2021 | Government

Residents divided on proposal for multifamily zoning near Metro stations

Feedback also mixed on bill to prevent price gouging of renters near transit

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Public hearings on two Montgomery County bills related to housing and rentals drew lots of reactions on Thursday, lasting nearly two and a half hours.

One bill would allow multifamily housing near Metro stations. Another would protect renters in transit areas from price gouging.

The proposed zoning text amendment would specifically allow duplexes, townhouses, and other multifamily housing on residential property zoned R-60 within a mile of a Metrorail station. The structures would have to be within the building height, lot coverage, setbacks, minimum lot size and minimum parking requirements allowed in an R-60 zone.

More flexibility would be allowed for projects within half a mile of a Metrorail station. Those sites would be excluded from infill lot coverage limits and have decreased minimum parking requirements.

The County Council hosted the public hearings Thursday night. Council Member Will Jawando spearheaded both bills.

He has called the zoning bill the “More Housing for More People” initiative and has referred to the “Missing Middle Housing” concept, which looks at multifamily units compatible in scale, form and construction with single-family homes. The purpose of the bill is to result in additional market-rate housing.

More than 40 people testified on the bill. Supporters wanted more affordable housing near transit routes, argued that it would limit gentrification, and pushed for the environmental benefits of more commuting through transit.

Opponents said it wouldn’t solve the issue of missing middle housing, protested the change in character for their neighborhoods, and argued that the focus of the bill should instead be addressed in a master plan.

Meredith Wellington, representing County Executive Marc Elrich, said increasing the density of housing will increase the cost of the land. Adding the new housing would not make units affordable for low- and middle-income residents, she said.

“In the Missing Middle Study, missing middle housing was the same footprint as surrounding single-family homes,” she said. “But now, [the planning department] is saying that developers have concerns about that and that they’re going to explore increasing heights, getting rid of parking, and even subdividing small R-60 lots. This [zoning text amendment] can’t address all of these problems.”

Elrich would like to see the housing issue addressed through other initiatives, particularly Thrive Montgomery 2050, a general plan for future growth and development in the county.

Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, agreed that the issue should be addressed in Thrive Montgomery, or considered with a broader look at other missing middle housing options.

“While it is true that there is no guarantee that missing middle housing, like any other market rate housing, will be affordable … there is no doubt that missing middle housing will produce more affordable units,” he said.

Carolyn Greis, a council member for the Village of Chevy Chase, Section 3, said rushing the legislation would undermine the value, force and deliberative planning process. A bill that would broadly and uniformly apply to the zoning should be taken up in a master plan process, she said.

Mayor Cecily Baskir of the Town of Chevy Chase and Mayor Jeffrey Slavin of Somerset also spoke against the bill. While they said they support more affordable housing, the issue should be taken up in the comprehensive Thrive Montgomery plan, they said.

Several residents from the Woodside neighborhood in Silver Spring spoke in opposition, too. They said the zoning change could prompt developers to snatch up properties and construct multifamily housing in a single-family block, affecting the character of the neighborhood.

Joan Warren, a resident of the neighborhood, said residents already get postcards from developers who want to purchase their properties to build multifamily housing. The bill doesn’t give the community input on the plan, she said.

Ryan Hardy, a resident in Silver Spring, said the county needs to remove obstacles for people to live near transit. Some neighborhoods do not fully take advantage of their location near transit, he said.

He said the council should expand the legislation to include R-90 zones to fill even more gaps.

Jane Lyons of the Coalition of Smarter Growth said the county does not have enough housing — wealthier households can outbid others in purchasing homes near transit. She also said the initiative should include R-90 zones.

“There is no easy answer to solve our housing challenges, though the two proposals before you this evening are a step in the right direction,” she said.

Rent gouging

The other proposed bill discussed Thursday deals with protections against rent gouging in transit areas.

The bill would require landlords to comply with county Department of Housing and Community Affairs rent guidelines if the property is within a mile of rail transit stations and within half a mile of bus rapid transit stations. The rent guidelines can change each year.

The regulated rent could be increased by an allowable increase once a year. Landlords could also “bank” the allowable increase and apply it another year. They could also delay the yearly increase limit if there are major renovations to properties.

Annual reports on rent would be submitted to the county. Certain owner-occupied properties, religious and nonprofit organizations, and licensed facilities could be exempt from the bill.

Dale Tibbitts, a special assistant to Elrich, said the county executive supports the bill. Rent-burdened tenants pay 30% to 50% of their income for housing, Tibbitts said.

“Limiting rent increases represents an approach to reduce instability and replace displacement pressures that are consistent with recommendations of recent housing needs and preservation analyses, including Planning’s 2020 preservation study,” he said.

Anderson said the planning board unanimously opposed the bill because members did not believe there’s evidence that rents are going up faster than the cost of living.

Montgomery County’s rents rose about 40% from 2000 to 2019 — a 1.78% annualized rate of increase over the last 20 years, substantially less than the rate of inflation, Anderson said. The rate of increase in the Consumer Price Index over that period was 3.37% per year.

“Certainly, there are people who struggle to pay the rent or struggle to afford housing, but that’s the product of weak wage and job growth and other things that are going on in the economy, not predatory behavior of landlords,” he said. “At least, there’s no economic evidence that that’s going on in any substantial way.”

Anderson said rent control measures, similar to the county’s bill, were put in place in Takoma Park in 1981 and almost no rental housing has been built there since then.

“We think there’s very good reason to think that rent control of this type is likely to bring a halt to construction of new housing,” he said.

Brandy Brooks, a board member of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, disagreed with Anderson. She said extensive rent increases are nothing new.

“The pandemic has made it clear that we have to take bold action to ensure housing security for all Montgomery County residents,” she said. “There are ample examples of rents being raised much faster than people’s incomes.”

In one Wheaton apartment building, residents had their rent raised an average of 39% and for some residents, as high as 230%, Brooks said.

Nicola Whiteman of the Apartment and Office Building Association, which represents the commercial and multifamily property management industry in the region, said the bill would cause developers to develop in other places without the rent-cap regulations.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.