More than 40 citizens and civic leaders addressed the Montgomery County Council last week during a five-hour marathon forum on County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist's proposed housing policy for the county.
Formulated in response to increasing housing prices and the resulting displacement of middle- and low-income families, the policy contains plans for providing moderately priced and publicly funded housing.
The public forum was the last of two meetings sponsored by the council to elicit community opinion.
Most of the speakers agreed with the general intent of the policy -- to encourage construction of affordable housing -- but took issue with one or more of the guildelines.
Pressed for time, council members stuck strictly to business. Instead of the characteristic banter, a nod of thanks and a few questions followed most pronouncements.
"Your mettle is about to be tested," Kemp Mill Civic Association president Joel Schor warned council members. "Will we see established a truly fair housing policy and thereby take a powerful swipe at the causes of urban poverty, or will we end up with business as usual, which too often has meant the marriage of builders, developers, political party wheelhorses and county officals pursuing private ends?"
Speaker cited as an example of unmet promises the failure of a council resolution last year to scatter public housing throughout the county.
Sligo-Branviews Civic Association president Eileen Cotter complained that low- and moderate-income areas still share an unfair proportion of public housing.
County housing surveys support her view.
Potomac, the wealthiest area in the county, has only 5.7 percent of the assisted housing. Silver Spring and Gathersburg, which have two of the county's lowest median incomes, have 10.8 percent and 14.2 percent, respectively.
The new housing policy, if approved by council, would encourage construction of public housing in more affluent areas and limit building in areas that already have numerous units.
County officials were warned earlier in the day that their efforts might be hindered by liberal policies that permit extensive public involvement in shaping zoning regulations, and are one of the major causes of the public housing imbalance.
Low-income housing expert Peter O'Connor told a gathering of county officials that the plan's success depended on a restructuring of zoning policies.
"The plan looks great," O'Connor said, "but if residents are allowed to oppose increased density zoning it will be a failure."
One example suporting O'Connor's contention was the defeat in January of a move to build 60 units of assisted housing on open land in Potomac, About 1,000 residents at a public hearing insisted the land was needed for soccer fields. The council agreed and defeated the proposal by a 6-1 vote.
In addition to demands for balanced distribution of low-income housing, speakers asked the council to take a closer look at accommodations for the elderly, mentally disturbed and physically handicapped.