It was barely 11 in the morning when Eugene Sieminski, director of Montgomery County's Office of Housing, returned to his office. He had already attended several early meetings and, as he walked in, he balled up a sheet of yellow legal paper and threw it across the room.
"I do understand government," he said with some exasperation, "I do not understand the mentality."
Sieminski is a key figure in the mushrooming effort to build housing for moderate and lower income families in Montgomery County - a county where most of the housing is available only to higher income residents.
He has held the job for four years - he only planned on two - and has spent much of that time throwing paper balls and pencils across the room in frustration over the sluggishness and complications of the county bureaucracy.
Sieminski had just spent the morning arguing with county officials over "miscalculated" sewer capacity for lower cost housing.
Only a few days earlier, the County Counil had taken away a small chunk of the sewer capacity that Sieminski hoped to allocate to builders of lower-priced or subsidized housing.
Now, the county sewer planners were telling Sieminski that they had overestimated the sewer capacity that could be allocated to the houses and apartments he was eagerly planning. They were short, they said, sewer capacity for about 1,200 future apartments.
"Can you imagine these kinds of things?" Sieminski asked in disbelief. "We don't know what's attached to what."
Later, Sieminski and the sewer officials found there was, indeed, sewer available for the housing.
"But the bottom line for us was that we couldn't get a straight answer. That's the most bothersome fight we have around here," he said, rolling his eyes. "This sewer fight."
Sieminski's job, in part, is to encourage builders to build subsidized housing in the county through the inducement of specially allocated sewer capacity. But he also acts as adviser and implementor for county housing programs. And he speaks out strongly on housing needs in the country.
Sieminski, among other things, is concerned about middle income people being edged out of the county. When it comes to housing decisions, he said, "I'm not sure the middle income guy is really represented."
"There was a Chatauqua on growth policy a couple of months ago held by Park and Planning," he continued. "When you were walking there, through the parking lot, the first thing you noticed were all the spiffy cars. Then, you see all the bumper stickers. They're really heavy civic activists or people running for office. But the guy fromWheaton wasn't there - or Silver Spring. But those are the guys whose [WORD ILLEGIBLE] are being decided."
Sieminski, who earns $33,000 in his job, left the building industry because he was tired of watching builders sell houses for $5,000 more than they were worth. "I was working with a firm that I was in increasing disagreement with," he said.
During 11 years in the building business, Sieminski worked for a number of builders, including Carl Freeman Associates, one of the largest builders in Montgomery County; for James Rouse, the developer of Columbia, and for the developers of Reston.
"Sieminski is the most knowledgeable person about housing in county government," said County Executive James P. Gleason.
Some of the builders who have worked with Sieminski confirm that.
"He has a real practical knowledge of houses," said Norman Dreyfuss, an executive vice-president at Carl Freeman Associates. Referring to the requirement that builders construct moderately priced dwelling units in their developments, Dreyfuss said, "We don't know how you mix a $40,000 house (the price of moderate unit) in a $100,000 housing arrangement. So piggybank townhouses were allowed. (These houses sometimes contain one unit below ground level and another above.) Gene was helpful in understanding our problems and making the council understand."
Sieminski says sizeable changes are needed if Montgomery County is as earnest as its officials say they are about offering more moderate income housing. First, they will have to turn away from the trend toward half-acre zoning, Sieminski said.
"It's incredibly wasteful. You can still have half-acre lots and Potomac and all that," he continued, "but if you want a more balanced stock of housing, you have to have a complete range of housing like in Fairfax. Right now, what we have is big and expensive."
To do that, Sieminski said, the county must rezone for higher density and create more mixed commercial and residential zoning. "Townhouses, apartments, multi-plexes," he explained. "I would certainly redesign the I-270 corridor to go to higher density and be more commercial.
"Go to Fairfax and look at the industrial parks mixed in with apartment complexes. The industry comes in and stabilizes the price of the land. The housing prices are lower. Industry and the apartment developments serve reciprocal needs. Industry makes the housing prices lower, and the developments provide housing for the industry employes."
Sieminski would aim for moderately priced development ($40,000 range) in Olney, Wheaton and Bethesda. He would "mesh" more economic development with housing along the Rt. 29 corridor (where a sewer moratorium was recently lifted.) He chastises planners for only now beginning to restudy that area instead of doing it earlier and being prepared for the current onslaught of building requests. "It'll be a spaghetti farm out there," he said. "People will build everything."
He frowns at the widespread development now going on in Germantown, saying the area simply cannot attract as much of the metropolitan Washington populace as it needs to survive.
"We're going to have to face this," he said. "If we decide to put assisted and moderate housing more evenly around the country, we have to rezone. It's not turning Montgomery into Prince George's. You zone and sewer selectively. But if we don't want to do it, let's say so, and decided certain areas will absord more of the moderate and assisted housing."
Sieminski said the county housing policy, a preliminary version of which should surface from a country study group in the next two to three weeks, should specify the county's decisions. Before adoption by the council the policy would be likely to undergo rigid scrutiny.
Some county council members see Sieminski favorably despite his often strong views.
"He is one of the most caring people in the country government," said council member Esther Gelman. "He doesn't look at the clock. If you ask for housing, he guides it through like it's a roof for his own children."
"Sometimes, he overracts," said council member John Menke. "He tends to make a crisis out of a problem and a catastrophe out of a crisis, but there's a good side to this. Somebody has to pay attention to these things."
Sieminski explained. "That's a specific strategy," he said. "Overreacting. You never know when the political tide is going to go against you. You always have to be prepared with facts and figures. Some people think that's overreacting."
Simeinski is a tall, well-built man who wears small gold wire glasses. Partially bald, he has a thin rim of gray flecked hair that he keeps closely cropped. He is a humorous man, and at his best, he is the master of the absurd.
At a going-away party for staff member Peter Lyons in a Bethesda restaurant several months ago, Sieminski announced at one point that his brains hurt and quickly placed his white paper napkin over his head. The rest of the staff at the party followed suit.
Sieminski refuses to tell his age. He is married and has a 21-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 22 and 12. "I try not to relate to it," he said. "I don't keep track of it. I might begin to think I can't make a 14-mile hike on the Apalachian Trail or listen to rock music or build models." All of those are things he does.
Between meetings and working, Sieminski is a Scoutmaster and collector of model airplanes. He also builds them when he gets time - which is not often.
"Someone told me I have the biggest collection of unbuilt model airplanes in Wheaton," he said. "It's really stupid to buy all these models and not build them. But I see something I like and think I'll have a chance to work on it."
Most of the time he is obsessed with his job. "I've really enjoyed working here, although at times it's been absolutely traumatic. I seem to have a problem going home without problems . . .I guess I'm a difficult to live with. I get a lot of intensity about a certain thing and I can't get rid of it." He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands and rests has head contemplatively in his hands.
Sieminski said he would consider it a major accomplishment if he and the other county officials involved in housing finally finish the county housing policy, which will define what type of housing the county will attempt to encourage.
"When that's finished, there may be nothing else for me to do," said Sieminski. "When I feel I've gone as far as I can and I have no other use, I'll leave."