2020 | Opinion

Opinion: To help solve county’s affordable housing crisis, focus on density and transit

Recent changes to laws, policies show promise in unleashing supply

To put things bluntly, Montgomery County is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis.

Lack of supply and a growing population have driven prices up. The median price of a single-family detached home has passed $800,000. Homeownership rates are declining and have only recovered for households with $150,000 or more in income a year since the great recession.

Meanwhile the number of cost-burdened rental households is increasing, especially along transit corridors. Renters, particularly those with low incomes, are seeing high levels of housing instability and turnover.

There is no simple solution to this problem.

Those saying market forces alone and those saying affordability protections alone can work each only get a piece of the picture. It takes a combination to make it so that everyone can keep living in our county.

However, supply is a serious part of the equation. Several recent developments in county laws and policies, along with practices the county stands ready to adopt, could go a long way to solving our affordable housing crisis.

The county recently ended a housing moratorium that prevented any new residential development proposals in large swaths of the county.

The County Council also recently passed a bill to incentivize new construction directly on Metro station property, as opposed to development near Metro stations. The expense of building on top of or around complicated infrastructure made development prohibitively expensive.

These developments could help unleash supply in several areas, including downtown cores.

Building high- and mid-rise density in transit accessible places such as Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, Wheaton and other areas (many of which were halted under the moratorium) is and will remain a key part of the puzzle.

Montgomery County has long been a national leader in affordability measures that marry market provision and affordability protections well.

However, the chief among these, the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program, provides more benefit when there are more housing units in a given development. This is because 12.5 to 15 percent of units, whether owner or renter occupied, are made available only to those who meet certain income requirements.

Other tools exist, including complexes almost entirely dedicated to affordable housing. These should be supported and expanded, and existing affordable housing stock should be preserved.

But the MPDU program mandates that private developers, using private funds to build housing with 20 or more units, make a significant portion of those units available to those making 65% of the area median income. That is a powerful tool that we should leverage to the largest degree possible by building tall where it makes sense.

That said, high-rise hubs around Metro stations will never be enough on their own to solve this problem.

Building tall is expensive. While I support these developments, critics are not wrong — MPDUs aside — that new high-rises can be expensive to live in. That is why tools like missing middle housing are so crucial.

Many assume that “missing middle” refers to income. These homes are cheaper than a new single-family home, but the “middle” refers to density, not income.

Single-family is a form of exclusionary zoning that has been shown time and again to keep in place the type of economic and racial segregation that used to take place under more explicitly racist measures — such as redlining, in which various minorities were explicitly barred from buying in certain neighborhoods.

Whether lot-size minimums, setback requirements, allowing only detached single-family homes, or other indirect methods, these arrangements make homes in the vast majority of the county more expensive than they need to be because only one type of home is allowed.

Buyer- and renter-occupied duplexes, triplexes, or small apartment or condo buildings could go a long way toward adding needed, smaller, more affordable supply to our market, particularly near existing downtown cores.

I live in a four-story, 50ish-unit condo building that’s hardly intimidating. Yet, across the street from me and from many other buildings on the periphery of the downtown Silver Spring core, only single-family homes are allowed.

This drives up property values for these homes that enjoy all of the benefits of walkability, transportation, and other amenities that come with density. This prevents something as modest as a duplex from even trying to lower the barrier to entry in the neighborhood. That needs to change across the county.

Last month, Montgomery County residents had their first, but far from last, opportunity to weigh in on Thrive 2050, the county’s once-in-a-generation planning document. The general plan is the blueprint for where and how the county will grow over the next 30-plus years.

Specific zoning decisions, such as height limits, parking requirements, and specific density decisions, are laid out in more localized plans — for example, the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan, currently receiving feedback.

The general plan will lay the foundation and general framework that these more specific plans will operate under — just as the previous “wedges and corridors” plan has since the 1960s.

Anyone can view previous testimony at Thrive Montgomery 2050 – Montgomery Planning and can weigh in with their own input. Hopefully, this piece will help people understand what is at stake when laying down this critical foundation. 

County Council Member Will Jawando plans to introduce a zoning text amendment on Tuesday that would allow for certain types of missing middle housing within lots otherwise zoned for single-family homes only if the lots sit within one mile of Metro stations. Additional flexibility would be allowed for lots within 1/2 mile of a Metro station.

While the bill has yet to have its hearing and needs more time to be fully evaluated, the focus on missing middle housing and the desire to shake up outdated zoning codes is welcome.

It’s also important to keep in mind that zoning changes are not a mandate from the county on what will be built. They simply allow different things to be built if that is what the market will bear.

If you live in a dead end cul-de-sac or on a sprawling estate, trust me, no one is going to put up a high-rise next door. There simply won’t be the demand.

Someone might, however, put up a duplex or a small apartment complex if you live in a single-family home neighborhood, especially near transportation. The character of your neighborhood won’t change unless it is already being held in place artificially.

I ask that everyone keep that in mind as they consider the vision needed for our county. There are steps we can and must take, big and small, to make this area more affordable. Don’t let fear stop small impactful changes.

Michael English is a downtown Silver Spring resident and homeowner and a member of Montgomery for All, a grassroots group organized by the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

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