Montgomery County Group Buys Bethesda Office Building for Single-Room Housing

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Montgomery County homeless advocacy group is taking a new approach to creating affordable housing, converting a Bethesda office building into individual living quarters and renting out the ground floor to retailers.

"The idea of mixed-use housing is the way all housing is going," said Sharan London, head of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, which purchased the building last month for $5.25 million with a low-cost county loan. "Our thinking on this building was really an attempt to keep the flavor of the neighborhood. That retail space has been there, and we would leave it as retail space."

Retail has been incorporated into a handful of other low- and moderate-income housing projects in Montgomery, but the Bethesda project, at Woodmont and Cordell avenues, is the first to combine single-room housing with retail.

London hopes to rehabilitate the 44-year-old, five-story building by next year and open it to men and women in need of inexpensive housing. Rents will be 30 percent of income.

The building, owned until the April 9 closing by East Diamond Limited Liability Co., headed by James P. Fabiszewski, is a block off Wisconsin Avenue. It sits in a commercial area near two Metro stations, several single-family neighborhoods, moderately priced garden apartments and high-end apartment buildings. Also nearby are services for the homeless: Bethesda Cares and a Catholic Charities program.

The new housing project, county officials said, provides an opportunity to try out Housing First, a concept gaining popularity nationally to address homelessness. It encourages governments and private groups to support permanent housing rather than use the bulk of their funds to create temporary shelters. Supporters say that resolving the housing problem quickly makes it easier for the formerly homeless to focus on finding jobs, transportation and schools.

Officials in the District and Fairfax County, both with 10-year plans to end homelessness, also have embraced Housing First. And single-room housing can be part of that, although Housing First also encourages spreading homeless residents throughout communities instead of placing them all together.

In the Bethesda project, residents will sign leases and be allowed to renew them indefinitely as long as they meet criteria for residency.

In 2002, then-County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) vowed to end homelessness in Montgomery within 10 years, but more people are homeless in the county now. On any given night in Montgomery, between 50 and 60 families are in temporary housing in hotels, and homeless shelters consistently are full, county data show.

County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who along with council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) has pushed for adoption of the Housing First approach, said the system works best when a nonprofit group such as the homeless coalition is at the helm. He said his unsuccessful effort last year to persuade county officials to house a homeless family in the Hillmead neighborhood in a county-owned park building left him believing "county government is not in the best position politically to advance the cause of housing the homeless. Frankly, these projects are often unpopular with certain vocal constituencies."

Neighbors of the new Bethesda project said they aren't thrilled about it, either. They said that's not because of the clientele but because the county has not been very forthcoming with information. On Friday, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, whose members had been hearing rumors for months, organized a meeting to try to get information from county officials. Attending were business and community leaders, including several who said afterward that they also are worried that the homeless coalition, using public funds, overpaid for the building.

Property records show that a limited liability corporation set up by the homeless coalition bought the building from East Diamond Limited for $5.25 million. East Diamond had bought the building 5 1/2 years earlier for $2.1 million.

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