2022 | Real Estate

‘I wanted to stay here’ — Renters lament high cost of living in Montgomery County

A lack of affordable housing means some residents have little choice but to leave

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Vito Anastasia of Bethesda is considering moving out of Montgomery County because he can no longer afford to live here.

Provided by Vito Anastasia

Editor’s Note: Bethesda Beat reporter Steve Bohnel and freelance writer Bethany Rodgers, who formerly covered development for Bethesda Beat, take a look at the affordable housing issue in Montgomery County. In his story, Bohnel focuses on county funding and policy while Rodgers tells the story from the perspective of a few local renters. On June 2 at 11:30 a.m, this story was updated to correct an explanation of the Montgomery County Planning Department’s neighborhood attainability analysis.

Vito Anastasia has skipped meals so he can afford food for his dog, Harley, and cat, Pi.

A transgender man, he sometimes rations his testosterone medication if money is tight. He’s no longer able to grab a drink with friends on a whim or go out and see a movie without worrying.

Because of rising housing costs, that’s the reality of living in Montgomery County right now for Anastasia, and he isn’t sure he can endure it much longer. Despite his best efforts, his time in the county might be drawing to a close.

It’s painful to consider leaving the county, the circle of friends who have become his found family and the simple joys the community has given him, he said. He’s loved gathering with people at Pike & Rose in North Bethesda and walking his chihuahua-lab mix, Harley, along the wooded trails at Cabin John Regional Park.

“I wanted to stay here. I wanted to make this my home,” he said.

Anastasia signed a lease on an Aspen Hill apartment about seven years ago, moving from a rural New York town where he’d always had to hold back pieces of his queer identity and monitor his surroundings for signs of danger.

In Montgomery County, he said, he was able to let his guard down a bit. He finally felt comfortable being himself in public, holding hands with his partner while walking down a street.

“I don’t want to say it saved my life,” Anastasia said of the county. “But it definitely allowed me to live the life that I wanted and needed.”

Housing advocates say they’ve heard numerous stories about people like Anastasia, who love Montgomery County but are pushed out because of its burdensome housing costs — or about those who can’t afford to move here to begin with. Local real estate agent Liz Brent said the single-family housing market is so competitive these days, buyers have to put in offers without contingencies and hope for the best.

“The only people that are buying houses [in Montgomery County] are people that have a lot of money and are willing to take a lot of risk,” Brent said.

And the problem is only getting worse with time, as the county’s neighborhoods become more and more exclusive, according to data from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The typical Chevy Chase home would’ve been affordable to households making roughly $139,000 a year if prices had simply increased with the rate of inflation since 1996, according to a planning department analysis. Instead, you needed to earn at least $232,000 a year to purchase a typical home in that community in 2019.

The same analysis found that typical homes in Takoma Park in 2019 were only affordable for families making around $111,000 a year. If housing costs had only gone up with inflation since 1996, the typical home would be accessible to households earning about half of that.

The affordable housing shortage, which county officials say has reached crisis levels, has also emerged at the forefront of the races for county executive and County Council as candidates debate long-range growth planning and clash over preserving neighborhoods versus redeveloping them. The council is taking steps to address the problem, approving a fiscal 2023 budget last week that includes roughly $200 million to be spent addressing affordable housing issues.

[Montgomery County officials tout county’s historic investment in affordable housing funding]

Dan Reed, regional policy director for Greater Greater Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for diverse, walkable urban communities, said he’s tired of watching his friends leave in search of housing that’s easier on their budgets.

“Every time that happens, it’s a loss. Not just for me personally, but for our county,” said Reed, who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Silver Spring. “What are the businesses these people could start? What are the contributions these people could be making to our community?”

Anastasia, a data analyst for a D.C.-based organization, makes what he calls a “decent-ish” wage. It’s by no means as much as someone could make at a tech startup, but it doesn’t seem like he should be struggling just to stay afloat.

And it makes him angry that he’s being edged out of the county he’s chosen because of a problem local leaders have long seen coming.

“Affordable housing has been one of the biggest issues that we’ve been kind of screaming about for a few years before the pandemic started,” he said. “It just feels like that issue was ignored.”

Lots of ramen

Tony Dulaney, a White Oak native, was driven out of the county by the same problems that Anastasia is facing.

After earning his master’s degree, he managed to stay in the county for several years by subletting a room from a couple in Gaithersburg and later moving with them when they bought a home in Germantown.

If he’d had to rent a place on his own, he probably couldn’t have stayed without some real hardship.

“Like, I’d be eating hand to mouth and lots of ramen,” he said.

When he and his now-wife decided to move in together, they weren’t able to find anything within their price range in the county, even with their combined incomes. They ended up renting a place in Greenbelt instead.

The couple scoured the Montgomery County housing market again when they were ready to buy a home, but found nothing from Wheaton to Burtonsville that fit their budget. Instead, they bought a home in Columbia in Howard County — which he hopes will help them stay in the D.C. region.

“We hope to be able to stay in the area. And I think because we got our foot in the door early, we’ll be able to, maybe,” he said. “But I would hate to be somebody younger than us.”

Younger residents and people of color in particular are bearing the brunt of the county’s expensive housing, says Reed, who is friends with Dulaney.

About two-thirds of Latinx tenants and 60% of Black tenants in the county are rent-burdened, meaning that housing consumes 30% or more of their income, according to the county’s legislative oversight office. That compares to 40% of white renters.

A recent report prepared for county leaders by consultants HR&A and LSA also found that homeownership was down in the jurisdiction, in part due to a dropoff in younger buyers.

Reed said many of his Montgomery County friends and acquaintances have packed off to more affordable communities in Prince George’s or Frederick counties. And he worries that without a significant course correction, the Montgomery County of the future will be more segregated, offer fewer opportunities and look even less like the place where he grew up.

The county is changing one way or another, Reed said, and the question is whether it will adapt by updating its neighborhoods or pricing out its residents.

“We can have a county that looks the same physically, or we can have a county where the people who live here can stay here,” he said. “You don’t get to have both.”

Hard choices

Though Anastasia didn’t grow up in Montgomery County, he’s embraced it as his home and threw himself into efforts to strengthen it. He and some friends founded the group Queer MoCo to bring together the area’s LGBTQ community, and he started doing advocacy work for the county’s Democratic party.

He was also involved with groups urging the county to do something about its worsening affordable housing crisis.

When Anastasia and his partner first moved to the county, they were financially comfortable living in the Aspen Hill apartment, which cost about $1,500 a month.

He didn’t worry about paying utility bills or going to the grocery store and had some spending money even after paying for the essentials. Over the years, though, as rents have gone up and he relocated to an apartment in Bethesda, his budget has steadily been tightening.

He contemplated picking up a side gig to give himself some breathing room. But when the landlord at his Bethesda apartment decided to hike his rent from $1,795 to $2,100 a month, his hope of staying put all but evaporated.

His spirits sank even further when he started looking around at the local housing market.

Recently, he came across a 265-square-foot studio apartment that would cost more than the two-bedroom place he rented in Aspen Hill.

At this point, it’s not clear if he’ll be able to land housing within range of his job. And he’s facing the possibility that he might have to move back to small-town New York and live with family for a few months — meaning he’d lose access to gender-affirming treatment.

“The choices are to live in a place where I can be myself, versus live in a place that I can afford to live,” he said.

For now, checking his three to four housing apps has become a discouraging daily ritual.

“You put in your search: No results found,” he said.

Bethany Rodgers is a freelance writer who formerly covered schools and development for Bethesda Beat.