand for homes and drive up prices, potentially pushing out lower-income people.

The Long Branch plan, like these other plans, addresses that by allowing the building of new homes and apartments in that neighborhood in anticipation of more people wanting to live there. It also plans a variety of new amenities for residents to enjoy, including new sidewalks and bike lanes, expanded parkland and recreational facilities, and the preservation of the historic Flower Theatre.

Dancing at a Long Branch block party. Image by Dan Reed licensed under Creative Commons.

The plan’s zoning will restrict most new development in Long Branch to replacing the area’s strip malls and parking lots, many of which haven’t seen significant investment in decades. Even so, the area could accommodate more than 3,200 new homes, 400 of which would be set aside for low-income families. That’s on top of the existing 1,800 garden-style apartments in Long Branch, which were built in the 1940s and 1950s and comprise most of the area’s low-cost housing.

The County Council chose to preserve these apartments, and it’s something Marc Elrich pushed for during the planning process. Leventhal was one of the eight councilmembers who voted in favor of the plan, while Elrich was the lone vote against the plan, claiming it didn't do enough to support local businesses.

If we’re serious about keeping people in their neighborhoods, here’s how to do it

Building new homes isn’t enough to preserve affordable housing in Long Branch and other communities along the Purple Line.

Over the past several years, the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland has pulled together over 150 labor, environmental, civic, and business groups, as well as local officials, to form the Purple Line Corridor Coalition. The coalition's mission is to develop a strategy for ensuring that the people who live near the Purple Line today can stay and benefit from it.

Their recommendations include everything from subsidizing the creation and preservation of affordable housing, to providing business loans and training to small businesses to help them survive Purple Line construction, to workforce training for current residents, to encouraging public art around Purple Line stations. Some of these things are already happening, while others need political support to actually get enacted.

We need political leaders who can actually do that. Montgomery County's primary election is June 26, 2018 and as the race heats up, it's important for voters to consider who's serious about supporting these neighborhoods and the people who live in them, and who compares those efforts to a war crime.

(Full disclosure: I worked in George Leventhal's county council office seven years ago.)