Silver Spring homes. Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

Montgomery County is deep in the midst of a housing shortage, according to a county rental housing study released last year. The good news is that the study did not just list problems — it also outlined several ways to help solve them.

One of the study’s recommended policy changes could make a big difference: mandating that publicly-owned land be used to proactively maximize affordable housing. This could bring deeply affordable rental units to high-opportunity neighborhoods where the cost of land is expensive (think areas near Metro).

The state of Montgomery’s rental housing market

Montgomery’s stakeholders have known for years that renters are facing a housing crisis. But the study, conducted over a two-year period, puts a finer point on things. The study highlights that:

  • Half of Montgomery County renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing (making them “cost burdened”). Half of that group (25% of all Montgomery renters) spend 50% of their income on housing (making them “severely cost burdened”).
  • Low-income households account for 38% of the demand for rental housing, but only 19% of units are affordable at their income levels
  • 55% of rental housing was built prior to 1980, and only 14% since the year 2000, indicating a housing stock that hasn’t seen a lot of new inventory added. As demand for rental housing has risen, Montgomery hasn’t been adding enough housing to meet current demands.

We can glean several things from the statistics in the rental housing report:

  1. The county is not meeting it’s rental housing demand
  2. The county needs to build housing for low-income earners
  3. The county needs more housing

To get more affordable homes, use public land

The report recommends that Montgomery County “develop a comprehensive public land policy that proactively creates opportunities to use public land for housing and co-locate housing and public services (e.g. fire stations, police stations, libraries)”.

In other words, the county should proactively make sure it’s getting as much new housing as it can out of county-owned property.

Image by Ben B used with permission.

Several cities have created policies to use public land to build affordable housing, including DC. In 2014, the DC Council passed the Disposition of District Land for Affordable Housing Amendment Act. The act requires all new multi-family residential developments on city-owned surplus land to include at least 20-30% affordable housing for residents making between 30% and 50% of AMI.

That percentage rises to 30% affordable if the parcel is located within a half-mile of transit. The District has approved the first project under the law at 965 Florida Ave, where 129 of a planned 428 units will be set aside for low-income households, bringing deeply affordable housing to a transit-accessible and highly desirable neighborhood — exactly the intent of good public land for housing bills. In San Francisco, all surplus city owned land is sent to the mayor’s office to be evaluated as a site for affordable housing and co-location of city services, avoiding fights of pitting one community need over another.

Montgomery County is missing a lot of opportunities

Current Montgomery County law requires the County Executive to conduct an affordable housing assessment when development is proposed for county-owned land. Projects where at least 30% of proposed units are affordable are subject to a much shorter review process — potentially avoiding costly land-use battles.

But that’s an incentive program, and not the same thing as requiring developments on public land to include a significant amount of affordable homes.

Because Montgomery County doesn’t have a codified “public land for public good” law, sometimes vital opportunities to get new housing fall through. For example: the decision to not co-locate affordable housing and daycare at the old Silver Spring Library. Instead of placing affordable senior housing on a piece of public land 10 minutes from Metrorail and the eventual Purple Line, the county shipped the affordable housing up to White Oak.

If Montgomery County had had a law like DC’s or San Francisco’s at the time, we would have gotten both a daycare center and affordable housing. Additionally, there would be a mandated percentage of affordable housing that is required for residential development near transit.

If Montgomery decides to fully make use of its public land, it could have a huge impact for renters. The Montgomery Planning Department HAS created a map that categorizes all of Montgomery’s public land, whether parking lots or vacant schools.

Map of public land in Montgomery County. Image by Montgomery County Planning.

As you can see in the map, there is a lot of public land in transit-accessible areas, particularly near Downtown Silver Spring. In Silver Spring, the county has more than 15 acres (or 12 football fields-worth) of public parking alone. That’s public land that could be turned into housing for people who need it.

What’s next?

Since 2008 the number of renter households in Montgomery grew from 24% of the population to 36% of the population. Despite the large increase little new housing was built during the recession and according to George Mason University, Montgomery is now only building half the 6,200 units per year needed to meet demand. Meanwhile, the median rent in Montgomery has risen 81% since 2000.

Yet, whether in Bethesda or at the old Silver Spring Library, anti-housing activists aided by anti-growth elected officials have blocked several attempts to build affordable housing. Many anti-housing activists argue that the county is overdeveloped and simply does not need more homes.

Councilmember Marc Elrich, a leading candidate for county executive, has compared new development to a tumor and claimed that development near the Purple Line would lead to “ethnic cleansing.” Despite Elrich’s claims of overdevelopment, the vast majority of Montgomery’s housing stock are one- to four-story garden apartments which account for 79% of Montgomery’s housing stock. In fact, 64% of rental facilities are more than 50 years old.

Simply put, Montgomery County needs to build more homes, and a new bold initiative around public land is exactly the type of policy the county needs to tackle the demand for deeply affordable homes. The next Montgomery County Executive and Council could decide to take this on, which could jump start efforts to turn things like vacant parking lots into mixed-income communities.

The Montgomery County Executive has the power to fast-track affordable housing on county land. The question is: will the next County Executive use that power, and expand it into an affordable housing requirement?

GGWash sometimes organizes around issues affecting our region. Should we consider advocacy around this topic? Let us know!

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.