Montgomery County will not build 92 apartments for low-income seniors here. Image by Google Street View used with permission.

Neighbors have been fighting a proposal to build affordable senior housing and a childcare facility in downtown Silver Spring. In response, Montgomery County officials made a compromise: they’ll allow the childcare to go forward, but the senior housing will be built five miles away. This is simply bad land use, and the county needs to do better.

Ever since the Silver Spring Library moved to a new building three years ago, the county has been figuring out what to do with the old 1950s-era library, located four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station on Colesville Road. County officials identified affordable housing and childcare as two major needs in the community, and put out a call for proposals to provide both on the two-acre site.

Affordable housing developer Victory Housing submitted a plan to replace the library with 92 apartments and a child care center. However, County Executive Ike Leggett just announced that they’ve selected a proposal from child care provider CentroNia and the Gudelsky Foundation to simply turn the library into a child care center. The Gudelskys, who own development firm Percontee, will provide land at Viva White Oak, a mixed-use development they’re building five miles away, where Victory Housing can build the apartments.

This decision appeases local historic preservationists who wanted to see the building preserved, a group of neighbors who opposed building housing (and in some cases, child care), and those who wanted the land turned into a park (despite there already being a park next door).

Despite support for affordable housing, Ike Leggett sides with opponents

Montgomery County has gotten older as the Baby Boomers, the second-largest generation in American history, have aged. Fourteen percent of the county’s population are over 65, up from 11.9 percent in 2009.

According to the Census, 7,100 seniors lived in and around downtown Silver Spring in 2016, 20 percent of whom live at or near the poverty level, 40 percent of whom are renters, and 24 percent of whom spend a large portion of their income on housing costs. The Bonifant, an apartment building for low-income seniors, had a waiting list of 800 people even before it opened in 2016. Homelessness has been an issue in the area; both the old library and its replacement are popular places for people to sleep at night.

But neighbors of the old library claimed that building affordable housing for old people would create traffic, overcrowding, and lower property values. The county released emails they received about the proposal, excluding the writers’ full surnames for privacy purposes.

The proposal “creates another monolithic building in an area that already has way too many high-rise apartment and condo buildings, and totally fails to fit into the residential profile of our historic neighborhood,” wrote Joseph G., who lives in the adjacent Seven Oaks-Evanswood neighborhood.

Neighbors of the old Silver Spring Library said there wasn't enough park space nearby. Image by the author.

However, many neighbors supported the proposal. (We collected over 300 signatures from people who asked the county to build homes here!) “Please know that they [opponents] do not speak for the entire neighborhood,” wrote Catherine V., “Some of us chose to live in the area because of its proximity to the urban downtown, and recognize the potential for denser development on the site to add badly needed housing for some lower-income members of our community.”

This isn’t the first time this has happened

Silver Spring has had a remarkable transformation in the past 15 years as shops and businesses have flocked to downtown. A considerable amount of new apartments have been built, but there’s still a tremendous amount of demand to live here. Local neighborhood groups have a long history of fighting development that could help meet that demand.

Seven Oaks-Evanswood spent five years unsuccessfully fighting a townhouse development across the street from the old library. Woodside Park, which also borders the library, has an entire page on the website devoted to all of the townhouse and apartment projects they’ve successfully blocked. Both neighborhoods have seen rising home values. In Seven Oaks-Evanswood, they’ve increased by 20 percent since 2009, while the median home price in Woodside Park last year was $782,000, according to real estate database Bright MLS.

County Councilmember Tom Hucker, who represents Silver Spring and East County, says he supported the Gudelsky proposal, citing CentroNia's strong reputation. “There’s lots of opportunities to provide affordable housing elsewhere in Silver Spring,” says Hucker, who notes that the County Council had no say in the decision. “There’s also a huge need for high quality child care. We got a real child care challenge, and if we want to keep families in Silver Spring, we need to address it.”

This sets a bad precedent

Montgomery County has a long history of concentrating affordable housing in White Oak and Briggs Chaney, two neighborhoods north of downtown Silver Spring along Route 29. During the 1980s, the county approved thousands of garden apartments there in anticipation of a rapid transit line that was never built. These areas now have the county’s highest poverty rate, but some of the county’s most disadvantaged residents are forced to live in places far from jobs, shopping, and public services.

Victory Housing's proposal to build 92 apartments at the old library. This will get built five miles away instead.

Viva White Oak, where the senior apartments will now be built, is an attempt to change that. In 2016, Montgomery County partnered with Percontee to build a town center and research and development park at Route 29 and Industrial Parkway. If completed, it wouldn’t be a bad place for seniors to live: they’d be close to shopping, parks, a new senior center, and a future Bus Rapid Transit line.

But affordable housing will be built in Viva White Oak anyway, as (like all new development in Montgomery County) it’s required to set aside 12.5 percent of all new homes for low-income households. It’s disappointing that Montgomery County gave up the chance to use public land to build affordable housing in downtown Silver Spring, which has much greater access to shops and amenities, and where housing costs are a greater burden. 

On Sunday, candidates for County Executive held a debate on racial equity and social justice, and discussed their commitment to improving both. Would one of those candidates consider overturning this decision? If we’re really committed to creating inclusive communities, we shouldn’t honor the needs of a handful of wealthy neighbors over less fortunate people.

This decision is frustrating, and our leaders need to know we're frustrated. Click the button below to email your representatives: the council can and should do better.

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