2021 | Opinion

Opinion: By creating housing obstacle, Gaithersburg puts senior citizens in a bind

City must show support for Holiday Inn project by showing how it can be done

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Feb. 1, 2021, will be a day that senior citizen and housing advocates will long remember. That’s when the Gaithersburg mayor and City Council approved a barrier to the development of affordable housing, particularly for our senior citizens in need.

The council’s passage of a zoning text amendment eliminated a tool to quickly and responsibly increase the city’s affordable housing stock.

The catalyst for the ZTA was a Housing Opportunities Commission proposal to convert the vacant Gaithersburg Holiday Inn into a mixed-income senior affordable community, using the public-use-by-right process.

This innovative adaptive reuse would have allowed more than 160 senior citizens to live in apartments they can afford. By avoiding the expensive and time-consuming process of new construction, repurposing existing vacant buildings is one of the most cost effective anti-sprawl ways to quickly increase affordable housing supply. 

Sadly, this will not happen due to the council’s vote to eliminate the public-use process for affordable housing. Coupled with comments made by the mayor and council, this is disturbing on several levels.

First, they recommended rezoning the site to Mixed Use (MXD) as the best method of gaining approval for the HOC proposal. However, city staff members told them at a Nov. 16 public hearing that rezoning wouldn’t necessarily permit the conversion to move forward (watch starting at the 1:57:53 mark).

Various city documents — including the master plan — don’t recommend residential uses at the property. This means that, even if the council approved the MXD rezoning (a significant hurdle in itself), the master plan still would not necessarily permit the conversion to move forward, leaving more than 160 senior citizens in need without housing they can afford.

We ask the city to identify a path that can actually result in the addition of these badly needed affordable units.

Second, during the Feb. 1 meeting, Councilmember Ryan Spiegel accused the ZTA’s opponents of not coming forward to support other city housing initiatives (watch starting at the 1:54:49 mark).

These nonprofit organizations work tirelessly to better the lives of our community’s less fortunate residents, significantly complementing the city’s services and often working hand-in-hand with city officials.

Consider the following well-respected senior citizen and affordable housing advocacy groups who joined to oppose the legislation and support the substantial addition of more than 160 affordable senior citizen apartments:
• Pax Christi at St. Rose of Lima Church
• JSSA (Jewish Social Services Agency)
• Montgomery Housing Alliance
• AIM (Action in Montgomery)
• Catholic Charities
• Habitat for Humanity
• Justice and Advocacy Council of Montgomery County
• Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County
• Housing Initiative Partnership
• Coalition for Smarter Growth
• League of Women Voters
• Maryland and Montgomery County AARP chapters. 

Third, opposition to the ZTA was overwhelming, with no one testifying in support.

Unfortunately, our appeals were met with little more than a collective shrug when the council passed the legislation, calling it a “housekeeping measure.” Even worse, while they said they don’t oppose the Holiday Inn conversion to senior citizen housing, they have not publicly pledged support for the project or sought ways to make it a reality.

Older adults in our county see housing affordability as their biggest challenge regardless of their income level, according to a 2018 county Planning Board report, “Meeting the Housing Needs of Older Adults in Montgomery County.” There are precious few affordable housing options available, particularly when on a fixed income.

The city of Gaithersburg shouldn’t shut the door on this proposal, which has received unanimous support from expert advocates concerned about affordable housing and the welfare of our senior citizens.

We call on the mayor and council to live up to the city’s legacy of supporting people in need by publicly declaring their support for converting the Gaithersburg Holiday Inn into affordable senior citizen housing.

We further call on them to identify the regulatory or legislative path that will result in this proposal’s approval.

Carmen Castro-Conroy and Candy Warner are writing on behalf of Pax Christi at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, a member of Action in Montgomery.

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