Guenet Worku, who emigrated from Ethiopia 14 years ago, says the new Rockville condominium she was able to purchase for $95,000 is the greatest gift she has ever received.
Bob Donohoe and other Montgomery County developers say moderately priced housing like Worku's is a financial loser for them.
County Council members say resolving this dispute will be their next big debate, one that could lead to taller buildings and less green or open space in several communities.
This evening, the council will begin discussing a strategy for salvaging what once was a nationally acclaimed initiative, the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Program, which requires developers to keep 12.5 percent of all new units priced within the reach of moderate-income buyers.
Since its inception in the 1970s, the program has created 12,000 below-market-value units for eligible buyers and renters who otherwise probably would not be able to afford a home in Montgomery.
But fewer affordable homes are becoming available under the program. In the mid-1980s, when the county was in the midst of a construction boom, 6,300 families lived in the moderately priced units. Today, there are about 3,000.
Because price controls on the less costly units are lifted after 10 years, the houses or apartments sold in the 1980s can now be resold at market value. With land scarce and fewer homes coming on the market, there are not enough moderately priced units to make up for older homes leaving the program.
Adding to the shortage, the county has agreed in recent years to waive the requirement on about half of new developments, particularly high-rises. It has allowed builders to buy themselves out of the rule by contributing to the county's housing initiative fund.
"When you start out with expensive land and add an expensive building onto it, it is difficult to provide housing at less than market value," said Donohoe, who paid the county $600,000 this year to avoid building 13 low-price two-bedroom units at the Sterling, his condominium project in White Flint.
To make the program more enticing to developers of high-rises, several council members propose letting them exceed height restrictions in such high-density areas as downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring and Wheaton.
"This is a debate about whether the county is going to shoulder its responsibility to make a place for immigrants and new residents as well as our support of service workers, teachers, firefighters and police folks," said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), sponsor of the measure.
Neighborhood and environmental organizations vowed to fight the proposals and said council members are caving in to developers, who heavily contribute to county political campaigns.
"Basically, it looks like another gift to the development community," said Drew Powell, chairman of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery.
The council is considering other bills and zoning amendments to try to bolster the moderate-price housing program and make it harder for developers to avoid constructing the affordable units.
Council members Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) have proposed extending price controls on new units by an additional 10 years to keep them in the program longer. They also would prevent developers from obtaining buyouts.
Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) has introduced legislation to extend the price controls to 99 years, meaning the buyer of the unit would never be able to make a profit. She also supports scrapping the buyouts.
Floreen and Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), along with three co-sponsors, have offered the most controversial approach.
The legislation and zoning amendments, backed by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), would allow the county planning board, at a developer's request, to override community master plans in the southern part of the county to build higher and reserve less land for open space.
Under current law, the skyline of each of Montgomery's central business districts is designed to resemble a tent. The tallest buildings are centered like tent poles near Metro stations, and the height drops off in increments, so that buildings on the perimeter of each area are no taller than three stories.
Silverman said that in most cases, developers would need to add only one or two floors to make money off projects that include moderately priced units.
"It's not like you are going to see the Manhattanization of Montgomery County," said Elizabeth Davison, director of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
Allowing developers to build higher would generate only about 50 extra units a year, county officials said. That has prompted community activists to question council members' motivations.
"Frankly, this is just a Trojan horse for developers, and really, it is quite disingenuous," said Dolores Milmoe, conservation advocate for the Audubon Naturalist Society. "They are trying to trump the master plans, and I do not think the citizens are going to be very pleased with this effort."
For Worku, a single mother who works as a clerk for AAA in Bowie, being a homeowner has made a huge difference.
"It felt like winning the lottery. This is my own now," she said. "That is the most important thing. Now, I own my own place, which I have never done."