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Marc Fisher

Good Intentions Often Falter When It's Time to Build

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page B01

"If you don't already own a house in Montgomery County, you never will," says the Rev. Jeff MacKnight, pastor of St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Bethesda. "I live in a church-owned house. When I leave there, and I'm not the least bit poor, I'll have to leave the county."

"College professors, nurses, teachers -- people who make a pretty decent living -- cannot afford to live here," says Rebecca Brillhart, associate pastor at Sligo Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Takoma Park. Brillhart, like many in her church, drives in from Howard County because she can't afford to live near her job.

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Through the coalition of congregations called Action in Montgomery, MacKnight, Brillhart and dozens of other clergy have pushed affordable housing onto the county's political agenda.

But even with County Council member Steve Silverman and school Superintendent Jerry Weast riding the issue hard -- after all, public employees increasingly must live outside Montgomery -- affordable housing remains something nearly everyone supports in the abstract but few fight for in the specific.

"In six years on the council, I don't recall any neighborhood coming in to support any affordable housing project," Silverman says.

So he was deeply skeptical when Sandy Vogelgesang and neighbors of Seven Locks Elementary School in west Bethesda came to him to oppose the county's proposal to build a new school a few blocks away, declare Seven Locks surplus property and replace the old school with subsidized housing.

Vogelgesang, a former U.S. ambassador to Nepal, is a career Foreign Service officer who came home to Bethesda to find "a supreme irony that the democratic procedures we advocated in Africa and Eastern Europe -- listen to what the people want, work out a process -- are being ignored in Montgomery County. Elected officials don't listen."

People who live near Seven Locks Elementary value it because with 250 students, it's one of the last small schools in the county. Its 10 acres serve as community center, sports facility and open space. That space is also why the county wants the land for housing.

Like opponents of housing projects everywhere, Vogelgesang argues that she'd love for police and teachers to have places to live, but not right here. "There is a very real question to be asked about putting it in the middle of single-family houses on half-acre lots," she says. "A high-rise sticks out like a sore thumb. The kids who live there would feel a stigma."

Vogelgesang is highly conscious of sounding elitist. "Being west Bethesda/Potomac, we know people will not have much sympathy for us on that issue," she says. So she and others fighting for their school focus on cost -- renovating Seven Locks would be cheaper than building a new school. To prove that their fight is not about keeping out the less affluent, they say they support affordable housing on the site where the county wants to erect a new school, on Kendale Road.

But that site is much smaller than the Seven Locks property and could accommodate far fewer housing units.

The Save Seven Locks group, assuming inevitable defeat, is mobilizing against Silverman and other county officials. "We've exhausted all the legal appeals, all the moral appeals," Vogelgesang says. "All we have left is the ballot box."

Silverman has heard this too many times before. "The buzzword you hear is that they're for affordable housing, but it's not 'compatible,' " he says. "Racism and economic class issues are always lurking beneath. People are just too polite to mention it. The opponents say townhouses or apartments are inherently incompatible with large-lot houses. Well, we have a greater social goal here. I'll take housing for cops and teachers over aesthetics any day. We just can't say that our affordable housing plan is 'Go live in Frederick County.' "

Montgomery's attempt to require developers to add affordable units to their projects has had only a minimal impact, so the county has moved to the next idea: build middle-income housing on public land. But that, too, entails endless wrangling with angry neighbors.

Is there a way through? Only if elected officials stand up to their own constituents, one project at a time. It won't be easy.

Next Tuesday: The mix in the city.

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