Neighbors Oppose Effort to House Needy Near Bethesda Park

A Montgomery County plan to place a homeless family in this house has raised the ire of many in Bethesda's Hillmead community.
A Montgomery County plan to place a homeless family in this house has raised the ire of many in Bethesda's Hillmead community. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

As the Montgomery County Council put the finishing touches on a $2.5 million plan to buy more land for a Bethesda park, council member Nancy Floreen lobbed what has turned out to be the equivalent of a neighborhood cluster bomb:

Why not house a needy family in the 1930s-era home on the property in the Hillmead neighborhood and expand the park at the same time?

The planning board chairman wasn't eager. His agency has 77 park houses, the majority rented to county employees or the public, and only a few were group homes. But Floreen (D-At Large), joined by other council members, persisted. Now the county's housing agency is trying to decide whether the house is suitable for a 14-member homeless family living in a local motel.

Residents of Hillmead, a leafy community about three miles from downtown Bethesda with small Cape Cods and large McMansions selling for more than $1 million, say they only recently learned of the county's plans and think officials did a poor job of keeping them informed.

So they are doing what many neighborhoods in the Washington region have learned to do so well: launch a sophisticated campaign to battle local leaders.

The dispute comes at a time of renewed attention to the county's affordable housing program. County officials say it is among their highest priorities, although it has fallen short of its goals, in part because finding sites is so difficult. A task force is expected to propose significant changes to the program soon.

The Hillmead residents insist that their opposition does not stem from antipathy to poor people. Those leading the fight say it's a debate about how the county chooses to spend its $4 billion budget in tough economic times, and about due process for communities.

"This really isn't about having a homeless family living in a house that is bigger than probably 90 percent of the houses in the neighborhood," said Brett Tularco, a developer who lives in the neighborhood and has offered to tear down the house to save the county the expense. "Our kids are going to school in trailers and then this homeless family would be living in a $3 million estate. That money could have been spent on housing tons of people instead of one family."

He said he is also worried about public safety if the homeless family moves on and the county then uses the house to shelter mentally ill residents or drug abusers.

"That really isn't who we want our kids playing next to," he said.

In a textbook example of rapid-fire community organizing, dozens of the residents ginned up e-mail networks, peppered county officials with letters and e-mails, contacted reporters, hired a lawyer, planted "Save the Park" signs and held a "pre-meeting" to hone their message for a public session with county officials. They have made it clear that they are willing to do whatever it takes to derail the county's plans.

County officials say the debate in Hillmead is hardly unique, and it highlights the challenge they regularly face as they try to find sites for affordable housing in one of the country's most affluent and expensive counties. Officials estimate that about 1,100 residents are homeless every night in Montgomery County.

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