One of the more telling appendixes to a recent report on "Montgomery County's Housing Affordability Crisis" is a listing of the hourly wages for the following occupations: assembler, clerk, computer operator, draftsman, electrician, electronic technician, engineering technician, machinist, machine operator, printing press operator, quality control inspector, secretary, tool and die maker, welder.
The people in most of these jobs seem reasonably paid, but not even the top wage earner -- the printing press operator -- makes quite enough money to pay for an average-size house or apartment in this wealthy county if one makes a few standard assumptions: a spouse, a couple of kids, a 30 percent expenditure on housing. It's not the end of the world -- these people after all are employed, and there are ways of getting by. Spouses can work, money can be scrimped, commutes can be long.
But the far-from-exhaustive list, which pointedly excludes bottom-rung jobs, is an indication of a worrisome national trend. As the supply of housing for low- and moderate-income households remains stable or actually declines, the number and kind of people in need of it increases. The goals of homeownership and of living in reasonable proximity to one's place of work retain their allure but become more distant for more people. The backbone occupations of a high-performance service economy gradually are being priced out of the housing market.
For more than a decade, Montgomery County has been attempting to do something about the problem -- quietly, persistently, inventively. The county, it should be pointed out, does not have to deal with poverty on the level of, say, the District, but Montgomery's needs are not negligible, and they are on the upswing. The county's independent Housing Opportunities Commission directly administers 4,409 units of assisted housing; more than 5,000 households are on its waiting list.
"Will it ever be enough?" asks Bernard Tetreaut, executive director of the HOC. "I don't know," he answers pensively. "But we're producing a meaningful supply for a portion of our population. Our mission is to go at it in any way we can." In this era of drastically reduced federal housing funds and programs -- the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development has shrunk from $35.7 billion in fiscal year 1980 to $10.2 billion (proposed) in fiscal year 1988 -- states and local governments are being forced to shoulder more of the load. Montgomery County's efforts are worth study and emulation.
The Gables, a town house cluster nearing completion on Tuckerman Lane, about a mile from the Grosvenor Metro station, is typical of new construction in the county. It's attractive -- the gabled split-level units, with white-painted balcony and stairwell railings playing against gray-painted cedar siding, form a lively, welcoming profile. It's dense in the suburban way -- buildings and parking lots cover most of the site, though there are woodsy interludes and edges. And it's pricey -- two-bedroom condominiums range from $125,000 to $139,000, three-bedroom units from $145,000 to $166,000.
Timberlawn, an 83-unit complex soon to go up right across the street, will be quite similar. In a way this is predictable -- the architect, Larry Kester of the Architects Collective in Tulsa, also designed the Gables. But there's a major difference: The developer of Timberlawn is the HOC. Half the units will rent at market rates (about $875 per month for two bedrooms); 30 percent will be made available to low-income families (for about $200); and 20 percent will be rented to moderate-income families (from $400 to $600). An HOC day-care center in a separate building will serve 30 children.
Close by, at Tuckerman and Rockville Pike, is recently completed Grosvenor House, a luxury high-rise with all the trimmings: uniformed doorman, lots of polished brass and plush furniture in the lobby, a swimming pool that's California blue. Three-fourths of its 404 units are rented at luxury prices (about $1,000 per month); 101 units, though, are rented under HOC supervision for an average of $420 to low- and moderate-income people, mostly singles making less than $20,000 per year.
Most of the units in Grosvenor Park, a nearby town house development completed about two years ago, are selling for about $180,000. But there is a cluster of 24 units in a cul-de-sac at the edge of the development -- smaller, more tightly packed and of a different, though far from inferior, design -- that have been rented or sold under HOC auspices for substantially less. .
Five miles away on Tuckerman Lane, in posh Potomac, is Falls Ridge, a prototypical, six-year-old suburban development of solid single-family homes -- two-story brick houses on quarter-acre lots and winding roads, with big garages, lots of grass and trees beginning to grow out handsomely. Smack in the middle (or so it seems) there's a grouping of rather spare attached homes in an attractively landscaped setting. The picture by now is clear -- they comprise the HOC-administered units.
These are but four of many examples of the enlightened and enterprising Montgomery County housing policy at work. Architecturally it is no major story, but philosophically it's a real breakthrough. Although there are a few telltale signs of "public" or "assisted" housing -- cheaper exterior materials, mostly, and clustering in the single-family neighborhoods -- for the most part the designers of the lower priced units successfully mimicked the higher priced surround. (It is significant, too, that the newer units improve on the older; both clients and architects are getting better at the game.)
More important is the consistency of the policy. From its inception 21 years ago, the Housing Opportunities Commission has guided whatever money it could get into small- to medium-sized developments. Excepting several high-rise buildings for the elderly poor, there are no big public housing projects in Montgomery County. The image and reality of the isolated project has been avoided like the plague in favor of "scattered-site" housing.
The social benefits of such a policy are immense. Not only do members of the county's work force get to live closer to their jobs, but their children enjoy the benefits of a touted and well-financed school system -- although such forced ethnic and economic integration is not universally popular; better-off neighbors still scream and yell in the American way at the distinctly nonexclusionary prospect of living cheek by jowl with their less fortunate (and often differently colored) brethren.
The difference is that in Montgomery County the policy also is the law -- in 1974 the County Council adopted an ordinance (the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit law) mandating that a certain percentage of units (now 12.5 percent) in developments of 50 or more houses or apartments be devoted to assisted housing. (Developers get a 20 percent density bonus as a carrot.) "There's been pressure to alter the law from the beginning," Tetreaut says, "to take the obligation from Potomac, for example, and build it in Gaithersburg." But the law remains the law, and by now, he says, "all the builders know what they have to do."
Equally important is the commission's sophisticated, by-hook-or-crook methodology. Each of the developments named above, for instance, was financed differently. Falls Ridge, the oldest on the list, was made possible by the old convention -- direct federal construction funds for public housing. But to say this program has dwindled is to put it mildly -- this year HUD provided money for 5,000 new units nationwide, a truly pitiful number.
Obviously the county continues to use the few federal dollars available (ironically, it will get 50 of those new public housing units), but mainly it has turned to other sources -- tax-exempt bonds, a 4 percent "condominium transfer" tax, direct county allocations, a modest new state program and, in the case of Timberlawn, land donation resulting from a developer's bankruptcy and consequent failure to live up to his assisted-housing obligation. When one source dries up -- the new federal tax law, for instance, puts severe limits on local issuers of tax-exempt bonds -- HOC has ingeniously figured out a new tack. At present it is putting together a clever package to take advantage of the federal tax credit for low-income units (a credit many housing experts find problematic).
Not that Montgomery County has all the answers -- with all its wealth, it's having trouble meeting its own limited needs. But sooner or later the serious and growing lacks in the nation's housing supply, exacerbated no end by the Reagan administration's futile efforts to "privatize" low-income housing, will have to receive national attention. When this happens -- and it could be as early as this fall, when Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) begins hearings on the subject -- we could do a lot worse than to look to Montgomery County for a few good lessons.