If you live in Montgomery County, MD, you are part of a very big “family” of more than a million people (1,050,688 was the official count in 2019). That is about the same number as who live in the state of Rhode Island, and more than number who live in Montana, or Delaware, or South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, or Wyoming.
Taking a ride on Metro’s red line, or racing up or down Route 270 and any of the County’s other major arteries, the enormity our population seems oppressive and impatient. Stuck in traffic or jammed into a Metro car, the County can feel quite crowded.
However, once off the train and the main roads and back into our neighborhoods, that feeling subsides. All over the county, we find access to open space, grass and trees, fields and parks among the 390,000 households in which our more than a million residents live. Yes, there are parts of the county that are denser than others, but there actually is room to breathe here, in spaces that are relatively green and don’t feel so crowded at all.
It is easy to take for granted the open nature of our neighborhoods, even as many of them accommodate a mix of houses, townhouses, apartments, restaurants and shopping centers. One reason may be the 424 county parks spanning more than 37,000 acres of parkland, or the playing fields outside of one of 208 county schools, all valuable amenities that make the County a desirable place to live. But, it is also because over the years the neighborhoods throughout the county have been intentionally developed to be suburban, in other words, built distinctly less dense than urban centers would be. For Montgomery County, the comparable “urban center” has always been Washington, DC, a city that is full of diverse housing and commercial corridors (much of which is low-rise), but in a more compact format than the region that grew outside its northwest border.
The way in which the county achieved its generally suburban outcome is through zoning—designating the size of lots and density of homes in different areas depending on access to roads, transit and other services. Zoning is intended to be a transparent measure of what planners predict will be successful in meeting the county’s need for anticipated housing and the infrastructure necessary to make the communities livable. Over many years, builders have sought to increase the number and density of their housing projects in the county, and in some cases have been allowed to do so, held back only by requirements for adequate facilities that attempt to prevent school overcrowding and over-burdened roads (albeit with limited success). Although the county is likely to have districts like Bethesda and Silver Spring that have dense centers, it is essential that adequate facilities requirements and zoning reflect deliberate plans for an area.
It has recently become in fashion to argue that the zoning of existing, built-out neighborhoods of single-family homes should be changed to allow lots currently occupied by single homes to be redeveloped with multiple-family homes. The theory is that the apartments and townhomes built in place of a single home would become affordable to many residents (including about 40 percent of the renters in the County) who spend an unsustainably large portion of their incomes for the housing they now occupy. They occupy housing above their means because there is a shortage of homes offered at prices that are a better match for their incomes, which tend to be less than 30% of the average income in the county.
Two issues are relevant here. The first is that the classic, supply-and-demand premise that the prices for homes will fall if supply increases does not hold together in the context of rezoning a high-value property for higher density. It only allows a developer to capture additional value from the lot. Buying a $1,000,000 home in Bethesda, tearing down the existing house and putting up three additional homes on the lot doesn’t mean there will be now be three, $350,000 homes. To squeeze all the value possible from the purchase of the lot, a developer will logically want to build three homes priced at as close to the lot purchase price as possible. Indeed, townhomes in Bethesda and Chevy Chase and way beyond these neighborhoods are now being priced upwards of $900,000 each–certainly not the affordable housing hoped for. Moreover, once the first lot is developed for such a profit, the asking price of subsequent lots is only likely to be higher, with similar outcomes.
The second issue is that there do exist areas of the county that are not currently fully developed, and these are zoned for diverse housing that has the potential to be more affordable, if only they are built to be affordable to a county resident with a lower income. As many as 40,000 new homes could be built in these areas according to the zoning established for them. The reason that some of them have a better chance of being affordable is that the land prices in these areas of the County are lower than those already developed and built out. However, in spite of the green light for building new housing, there is a lack of applications from builders to pursue the development of less expensive housing in these areas.
In the years ahead, it is likely that Montgomery County will have to try different approaches. This may include policy requirements that a larger percentage of all new housing be offered for lower than the price that “the market” could bring. It is also possible that the county will have to subsidize the cost of rental or purchase price of new homes. Nevertheless, to be clear, the problem is not one of just more housing. It is of more affordable housing. Finding a way to allow our fellow community members to live here in suburbia without struggling is an imperative for the county. The question is whether the political, policy-making, and commercial sectors can come together around a solution that is realistic in achieving that goal.
My colleagues at BetterMoCo are interested in analyzing the basis of arguments put forward from different perspectives on how the county should proceed with making housing more affordable in the county. Watch this space as we explore these issues. Next up for a future commentary: What is Missing Middle housing, and does Montgomery County have it…or not?
Robin Schoen is a native Washingtonian with an interest in public policymaking on a wide range of issues at local, state, and national levels.