In wealthy Potomac, on some open land surrounded by large two-story homes, Montgomery County officials recently sought to build 60 units of public housing. The proposal was viewed by some as an important test of the county's year-old policy of distributing such housing evenly throughout the suburbs.
But when about 1,000 Potomac residents marched into a hearing last month and charged that the land in question was needed for soccer fields not housing for the poor, the County Council went along with that argument by a 6-to-1 vote.
Across the county, on an undeveloped tract of forest and shrubland in middle-class Wheaton the planners now want to construct 72 units of subsidized housing. Again the local citizenry has opposed the idea, this time arguing that the open land is needed to absorb flood waters from Sligo Creek. The council again is caught between its policy and the pressures of a local community.
Virtually anywhere subsidized housing is proposed in Montgomery County, there are people nearby who have reasons why it should not be built there. The publicly stated reasons are often things like soccer fields and parks; the underlying reasons are almost always fears about the decline of property values and school test scores and the increase in crime.
These fears were succinctly summarized by Marilyn Rosenblum, whose imposing brick house stands across the street from the proposed soccer fields of Potomac. "Why," asked Rosenblum, "should they take away what we've achieved?"
While the question of where is so troublesome in Montgomery, there is little dispute about why the housing should be built.
There is today a waiting list of 5,500 persons who need public housing in the county. They are teachers, clerks, firemen, policemen, janitors, cafeteria workers and the unemployed. They pay more than 25 percent of their income for rent. Many of them live in overcrowded apartments or in units that do not meet housing code standards. About 90 percent of them live in the county and 57 percent of them are white.
And, according to a study known as the Hoffman report, the need for subsidized housing will only become stronger in future years. By 1985, the study said, the county will need 40,000 subsidized units -- about 50 percent more than the government is now expecting to provide.
"We have a dire need for assisted housing and we are trying to build it," said Elizabeth Scull, a veteran council member. "But it is very hard when every community fights it. A lot of the reaction is knee-jerk reaction to key words like assisted housing."
Last year, in an effort to make the obligation of public housing an equal one for all county residents, the council passed a resolution stating that such housing should be distributed throughout the county. But that is easier said than done. The people who live along the University Boulevard corridor in Wheaton say the council has already broken its own policy by backing away from the housing project in Potomac.
In the opinion of these people, the county government is keeping the poor and minority population in the county's southeastern section, away from the rich whites of Potomac and Chevy Chase who have made Montgomery one of the wealthiest counties per capita in the nation.
"It's a situation where we're segregating people and I'm opposed to segregation," said Rose Crenca, a council member from Silver Spring. "They can't put a Chinese wall around our low-income people and say, okay, the rich don't have to look at them." the county's assisted units.
Silver Spring and Gaithersburg, which have two of the lowest median incomes in the county, have 10.8 percent and 14.2 percent of the county's assisted units, respectively, according to Housing Opportunity Commission figures.
Wheaton -- where the median income is several thousand dollars below the county's $26,709 average -- contains 8.9 percent of all the county's assisted units. Still, the residents there say Wheaton has 10 to 15 times the county average of subsidized units when the number of subsidized units is compared to the number of square miles in the county.
"Wheaton is getting impacted," said Crenca, using the favorite word of Wheaton residents who are protesting the proposed subsidized housing. "When you have an economically deprived environment, you statistically reduce the chances of poor kids rising."
In recent years, an increasing number of low-income persons and minorities have been migrating to Wheaton from Takoma Park, and Silver Spring, which have the highest concentrations of minorities in the county -- 22.3 percent and 18.6 percent, resepectively. They also have been migrating there from the Northeast Washington and Prince George's County, accorging to county spokesman Charles Maier.
Because of that migration, Wheaton residents say they feel under siege. And they do not want the county to add to the increasing minority and low-income population in Wheaton by building subsidized housing.
"We're concerned about property values," said Zara Post, whose small house borders the land proposed for subsidized housing. "We are worried about SAT scores going down in the schools and we are worried about crime."
The council expects to decide next month whether to build subsidized housing on the Sligo Creek site in Wheaton. Persons who would be eligible to live in the 72 town houses there include a two-person family earning $12,900 a year, a four-person family earning $16,200 a year and an eight-person family earning $20,300 a year.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development would lend the families money for a down payment. They would be able to acquire their own mortgage after they have paid enough rent into the house to equal a down payment.
The housing proposed for Potomac would have been for people of slightly higher income levels and HUD would have given the families subsidies so that they would have paid only one fourth of their incomes for rent.
The decision not to put the housing on Falls Road in Potomac worries Assistant County Attorney Charles S. Rand, who says that the decision could be challenged as a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
"The courts could look at the Potomac decision and find that we're perpetuating a pattern of segregation in housing," Rand said. "The courts have several tests and I don't know whether we'd pass two of them: 'Did the action perpetuate a pattern of segregation in the community and did the action taken have a discriminatory effect'."
All of the council members except Elizabeth Scull voted for three soccer fields on the Falls Road site in Potomac instead of subsidized moderate income housing. They defend their decision by saying that Potomac residents had been promised soccer fields on that land by a county parks official. They also say they are considering building subsidized housing on another site in Potomac, at the site of Bradley Junior High off River Road. The school was closed because of declining enrollment.
Throughout the county, residents who live near sites of schools that have been closed because of declining enrollments -- the usual sites proposed for construction of subsidized housing -- are worried. They say that the land has been promised to them for parks or recreation facilities.
"yeveryone has been promised land for some use," said Detta Harding, a Wheaton resident who have been assured that the land would be a park. "If the county is going to distribute this housing equitably, they're going to have to break promises all across the county."