The Great Divide
Montgomery County is famously a place for the well-heeled, and for the wealthy. But it's also a place now where some line up for free food and sleep four to a room.
When her family lived in Georgetown, she attended the Tony Field School, then went to American University before dropping out after two years.
The 1973 town house in Rockville she still owns but no longer occupies is being foreclosed on. She plans to file for bankruptcy after it’s gone. She learned it’s better to let the house go first—another family who declared bankruptcy before their home was foreclosed on got hit with condo fees that they couldn’t avoid paying afterward. Three of seven adjoining townhomes are in various stages of foreclosure. “Everyone’s losing their house,” she says.
Since last November, she and two of her children (the third stays with her ex-husband) have been living in a small, two-story, two-bedroom row home in the Regent Square community in Rockville, not far from the Hard Times Cafe. Her monthly rent is $1,650, plus utilities. It’s 1,080 square feet, compared with 1,869 in her former home. There are two bedrooms upstairs, and a downstairs living room with a couch she uses as a bed, and two computers—one of which frequently doesn’t work. A sign over one computer says, “Ignorance is the Greatest Threat.” There’s a small dining table, a fish tank belonging to her landlord, cages for the family’s gerbil and guinea pig.
“It’s small, but I think everybody’s very happy,” she says.
Her son adds, “It’s cozy.” He doesn’t discuss his family’s finances at school. “I’ve not been affected too much [there],” he says. “I only deal with it at home.”
The house is clean and tidy, everything in its place. Hernandez enjoys doing arts and crafts, and her walls are adorned with work that she and her daughter have done, with wool and other materials neatly shelved. “I like to be organized,” she says. “You feel a little more in control of your life.”
August was her worst month financially, she says. She got down to $23 after putting $30 worth of gas into her 2001 Chrysler van. The refrigerator is close to empty, except for some meat and a little cheese. The night before, her landlord brought her rockfish, a rare treat.
“It’s hard when you want to provide a good, appropriate situation for your kids,” she says. “They had lessons—bass guitar for Justin, singing for Samantha. We had to cancel them for two months. My friends were yelling at me, ‘If you can’t afford food, you shouldn’t be paying for lessons.’ ”
Hernandez is taking online courses with Kaplan University to obtain a certificate in human services. She wants to work with people with eating disorders. She has obtained some grants and loans but doesn’t know her student debt. “I’m just trying to avoid worrying about this because I’ve got to do it,” she says.
She has applied for a 20-hour-a-week receptionist job at Kaplan’s Rockville office that pays $14.50 an hour, “a lot more than nothing.” She thinks the interview went well, but 12 days later she learns she didn’t get it. “They said I was good, just not the best,” she says.
Hernandez met some of her neighbors when everyone went outside after the Aug. 23 earthquake. Otherwise, she hasn’t had much contact. “People don’t want the poor neighbors because they think they won’t take care of the house. We’re probably the neighbors nobody wants,” she says, “and yet we don’t act like that.”
While Hernandez is pondering how to afford all the things her family needs, an event planner in Bethesda is juggling the details of an upcoming bash.
People scaled back during the recession, the planner says. A client who might have spent $75,000 on a wedding spent $40,000 to $50,000 instead. But “we’re seeing budgets rise a little now, getting back to where they were,” she says.
Her biggest event this year was a Columbia Country Club wedding in June that cost $75,000 to $85,000. The father of the bride was a doctor, living in the 20817 Bethesda ZIP code, and the bride and groom had just graduated from Georgetown University Medical School.
Now she is busy planning a $250,000 to $300,000 June wedding for a bride who grew up in Montgomery County. The wedding will have as many as 350 guests and will be held at The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. “It will be very focused on food—multiple courses,” she says, with entertainment, lighting, flowers, “the best of the best.”
Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for the magazine who lives in Silver Spring. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.