GIVE IT A FEW months, and the term "workforce housing," like its precursor "affordable housing," will start to take on a faintly disreputable flavor in neighborhoods where the affluence of households is closely bound up with soaring property values. No matter what term is in vogue, it is code for the same thing: subsidized homes for people who couldn't otherwise afford to live in them. And no matter what practical or social arguments are advanced, most people do not want the government to earmark their neighborhood as a refuge for relatively poorer people.
In the Washington area, as in San Francisco, Boston and a few other places, what distinguishes the word "workforce" is that it may encompass solidly middle-class people priced out of the local housing market by gravity-defying prices. Too poor to buy a townhouse or apartment but too rich to qualify for traditional affordable-housing programs, they feel cheated out of the American dream's promise of homeownership; unsurprisingly, local politicians are eager to help them. One bill in Montgomery County, proposed by County Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), would require developers of projects near Metro stations to provide a certain number of below-market apartments to homebuyers earning up to 20 percent more than the area's median income; by that formula, a family of four making $107,000 could qualify for the county's help is affording an apartment.
If that sounds over the top, it probably is. As they head toward an election year, Mr. Silverman, a candidate for county executive, and other council members in Montgomery may see votes in easing the dwelling dilemmas of frustrated house hunters. They can hardly be blamed for wanting to help their constituents, and such a policy may well be justified in cases involving recruitment of public employees -- teachers, firefighters, police officers -- who might otherwise not take a job in the county. But as broader social policy, it is problematic. After all, Montgomery has plenty of actual poor people whose salaries are way, way below the area's median income. If the county is in the business of providing a social safety net, the struggling poor, not the wistful middle class, should be the priority and the focus of new housing initiatives.
Admittedly, there is a growing disconnect between area housing prices and the bankbooks of large numbers of middle-class families. The squeeze those families feel is very real. But in recent years it is the poor who have been given the cold shoulder by the federal government's increasing indifference to housing programs. Before it concentrates on constituents in the upper levels of eligibility, local government should watch out for the neediest and most vulnerable citizens.