2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Increasing density through ‘Thrive’ could hamper the pursuit of homeownership

Watch out for an incremental erosion of the single-family lot in Montgomery County

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There has been a lot of coverage of the Montgomery County Planning Department’s draft update to the county’s General Plan, called Thrive Montgomery 2050.

Although there is certainly much to commend about the draft plan, one aspect is causing significant anxiety among present and aspirational homeowners in the county — the reconsideration of the assumptions underlying the zoning for the single-family house.

The draft plan cloaks its re-envisioning of the single-family home plan with language that appeals to the social justice movements. It points to past discriminatory practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants (both of which are completely illegal and unenforceable today) as the basis for its suggestion for revisiting.

Skeptics of this plan are rightly concerned that it could lead to increased density in the downcounty area but achieve none of the benefits.

Supporters of Thrive are quick to make two points. The first is that this is merely a blueprint and does not propose any zoning changes.

To this, the obvious response is that the blueprint is not some random, theoretical exercise. Rather, it will erect the guardrails for future zoning changes, and therefore we should pay attention to what parameters it sets up.

Second, Thrive supporters point out that they don’t envision relaxing any of the dimensional zoning aspects of the single-family home lot — for example, yard setbacks, lot coverage, and overall height.

There is good reason to be skeptical of this claim.

In 2012, the town of Kensington, working together with the Montgomery County Planning Board and the County Council, finalized the Kensington Sector Plan, which provides a vision for the future of development in the town.

After protracted and hard-fought negotiations, the Sector Plan incorporated limits on height and density for commercial parcels to become mixed-use parcels.

Then, in 2018, the County Council enacted a Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA 18-06) that permitted a developer to exceed the height and density limits if they provided more than the minimum required affordable housing units.

We should not be surprised at a similar incremental erosion of the single-family lot in the county.

And, the effects, rather than being limited to a specific and planned area, will occur on a completely ad hoc basis. Some streets may see no increased building of multifamily housing, while other streets may see a disproportionate share relative to existing parking and infrastructure.

Another aspect of Thrive weighs on me — the likelihood that it will have a negative impact on what for many people is their dream, homeownership.

About two-thirds of Americans are homeowners — whether it is a stand-alone home, townhome, or condominium — and their home is often their single-largest investment. The effect of increasing density of housing on the single-family lot, without requiring an accompanying subdivision of lot ownership, ensures that additional units will be rentals, and this will very likely erode the affordability of homes.

A recently built Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in my neighborhood illustrates the concerns I have that liberalizing the type of housing in the R-60 zone will have a negative impact on home ownership.

A house sold a few years ago for about $800,000. The owners recently added a detached ADU in the rear yard, and have now listed the house for sale at $1.2 million.

Realizing that this pricing is lofty in any part of the county, the fact remains that the construction has transformed a house that was affordable to one class of buyers into a house that is affordable to a narrower subset of buyers. And, the ADU will not be affordable to any buyer because it will not be for sale separately from the main house.

Likewise, if a single-family home is removed and replaced by a duplex, triplex, or more units, these units would not be owned by two, three, or more families. There will instead be a single owner, who then rents the units to others.

We have already seen reports in the news that investment funds like BlackRock are snapping up real estate. Renters of those units will not build equity in their homes, and we have typically looked at home-ownership trends as a measure of whether a population is thriving.

I’m proud of the efforts of Kensington to add to the diversity of housing options available — both rentals and ownership.

On the rental side, we have approved an affordable senior apartment project, and an apartment building that will include more than the minimum required number of affordable apartment units.

On the ownership side, we have approved a small development of townhomes, and the transformation of a large historic home into about a dozen condo units.

The increased density of housing in the downcounty area should be done in a way that doesn’t negatively affect home ownership.

In the town of Kensington, we have some authority to attempt to protect ourselves from the adverse impacts of Thrive Montgomery, and I intend to work to introduce some of these measures for consideration.

A far better approach — one that would benefit the entire county — would be to remove the features of Thrive Montgomery that will hurt the ability of residents to achieve their goal of homeownership.

Darin Bartram is a longtime resident of the town of Kensington and has served on the Town Council since 2013.

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