Affluent Montgomery's success breeds a 'dire' housing crunch


BETHESDA - High school teacher Terri Crain leaves her home in a wooded area of Frederick County by 5:30 each weekday morning so she can get here in time to greet her English class.

About 90 minutes before sunrise, she is joined on the road by waves of other workers - teachers, police officers, firefighters, contractors - commuting into Montgomery County because they can't afford to live remotely near where they work.

A look at Montgomery's steadily rising housing prices explains why the affluent county is turning thousands in its work force into refugees who flee at the end of the day to Prince George's, Frederick and Washington counties, where they're not priced out.

The median cost for a new, single-family detached house in Montgomery is $471,515, and the median for an existing such home is $303,000. A county resident must earn at least $48,700 a year to afford the monthly rent - about $1,218, compared with $980 in Maryland as a whole - on a modest two-bedroom apartment and have money left over for other necessities, according to a recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"The situation in Montgomery County is particularly dire," the group concluded.

In some ways, the county is a victim of its success. House hunters have long appreciated its quality schools and proximity to Washington. Those amenities - plus job growth and a scarcity of land on which to build - have pushed already expensive housing costs out of reach for many in the past few years.

"The challenge is how do we continue to be as welcoming as we are in Montgomery County and still provide affordable housing?" says state Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a county Democrat. The county council is considering changes to local housing policies to address the problem.

The shortage, which Grosfeld calls a "crisis" in Montgomery, is having social and economic repercussions.

For the poor, swiftly rising rents mean increasing numbers of people paying more than one-third of their income for housing, and families doubling up in units meant for one, says Maria Maldonado, director of the housing program at CASA de Maryland, a Latino community group based in Takoma Park.

More than 14,000 residents are on waiting lists with the Housing Opportunities Commission, the county's public housing agency, to receive rental assistance. The commission owns properties, leasing them at below-market rates, and offers vouchers that help people pay rent in private homes.

"We have a lot of tenants feeling like they have to move because they don't know how they can pay rent increases and still eat," Maldonado says. "There's almost a panic that a lot of them are feeling."

While Montgomery is well known for its wealth - median house sales prices hover around $600,000 in some Potomac and Bethesda zip codes - it is home to more new foreign immigrants than any other Maryland county. Many who live along an immigrant corridor running through Wheaton and Silver Spring have expressed concern that they may be uprooted by new more expensive commercial and residential development. Twenty percent of the county's residents earn $35,000 or less.

"The way people accumulate wealth in the U.S. is by owning a home," says Tom Perez, a County Council member from Silver Spring. "To working families, that's becoming elusive."

While advocates say there is a shortage of affordable housing in many Maryland communities, Montgomery's problem is acute. The housing crunch is being felt by businesses trying to fill entry-level and medium-wage jobs. "We have members who can't get enough specialty workers - hospitality workers, health care workers - because we don't have enough housing or we've priced people out of the market," says Richard N. Parsons, president of the county's Chamber of Commerce.

Among those being squeezed out "are police and firefighters who protect our lives and property, the nurses who tend to our sick and elderly, and the child-care workers who spend time with our kids," Council member Steven Silverman says.

"You won't find a whole lot of firemen living in Montgomery County anymore," says Neil Greenberger, Rockville's public information officer. He says some firefighters - and many police officers - live in Damascus, Poolesville or other outlying Montgomery communities where housing is cheaper than in the inner Washington suburbs.

Increasingly, county employers look to workers such as Crain. Her day begins with a trek down heavily traveled Interstate 270 from her Adamstown cabin to Walter Johnson High School. She can make it in 40 minutes if traffic isn't too bad, but it can take twice that. She listens to books on tape.

Crain, 52, is married to a retired teacher. She says teachers who can afford to live near her school usually have two-income households - "and one of the incomes isn't a teacher's" - or they work a second job. A public teacher's starting salary in the county is between $30,000 and $40,000.

Commuting drawbacks

Teachers face disadvantages when they don't live in the community where they work.

"I don't think there's a teacher who wouldn't prefer to be closer to where their school is," says Abby Hendrix, 32, who commutes to Rockville's Meadow Hall Elementary School from Columbia. "I would come to more evening events at the school and be more a part of the community."

Her husband, also a teacher, commutes to Silver Spring. She says the couple could afford a condo in Montgomery County but not a house "that wasn't falling apart."

For years, Montgomery County had one of the nation's most progressive --- and widely copied - affordable housing programs.

Under the program, which began in 1974 and is still in effect, projects of 35 or more homes or apartments must ensure that at least 12.5 percent of the units are affordable for low- or middle-income buyers or renters. In return, developers are allowed to build denser subdivisions than the county normally permits.

The program is credited with creating more than 11,000 moderately priced units scattered in communities around the county, including pricey Potomac and Bethesda.

But the production of such units has slowed to a trickle in the past few years.

A limited run

One reason is that the county is running out of land for large new developments. Another is that the program wasn't designed to last forever. Prices of the homes are restricted for 10 years. After that, the properties can be sold at market rates, effectively returning them to the whims of the market.

"We haven't figured out the back end of this program, which is how do you keep the [affordable] housing from being lost," says Robert Goldman, president of Montgomery Housing Partnership Inc., a Wheaton-based organization that manages affordable properties and rents them to county residents.

He says the benefits of the county's once-innovative housing program are fading away when they are needed most.

"In Wheaton and parts of Silver Spring, you could buy for $150,000 or $200,000 maybe five years ago. Now, home sales are $250,000-plus," Goldman says. "First-time home ownership opportunities are disappearing."

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