Tenants Push Against the Tide

John Small, 81, and his wife, Betty Jean, raised their family at the Broadstone apartments, below, in Gaithersburg. With their children grown and Betty Jean in a nearby nursing home, Small fears being displaced if a proposal to raze the aging garden apartments is approved.
John Small, 81, and his wife, Betty Jean, raised their family at the Broadstone apartments, below, in Gaithersburg. With their children grown and Betty Jean in a nearby nursing home, Small fears being displaced if a proposal to raze the aging garden apartments is approved. (Photos By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007

The pear trees in the parking lot cast their pale flowers up into the darkening sky. "They'll be firewood," predicted John Small, 81, wistfully.

Small, a retired water quality expert, and many of his neighbors -- government and health-care workers, a young Iraq war veteran, a youth basketball coach -- worry about a proposal to raze their aging garden apartments in Gaithersburg and replace them with upscale townhouses, condominiums and apartments.

That could mean eviction from the Broadstone, one of the few havens of affordability in increasingly costly Montgomery County. But rather than simply wringing their hands, the tenants are meeting with city officials to speak up for their rights and developing a package of relocation services that would go into place if they must move.

The tenants hope that market forces, shifting government policy and their own advocacy can help reverse a trend that has pushed many moderate-income workers out of the county.

"They are scared about where they will go, what they will do in the future, but there is also a sense of strength," said Alisa Glassman of Action in Montgomery, a faith-based organization working with the tenants. "They are part of something new."

The redevelopment of the Broadstone, where two-bedroom units rent for $945 -- nearly $300 below the countywide average -- comes as Gaithersburg is trying to revitalize its aging housing stock and provide more places for sale. It also comes as thousands of older garden apartments are disappearing from the Washington region.

According to an analysis of census data, Montgomery might have lost as many as 12,000 -- or more than a quarter -- of its apartments renting for $999 or less between 2003 and 2005. By the same calculation, Prince George's and Fairfax counties lost about a quarter of their affordable units, and the District lost about 9 percent.

The developer who owns the Broadstone has agreed to offer 70 units at affordable rents, but that won't replace the 350 there now.

"We are not building anything new that approximates it," said Michael Bodaken, president of the National Housing Trust, which produced the analysis of census data. "We see it as a unique housing resource that needs to be preserved."

Some county governments have stepped in: Fairfax paid $84 million last year to buy two complexes to save "workforce" housing for those who work in the county but can't afford to live there. And last month, the Arlington County Board spent more than $32 million to preserve part of the Buckingham Village Apartment complex as affordable housing.

On Tuesday, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) introduced legislation that would greatly expand the county's ability to buy apartment complexes before they go on the open market.

And Montgomery's Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Program, considered a national model when it was created in the 1970s, requires developers of large projects to offer 12.5 percent of the units at prices below market rate.


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