Montgomery tries to spur affordable housing

January 2, 2012

Montgomery County needs more affordable housing.

That’s the reality top county officials are facing as they work to spur less costly housing in a county that has seen a rise in its immigrant, working-class and elderly populations.

It’s also the reality that Lyn E. Alford has been facing for years. She has lived in her two-bedroom Aspen Hill apartment since 1994 and has seen the building’s amenities gradually disappear. But she can’t move: The $1,202 she pays in monthly rent is below market rate, and she doesn’t make enough money to persuade other landlords in Montgomery that she’s a viable tenant.

Over the next few months, county planning and housing officials will propose broad policy changes intended to improve the local housing market and help Alford and other cash-strapped residents. They say they want to encourage more affordable housing near transit areas and keep the residences the county already has that are affordable for people with modest incomes.

Yet the county, which has seen year after year of budget shortfalls, also must deal with less funding. The housing department budget for the current fiscal year is 50 percent of what it was two years ago.

“We have no money,” Richard Y. Nelson Jr., the department’s director, said in an interview. “Whether it’s subsidizing housing or development, it’s a very expensive process. Particularly these days with reduced general revenues, it’s harder to do.”

Affordable housing has been an important issue across the Washington region, and the economic troubles of the past few years have made the issue even more urgent and more complicated. In Fairfax County, for instance, the subject has divided the 10-member Board of Supervisors and the community.

Affordable housing takes a number of forms, such as apartments and town houses. In Montgomery, immigrant advocates want the government to mandate more affordable housing units in new developments, while home builders want alternatives to the affordable housing requirements, such as one-time payments to opt out of building the units.

Meanwhile, the county is getting poorer and more ethnically diverse. Adjusting for inflation, its median household income dropped over the past decade, during which the county also became majority-minority.

The shift in county demographics — as well as the nationwide foreclosure crisis a few years ago — has led to increased demand for affordable housing, county officials said. There have been tens of thousands of people on waiting lists for housing vouchers, which use government money to subsidize fair-market rent for people who can’t afford it.

“Many tools”

Facing these challenges, county officials are working to strengthen their affordable housing programs — though in a separate, somewhat amorphous fashion.

This month, the housing department will announce a revised version of its countywide housing policy, last approved by county legislators in 2001. The policy is expected, among other things, to encourage multifamily and affordable senior housing.

County planners also are trying to play a role in addressing the housing problem by rewriting the zoning code. Early this year, they are expected to announce changes that would trim bureaucratic processes and allow developers to put units more quickly on the market, which should lower housing costs countywide.

Meanwhile, council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), a strong advocate for the business community, introduced legislation earlier this month that would broaden a tax exemption for developers who construct affordable housing near county-designated development areas.

“You need as many tools as you can come up with to ensure a good, consistent supply of affordable housing,” she said.

The county’s affordable housing crunch has been on the minds of county officials for years, and it’s been a priority for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) during his five-year tenure as the highest-ranking county official. But the problem crystallized in November, when a local economist, Stephen S. Fuller, delivered a presentation that council members called eye-opening.

Projections of urgent need

Fuller, the director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, provided a breakdown of the current state of the county’s economy. What struck council members most were his estimates of the county’s housing needs.

According to Fuller’s data, the county will need 33,000 to 50,000 more housing units over the next decade for families making $100,000 a year or less. A little more than half of those units must accommodate families that make less than $50,000 a year.

And the projections apply only to the people coming into the county over the next decade, Fuller said at the hearing. They don’t address the residents already waiting for housing.

County Planning Director Rollin B. Stanley said he has met with housing officials and hopes the new policy is creative in bolstering affordable housing. He added that the streamlining of the zoning process will encourage developers to build more housing, including affordable units.

Floreen’s bill, intended to also help out developers, takes aim at impact taxes, which help finance some infrastructure projects. A portion of the tax would be waived for developers who build twice the amount of affordable housing required by law. Currently, a developer must build 2.4 times the required amount to qualify for a partial waiver.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled Jan. 24. Stanley says Floreen’s bill sounds like a “good” idea. Nelson said he is unsure of its potential impact.

Floreen said that even with the tax waiver, high-rise developers may not work in the county because of the expense related to affordable housing. For high-rise developers, the tax can reach more than $7,000 per apartment, she said.

“I have been doing this now for almost 30 years,” said Floreen, a former Planning Board member who has helped to author many affordable housing bills. “We still have not cracked the nut of affordable housing.”

Feeling trapped

Alford, 54, is a single mother who moved to her current apartment because she thought it would be a good place to raise her daughter, Sheilia. Now a senior at Trinity Washington University, Sheilia often comes home to stay with her mother at the apartment complex on Pear Tree Court.

It is no longer the cushy place it once was, Alford said. Gone are the community center, the gym and the microwaves in every kitchen. The landlord doesn’t want to maintain them, Alford said.

Alford has wanted to leave for years but has given up on finding another place. She makes her rent payments almost every month, even though her part-time salary was $2,000 a month. She says she has bad credit, so she’s stuck.

For the past month, she has been trying to rest. She is earning only about $200 to $300 a week as an in-home nursing assistant and is living off money that an acquaintance owed her. She says she suffers from chronic pain, probably caused by lifting people when she worked as a nurse technician. (She doesn’t know precisely what’s wrong — she can’t afford to get a full work-up from a doctor — but sometimes sees a chiropractor.)

Alford says she will start working harder in March. She hopes to make more than her previous salary. She’ll need it; she expects her rent to increase around April.

“They need to have more affordable housing,” she said of the county. “There are too many people out there without it.”

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