Blueridge Ave. townhouses in Wheaton. Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

The interaction of supply and demand is one of the most fundamental relationships governing prices in any kind of market. Housing prices in Montgomery County, and the Washington region as a whole, remain unaffordable for many middle-income workers.

One major reason is the simple fact that the supply of housing has not kept up with job creation and housing demand during the past two decades. That is a long time. That’s a lot of unmet latent demand.

Adding more housing units will satisfy some of this latent demand, making housing less scarce, and pushing prices towards affordability.

In November, the Montgomery County Planning Board voted against approving 36 new townhouses adjacent to the Westfield Wheaton mall, a 10 minute walk from the Metro. The Planning Board sided with the neighboring Kensington Heights Citizens’ Association, which vehemently fought the proposal.

They argued that it was “‘incompatible’ with the neighborhood.” The association’s president, Donna Savage, told the Gazette that “the opposition comes as much out of principle as out of concerns about traffic increases and neighborhood preservation.”

What ‘principle’ is that? Savage was talking about the 1990 Wheaton Sector Plan, which calls for low density commercial development at this spot. However, the current Sector Plan is about to expire, and Wheaton has become more urban in 18 years.

Plus, other areas at the edge of Wheaton’s CBD have similar townhouses. Is this fight really about the “principle” of sticking to obsolete zoning rules for Wheaton for just another year or two until we get a new plan? I doubt it. According to the Gazette article:

The citizens group also submitted a proposal to the county in September 2007 to have the property considered for the Legacy Open Space Program, but that request was denied.

I think this last quote says all that needs to be said about “principles.” The Citizens’ Association wants no new development in an urban place. No increase in housing supply. No incremental drop in housing costs.

I’m sure the Citizens’ Association isn’t deliberately trying to keep housing expensive. But that’s an unintended consequence of imposing outdated suburban sensibilities on a community (Wheaton) that is increasingly vibrant, transit-rich, walkable, and urban.

Mehring was asking for RT-10 zoning, or 10 units per acre. The RT-10 zone requires Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs), which are reserved for qualified buyers at below-market prices. If the developer is forced to develop fewer units under the RT-6 zone (6 units per acre), as proposed by the Kensington Heights Citizens’ Association, Wheaton will get zero MPDUs.

Besides adding needed market priced units and MPDUs to the county’s housing stock, this project would indeed fit with the 1990 Sector Plan. Elsewhere in Wheaton, the plan places townhouses as a transition between the commercial CBD and the areas of single-family houses.

There are already townhouses on Grandview Avenue, across from the firehouse at the edge of the CBD just north of the Metro Station. There’s another townhouse community on University Boulevard east of Georgia Avenue, between the Metro and the Wheaton Woods neighborhood of single-family houses. Finally, there’s a large townhouse community currently under construction on the old Good Council High School site, north of the Metro on Georgia Avenue.

This site, an open 3-acre lot on University Boulevard, is a transit-rich area. Both the L7 Metrobus and the 34 RideOn routes serve University, with the 34 running all day long, seven days a week, between Wheaton and Friendship Heights via the Medical Center and Bethesda Metro stations.

Most importantly, the project site is approximately a ten minute walk from the Wheaton Metro.  It is hard to find another empty site in our region that enjoys such great transit.  Letting such an opportunity go to waste violates the Smart Growth policies of Montgomery County and the State of Maryland.

The proposal would have created 36 townhouses of residents who could have conveniently walked to local businesses in Wheaton, supporting Wheaton’s ongoing revitalization with their hard-earned dollars. Each trip on foot would have meant less air pollution, less global warming, less dependence on foreign oil, and less traffic on the roads.

As time goes on, and gasoline prices resume their stratospheric climb, running errands without using the car will become increasingly attractive. Being free of rising gasoline prices, and all associated automotive costs, would have made the housing even more affordable.

Housing values in transit-oriented parts of the region, such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, have retained their value, despite the popping of the real estate bubble, which led to the overall sluggish housing sector. Thanks to the walkable urban form of Wheaton and its current revitalizing trajectory, these new townhouses would have enjoyed similarly stable values, like those in Silver Spring, Bethesda, Arlington along the Orange Line, Logan Circle, Dupont, and elsewhere.

The developer has resubmitted a new proposal for 27 townhouses.  Despite the lower profits of 27 townhouses instead of 36, they still have a business to run and would rather earn less profit than none at all or wait years for a new Sector Plan that may well allow 36. They don’t believe they can even break even with just the 18 units allowed under the current RT-6 zoning.

Affordable housing, transit access, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and vibrant walkable communities, are not going appear by magic. Instead, we’ll get there through small decision after small decision adding up to something much larger. The Planning Board should take an important step toward these goals by approving the proposal (or, better yet, the original one) and getting more housing, including affordable housing, for Wheaton.