Areas like downtown Silver Spring are building lots of new homes, but most of Montgomery County isn’t. by the author.

As in previous years, growth and development was a big issue in this year’s primary election in Montgomery County, and some candidates ran on a platform of slowing or stopping it. However, that growth doesn't look the same across the county — nearly all of it has been crammed into a few areas, leaving most parts of the county unchanged.

Here’s where the county is growing

Montgomery County’s planning department is in charge of figuring out how many people will move here, how many homes and jobs we’ll need (among other things), and where they have to go. Each area of the county has a dedicated plan for future growth called a “master plan” or “sector plan” which is updated every 20 to 30 years.

If you add all of the county’s master plan or sector plan areas up, there were about 47,000 homes that have been approved to be built as of May 2018. This is what county officials call “the pipeline." Of those 47,000 homes in the pipeline, 15,000 of those homes have building permits and are in some stage of construction. That leaves about 32,000 homes that are waiting to be built.

These areas are where most of Montgomery County's new homes are being built. Image by the author.

In fact, 80% of them will go in just 10 places, primarily near Red Line stations; in historic downtowns like Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Rockville; and greenfield areas like Clarksburg. Decades of county policy has tried to concentrate development in these specific areas, and it’s working.

On the one hand, that’s kind of cool. I live in downtown Silver Spring, which represents 0.1% of Montgomery County’s land, but will receive 15% of all of the new homes being built here. These new neighbors mean we’ll give people more opportunities to live a short walk from jobs, shopping, and transit while preserving agricultural land and open space. 


Here’s where the county isn’t growing

On the other hand, what about the rest of the county? There are a number of communities where few or no new homes are in the pipeline, many of which are in transit-rich, walkable areas where people would like to live. In fact, much of the county has either not grown or actually lost people in the past 15 years. Those places tend to fall into one of two buckets.

In some places, there’s a ton of demand to live there (as witnessed by rising home prices) but there are also residents who loudly oppose development, so little gets built.

Takoma Park has a Metro station and a walkable downtown, but very few new homes are being built there. Image by the author.

The City of Takoma Park has just seven homes waiting to be built. There are only four homes in the pipeline in North Silver Spring, which is walking distance to downtown Silver Spring and the Montgomery Hills shopping district, two Metro stations, and several future Purple Line stations. Kensington, home to a walkable downtown and a MARC station, has zero homes in the pipeline.

In other places, the county wants to see new development and there isn’t a lot of opposition to it, but the market may not be ready for it.

Downtown Wheaton has just 14 homes in the pipeline. A new apartment building called AVA Wheaton just opened, but plans to build a new apartment building next to the future town square fell through. White Oak, where Montgomery County wants to create a new town center and research park, has 18 homes in the pipeline. Long Branch, which will be home to multiple Purple Line stations and also where some officials are worried about displacement due to new development, has no homes in the pipeline.

We need more homes than what we’ve approved to build

The pipeline may not be enough to meet current and future population growth. Montgomery County grew by 70,000 people since 2010, or about 25,000 households. But the county only added about 21,000 homes, leaving a deficit of 4,000.

Where did those households go? Some of them may be young people who are still living with family. Some of them may have doubled up — Bethesda Magazine wrote last year about families renting rooms in a Germantown trailer park to save money. Others may just be homeless.

On top of that, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), we expect about 208,000 new people to move here in the next 20 years, and we’ll need about 87,000 new homes for those people. So we need about 91,000 homes, and we’ve approved 48,000. That’s 43,000 houses that we need to build.

And the homes we’ve already approved to build may not be where we need them to be. It can take decades to build all the homes in the pipeline — there are homes that were approved in the 1980s and 1990s still waiting to be built — and, as a result, the pipeline doesn’t always match current trends.

Twenty years ago, most of the county’s growth and investment was happening on the suburban fringe, while closer-in urban areas were declining. Today, that trend has basically reversed, and it’s in those closer-in areas where home prices are rising the fastest due to demand.

Most of Montgomery County (the green and yellow areas) are off-limits to significant new development, leaving just 5% of the county's land for new residents. Image by the author.

However, 95% percent of Montgomery County’s land is zoned for either agricultural land or suburban single-family homes, and is basically guaranteed to stay like that forever. The remaining 5% — our downtowns, strip malls, office parks, industrial parks, and notably, garden apartment complexes — is where nearly all of our county’s future growth will have to go.

Wealthy neighborhoods' exclusivity results in more sprawl and inequity

Even as some areas of Montgomery County are seeing a lot of new construction, the vast majority of the county has seen little change. Because of single-family zoning, you can live a few blocks from downtown Bethesda or downtown Silver Spring and be virtually guaranteed that nothing will ever change on your street. And that has real consequences.

When we prevent any new homes from being built in wealthy, close-in neighborhoods, that growth ends up further out, which results in more sprawl, more traffic, and a degraded natural environment. Or it means that growth ends up exclusively in less affluent areas who don’t have as loud of a voice, and also face the greatest risk for gentrification and displacement.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County gets a smaller tax base, fewer resources for schools and parks, and higher housing costs. This isn’t sustainable.

I live in downtown Silver Spring, and when I walk out of my home I can see two new high-rise apartment buildings under construction, which together will create over 700 new homes. They come with inconveniences — closed sidewalks, noise, dust, construction traffic. But in a few months, they’ll mean new neighbors, more customers for local business, and a bigger tax base for our parks, schools, and other public amenities.

By making room for more neighbors, my neighborhood is helping make Montgomery County a better place to live. But based on my calculations, we have to build about 120 times this many homes in the coming years. They don’t have to all be high-rise apartment buildings, nor should they be. But we do need more communities in Montgomery County to welcome new residents.