Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich by betterDCregion licensed under Creative Commons.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has a history of saying inflammatory things about policy. He did it again Tuesday, when at a housing forum organized by the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers (HAND), he pooh-poohed attention to “missing middle” housing, or efforts to encourage the private sector to build homes that middle-income residents can afford.

According to WAMU reporter Ally Schweitzer, Arlington County Board chair Christian Dorsey disagreed, saying Arlingtonians of many income levels are affected by a lack of housing supply.

Elrich also said, “Those who think the market will solve affordable housing crisis are ‘fooling [themselves],’” Schweitzer reported. This is not untrue in that, completely on its own, the market will not solve this problem. A fundamental disagreement in the housing debate is whether market-rate housing can be one part of the solution. Streamlined approvals, better construction techniques, and zoning changes to allow more units could stimulate more medium-cost housing.

That doesn’t serve the region’s lowest income residents, whose need is most acute and where the housing shortage is greatest. Market-rate housing could raise tax revenue that governments can spend on vouchers, public housing, or other subsidies for the lowest income residents.

Elrich, instead, said that he’s “not interested in housing developments that have 30% affordable units and the rest luxury,” and frowned upon housing supporters’ focus on zoning (“that zoning thing,” he apparently called it), and argued there’s enough land zoned for high densities which isn’t being built upon. Members of the 2018 GGWash Elections Committee responded to this general point in our detailed article on Elrich during his campaign.

On Twitter, Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer said he was “not surprised but very disappointed to see the quotes from” Elrich. He wrote:

Montgomery County is a special place because we have a generous spirit and a strong sense of the public good. We care about the world we live in and we want to work together to create opportunity and a better world.

“Missing middle” housing needs are REAL. Despite Elrich’s comment that middle income housing is plentiful, the middle class is very squeezed. The Elrich policy of saying NO to everything will only worsen our affordability problems and make it harder for us to be our best.

How are we going to grow a strong economy if working families can’t afford to live here? Why shouldn’t we build housing so that a lab tech or a gov employee can afford to live here? Why does he keep saying that only people at 30% of AMI have any legitimate problem?

Missing middle housing is specifically intended to create more affordable housing types. For example, Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs. Unfortunately Elrich is actively whipping up opposition, even calling ADUs “trailers.”

One quote isn’t totally clear, but seems like Elrich is dismissing benefit of new buildings with 30% of the units set aside in our MPDU affordable program since the other 70% are market rate (“luxury” he says).

Our MPDU program is a national model that builds economic integration into new development. It’s one of the few tools to get affordable units in the most expensive areas where they create the most opportunity. And many MPDUs are available to those at 30% of AMI with vouchers.

As for that “zoning thing,” plans for zoning that require new development to create even more affordable housing are also on his NO list: Lyttonsville, Bethesda, Chevy Chase Lake, & Veirs Mill. All included substantial affordable housing components in public private partnership.

And in his first budget as County Executive, he proposed cutting the County’s Housing Initiative Fund by $5m, where we provide loans for affordable housing. Fortunately the Council restored those funds.

Marc’s views on housing don’t represent a consensus in Montgomery County.

GGWash Editorial Board member and Montgomery County resident Dan Reed chimed in, writing,

If the last time you bought a house was in 1995, you too would assume that only very poor people have trouble affording housing in Montgomery County.

This isn’t zero-sum! We can have affordable homes for low-income people AND middle-income people, but to do that you need *more* homes. It’s frustrating that our county executive would pit these goals against each other.

Reed shared this image based on a Montgomery County Planning Department graph:

Image based on a Montgomery County Planning Department graph, which uses census data and building permits. Image by Dan Reed.

Reed is right that this divisive approach isn’t helpful. The neediest residents of our region are indeed often neglected by policy-makers and budgeters, and it’s laudable for Elrich to want to ensure they aren’t left behind. But many people who aren’t the poorest residents also struggle to find housing, and our policies can and should address all of these needs in a way that serves both instead of forcing them to compete for scarce resources.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.