Every Friday, four miles from Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett’s Burtonsville home, they line up in the parking lot off Briggs Chaney Road to wait for the truck from the Manna food bank.
Mothers with young children, senior women leaning on walkers and solitary men looking older than their years come from the nearby garden apartments and townhouses for canned vegetables, boxes of pasta and whatever fresh produce is available.
The truck parks near Greencastle Elementary School, where nearly two-thirds of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. A little ways south — near where county officials are planning a sparkling, science-focused town center — homeless men sit in bus shelters between stints of panhandling and drinking.
Pockets of need have long existed amid great wealth in Montgomery, where the $97,000 median household income is 12th-largest in the nation. But the pockets are getting wider and deeper, part of a suburbanization of poverty that demographers say is happening nationwide.
In 2000, none of the county’s census tracts had more than an 18 percent poverty rate. Now, even as $3 million condos sprout in Bethesda, there are 12 tracts exceeding that benchmark, including the Briggs Chaney neighborhood east of Route 29, near the Prince George’s County line.
“It’s hard. It’s really hard. I don’t know how people make it,” said Samuel Lakoh, 65, a former medical lab assistant who lives on Social Security and lined up at the Manna truck one recent day.
The distress in Briggs Chaney is part of a larger divide in Montgomery, where investment and opportunity have historically flowed to the west at the expense of the east.
“It’s a story that’s not spoken about, that’s swept under the rug,” said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) who represented the area until boundaries were changed in 2012.
Similar inequities have evolved in many affluent jurisdictions over the past half-century, from Orlando to Seattle, demographers say, as roads, transit and jobs gravitate to prosperous areas. The result, for many east Montgomery residents, is a legacy of disinvestment and disconnection.
“They’re basically by themselves,” said community organizer Terrill North.
Eastern Montgomery boasts leafy, prosperous neighborhoods in places like White Oak, Hillandale and Burtonsville. But Route 29, six lanes of fast-moving traffic with few crosswalks, largely separates that classic suburban affluence from acute need.
The poverty can be hard to spot. There’s a busy shopping center on Briggs Chaney Road, anchored by Safeway. Along Castle Boulevard, $300,000 townhomes are going up next to well-maintained garden apartment complexes, some with swimming pools.
But unemployment in parts of the neighborhood is as high as 20 percent — about five times the county average.
And the “near poor” — those with minimum-wage or low-paying, part-time jobs — also struggle in pricey suburbs like this one. A calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology places the “living wage” for a family of four in Montgomery County at $49,979 a year, more than double the federal poverty threshold. According to a 2010 study by Impact Silver Spring, almost half of the residents who live in apartments in Briggs Chaney spend 35 percent or more of their income on rent--exceeding the 30 percent generally regarded as the upper limit for housing costs.
Poverty was actually declining in Montgomery at the turn of the century — dipping to 5.1 percent — until two recessions swept away those gains. The countywide poverty rate is now 6.5 percent.
The county lost 37,000 jobs between 2007 and 2010, and the number of people living below the federal poverty line grew by two-thirds, according to a study by the Brookings Institution’s Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of a book about the suburban poor.
Nationwide, the poor population rose from 33.9 million to 46.2 million between 2000 and 2010. While the highest poverty rates are still in cities, the number of suburban poor grew by 53 percent — more than twice the rate of urban growth.
Briggs Chaney mother of four Funmi Akinkugbe earned a solid salary as a loan officer for a Laurel mortgage company until the housing market collapsed. The daughter of Nigerian diplomats, she now makes $9.50 an hour as a nursing assistant and sells herbs and African movie DVDs so she can to pay her $1,500 monthly rent.
“I’ve dropped really bad,” Akinkugbe said.
The economic downturn in Montgomery was accompanied by record immigration, with many newcomers leaving white-collar jobs in their home countries only to find few decent job opportunities here. Meanwhile, rents in the District and close-in suburbs spiked faster than outside the Capital Beltway, and government voucher programs made the suburbs more accessible to the poor.
But accessible does not necessarily mean hospitable. From Briggs Chaney Road, the Silver Spring Metro station is nine miles away, connected by a bus route that can take more than 45 minutes.
The Eastern Montgomery Regional Services Center boasts a health clinic, pro bono legal aid and a satellite police station — more help than exists in many suburban areas where poverty is growing entrenched and will soon offer Montgomery College classes, director Jewru Bandeh said. Neighborhood Opportunity Network, a joint venture of the county and the nonprofit community, is also working to better connect poor communities with social services.
But for residents of the eastern part of the county, many critical strands of the safety net — food stamps, utility bill assistance, help in dealing with eviction notices — require a trip to Silver Spring or Rockville. Advocates say a county government accustomed to dealing with the maladies of the well-off — traffic, trash collection, property taxes — is just beginning to formulate a response to the new realities.
“The county is not prepared to manage the level of need that is growing here,” said North, chairman of the community organizing group Impact Silver Spring.The economic challenges are compounded by safety concerns. After dark, the poorly lit pathways and parking lots of the garden apartment complexes are magnets for loitering, drinking and crime.
Akinkugbe described the terror she felt when she heard the hands of intruders tapping on the windows of her basement apartment one night — checking to see if anyone was home. Since the end of May, there have been six armed robberies and four burglaries within two blocks of her front door, according to police reports.
“I don’t go out much anymore,” said her 11-year-old son Elijah.
It is no accident that the western part of Montgomery County has enjoyed the economic upper hand, demographers say. Similar patterns have played out across the country, a phenomenon dubbed “the favored quarter” by George Washington University urbanologist Christopher Leinberger.
Favored quarters form where wealthy whites choose to live, and where discriminatory policies and practices traditionally have kept minorities away — especially before the passage of federal fair housing laws in the 1960s.
“The thing about a lot of development patterns is they are intended to move people away from ‘them,’ however you define ‘them,’ ” Leinberger said.
These wedges of affluence were also shaped by strategic placement of freeways — such as I-270 in the case of Montgomery — to speed higher-skill workers to more lucrative jobs, which in turn attracted amenities such as shopping malls, more upscale housing and corporate employment centers.
“It was well known in real estate that if you wanted to know where office buildings went, you had to ask the question: ‘Where does the CEO live?’ ” said Leinberger.
The eastern part of Montgomery was semi-rural and predominantly white through the 1970s. Topography was a factor in its slow development: steep stream valleys and wetlands limited construction of roads.In 1980, a new land-use plan prioritized creation of more affordable housing and preservation of the rural northwest for agriculture. As an incentive to remain in farming, landowners could sell their development rights to builders in designated areas — including the area around Briggs Chaney Road.
The programs spurred intense development of inexpensive townhomes and apartments, attracting renters and first-time buyers, many from the District and Prince George’s. By 1991, the stock of cheap housing had nearly tripled.
Leggett, who lives in Burtonsville, said the east bore an undue burden as a receiving area, which “created a slippery slope for years to come.”
The land-use plan called for mass transit — either light rail or express buses — to support the new development. But that never happened. Traffic on Route 29 worsened as the volume of commuters from booming Howard County grew, prompting a development moratorium that started in 1986 and was supposed to last until transportation options improved.
The ban lasted 18 years. It became a tool leveraged by the area’s political leadership — namely then-council member Marilyn Praisner and neighborhood activist Stuart Rochester, who resented the area’s role as a repository for low- and moderate-income housing. Both were formidable figures in the community: Rochester was a distinguished historian for the Defense Department; Praisner a retired CIA analyst and former school board member.
“I have seen this community brought down by transients,” Rochester told east-county blogger Dan Reed in 2008. “I think diversity is important, but you want it to be a healthy diversity in terms of demographics.” To some minorities, that conveyed a specific message.
“There was a lot of code language thrown at me about keeping the place the way that it was,” Navarro said, recalling her first council campaign in 2008. “There was a real sense of wanting to keep the area as semi-rural, very suburban status quo.”
With little to no new investment, the existing townhomes and multi-family housing deteriorated as public and private money flowed elsewhere: Rockville, Shady Grove, downtown Silver Spring.
But the climate has shifted. With the death of Praisner in 2008 and Rochester in 2009, new political leadership has pushed hard to bring jobs and amenities to a community that Leggett says “desperately needs to be changed.”
In July, the Montgomery County Council approved an ambitious land-use plan designed to spur creation of a science- focused town center. It would be adjacent to the sprawling Food and Drug Administration headquarters campus in White Oak, which opened in 2003 and has been growing as the agency consolidates operations that had been located elsewhere. Four miles to the east, at Cherry Hill Road off of Route 29, Adventist Health Care is awaiting regulatory approval to build a 48-acre medical campus, including a 200-bed hospital.
Impact Silver Spring Executive Director Ronnie Galvin said he is “both hopeful and cynical” about what economic growth will bring to those scuffling financially along Route 29. The opportunities will mean little, he said, unless there are easily accessible programs to train residents there to take advantage of them.
“This is a moment to ensure that the largest group of people who live in east county are able to participate in the decision making that gives rise to development,” Galvin said in an e-mail. “AND that these folks also directly benefit from the prosperity that is sure to come.’’
The trail leading to the back of Greencastle Elementary seems well-kept. But the woods on either side are filled with trash: condoms, 24-ounce malt liquor cans, shopping carts, a decapitated plastic Tweety Bird. It’s the kind of neglect, activists say, that is seldom visible at a more affluent school.
“The parents in Bethesda squeal loudly enough, and they are organized to deal with it themselves,” said Tim Warner, a former minister and now chief engagement and partnership officer for MCPS. He said Briggs Chaney and other high-poverty Montgomery communities are hindered by a lack of “social capital,” or the ability to speak with one effective voice to those in power.
An East County Advisory Board is appointed by Leggett to advise him on community issues. But the 18-member panel has limited influence. Well-organized civic associations and neighborhood groups — major players elsewhere in the county -- are rare here, in part because of heavy turnover in the rental population. A disconnected road system, and the dated, self-contained design of many of the complexes, also discourage a sense of community cohesion, advocates say.
Groups like Impact are working with residents to build a stronger civic infrastructure— an effort that included a community trash pickup on a recent humid Saturday morning. By noon, volunteers had bagged nearly 450 pounds of debris from the school grounds and nearby Edgewood Park.
As the morning wore on, Joel Chavez, the six-year old son of Greencastle PTA president Doris Chavez, lost his enthusiasm. He got a gentle pep talk from an IMPACT organizer Tammie Archie.
“Do you want your world to be less trash or more trash?” she asked.
Joel soldiered on.
“We are making history here, and you don’t even know it,” Galvin told the volunteers later over pizza. Years from now, he said, when schools are thriving and jobs are plentiful, “we will know that this was a start. This is just one step to really big things.”