One-fifth of Montgomery County’s residents are Millennials, or adults between 23 and 38, and the county has been working to attract and retain them so they’ll build lives here. But new County Executive Marc Elrich recently suggested that he’s not that interested in building homes for them.
Elrich, who was elected in November, made the comment Wednesday night at a town hall in Silver Spring responding to a resident who asked what the county would do to address rising rents. Montgomery Community Media broadcasted the event on Facebook Live, and the exchange starts at 1:40:30. You can also see a transcript here.
“I am going to be dead set opposed to anybody who proposes knocking down existing affordable housing to build housing for Millennials, people making $60,000 or $80,000, and I’ve got people who can’t afford the houses they’ve got now,” he told the resident.
When the resident added it might be better for her to buy a house, he replied, “Good luck buying a house at that price!”
Lucas McKay, a Millennial who lives in downtown Silver Spring, attended the meeting Wednesday night and tweeted out Elrich’s comments.
Woaaaah Elrich just said he opposes knocking down affordable housing “to build homes for millennials.”
Hello, I am a civically engaged millennial in the second row, who desperately wants to stay in my community. I'm so glad you want me here
— K Lucas McKay (@KLucasMcKay) January 17, 2019
I reached out to her to learn more, and she explained that after the meeting, she approached Elrich to talk about the experiences of Millennials who can't afford to stay and invest in Silver Spring.
“He tried to tell me I shouldn't be so set on staying in my neighborhood,” McKay said. “I'm disabled and don't drive. I need Metro access and a walkable community. He had no answer.”
Councilmember Hans Riemer responded to Elrich's comment on Facebook, saying in part: “I was disappointed, if not surprised, to read comments from County Executive Elrich indicating his less than favorable perspective towards the housing needs of millennials. Millennials are driving so much positive change around us and attracting young workers is key to our economic vitality. But many millennials are also struggling with an unfavorable economic position, exacerbated by a housing crunch in communities like ours.”
Montgomery County actually needs Millennials to come here
Recognizing that the county needs new residents and workers to support its tax base, officials have promoted things that many Millennials (and people of all ages) increasingly want: transit projects like the Purple Line and BRT, homes in walkable neighborhoods like Silver Spring, and more nightlife.
At the same time, Millennials face some pretty significant challenges here, like the high cost of living, which was a recurring issue in last year’s election. Young adults here have lower incomes, have more student debt, and are less likely to own homes, which isn’t unusual to Montgomery County, but the high cost of housing here makes it even harder for them to put down roots.
Meanwhile, people at all age and even income levels are feeling the pinch. According to the American Community Survey, nearly one-third of all Montgomery County households spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, a measure of housing affordability. That includes 55.5% of households making $50,000 to $75,000 a year, and even 11.7% of households making over $75,000 per year.
That might seem like a lot of money, but it’s still well below the county’s median income of $103,178. Even at that level, there are very few housing options in many communities.
Nobody is doing the thing Elrich says he opposes
As a councilmember, Elrich supported the county’s Nighttime Economy Task Force, which was one effort to make Montgomery County more attractive to Millennials. So it’s weird that he’d also scapegoat them for threatening the county’s affordable housing supply.
The problem isn’t that developers are knocking down affordable apartments to build luxury homes for rich Millennials. The Montgomery County Planning Department has been researching housing trends for a report they’ll release next week, and found that there have been exactly five apartment buildings in the county that were demolished and replaced. In many cases, the new buildings had more affordable housing—like The Bonifant in downtown Silver Spring, a 144-unit building for low-income seniors that replaced an older building with about 30 apartments.
The real issue is that, after decades of rapid housing growth, the county simply hasn’t been building that much for the past 20 years, which is pushing up prices at all levels. Most new homes are being built in a small handful of neighborhoods, and wealthy (older) neighbors have fought proposals to build more homes, especially affordable housing, in their communities. Large parts of Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Bethesda are now off-limits to new housing approvals due to school capacity, even as elected officials like Elrich have fought building new schools in those areas.
“Get off my lawn” is not progressive
Elrich and his supporters told the Washington Post that he simply misspoke. But this isn’t the first time that he’s made offhand comments about affordable housing issues, like when he accused the Planning Board of committing “ethnic cleansing” for allowing more homes near a future Purple Line station, or when he told Greater Greater Washington that we should create more jobs in Frederick County instead of making room for more residents here.
As executive, he’s claimed to want a more “equitable and inclusive county.” But during his time on the County Council, Elrich has been flippant about residents’ very real housing struggles, while consistently siding with wealthy homeowners who want to keep other people out. If Marc is really serious about social justice, he needs to speak to and address the needs of all residents, instead of using progressive rhetoric as a front for more exclusionary policies.