The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a plan to fix the DMV’s affordable housing crisis. But a key player’s not on board.

Breaking ranks with his own County Council, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) has come out in opposition to regional affordable housing targets set by the Urban Institute and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

An unprecedented push to address the region’s affordable housing crisis has hit its first major snag: a stubborn, independent-minded county executive responsible for implementing policy in the area’s second-largest jurisdiction.

Marc Elrich (D) of Maryland’s Montgomery County says he will not adopt the housing targets set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and the Urban Institute, placing him sharply at odds with leaders in the District and Fairfax County, who have embraced the targets.

Elrich’s position could present a serious roadblock to addressing the housing shortage threatening the future of the region’s economy, advocates and officials say. His position is particularly concerning given that Montgomery, a wealthy suburb of 1 million, has been asked to create more affordable units over the next decade than any other locality.

The Democrat, who is serving his first term as county executive, has a complicated and sometimes erratic track record on housing. He said he disagrees with the targets set by the COG, the Washington region’s government planning organization, because they imply the growth of low-wage jobs in Montgomery, which is “not the kind of growth we want here.”

“Why do we have to accept that this number of people have to be poor? I’m not accepting that. I wasn’t elected to do that,” Elrich said in an interview. “Frankly, their income assumptions seem really wrong. . . . They have no basis.”

Following a meeting with COG leaders Tuesday, Elrich doubled down on his views: “I didn’t change my perspective,” he wrote in a text message. “I still believe we have a much better job future than they project.”

His comments contrast with those of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has unveiled housing targets consistent with the COG report, and outgoing Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Sharon Bulova (D-At Large), who recently called for a regional response to the housing shortage based on the report’s recommendations.

Elrich is also contradicting the views of his own, all-Democratic County Council, which voted unanimously last week to support the housing targets.

County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), a member of the COG’s housing strategy work group, said Elrich expressed no opposition to the targets until a news conference last week on a new business development plan, when he publicly denounced them.

As county executive, he can veto legislation, although the council can override those vetoes. He also can withhold funding in the budget for affordable housing projects and potentially block the use of public land for new housing units. He cannot, however, stop the council from passing zoning amendments to encourage or allow more low-cost units.

“Regional leaders have come together behind this plan with a nationally renowned think tank,” said County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large). “And here, Marc Elrich stands alone opposing them because he thinks he has a better answer. . . . It’s very frustrating.”

The COG proposal calls for 320,000 new housing units between 2020 and 2030, which is 75,000 more than are currently forecast to be built. In addition, the COG says three-quarters of the new units should be affordable to low-to-moderate income levels, which means a monthly housing cost of $2,500 or less.

The COG set the regionwide target in September and urged individual jurisdictions such as Montgomery to set individual goals to help get there. Shortly before the COG voted, the Urban Institute published a report that identified housing needs for each jurisdiction, based on assumptions similar to those used by the COG. The report said Montgomery should build 23,100 additional low-cost housing units by 2030.

Paul DesJardin, the COG’s director of community planning and services, said the organization used a widely accepted econometric model and worked closely with Montgomery’s planning department when setting the targets.

Leah Hendey, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said the group estimated housing needs based on demographic data and not job forecasts.

In Montgomery, where the median home price is $429,000, a growing number of baby boomers are retiring, experiencing a loss in income and looking for ­low-income housing, she said. At the same time, more lower-
earning immigrants are arriving in the suburb, along with low- to middle-income people of color who are being squeezed out by intense gentrification in the District.

“This is what the pattern of growth is showing right now. . . . We’re just using the existing data that’s in front of us,” said Urban Institute Senior Director Gustavo Velasquez.

The think tank said Fairfax County, Va., which is slightly more populous than Montgomery, is projected to require fewer low-cost housing units in the coming decade — a difference that Elrich called “unfair.”

“I’d like to have Fairfax County’s job predictions and job descriptions,” he said. “I want to know why I can’t bring those same jobs here.”

Northern Virginia has long held a reputation for being more business-friendly than suburban Maryland, and its economy has been energized by the arrival of Amazon’s second headquarters, Velasquez pointed out. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) He said Elrich’s vision of spurring job growth is commendable but remains at this point “speculative” and should not set the basis for housing needs.

Navarro agreed.

“It’s clear that affordability issues are real, that our housing shortage is real,” she said. “To pretend that we don’t have a need that is reflected in those numbers,” she paused, laughing. “I just don’t understand that.”

Frank Demarais, Montgomery’s deputy housing director and an Elrich appointee, said the department has no plans to set specific housing targets in the immediate future. The county’s strategy, he said, “fundamentally remains the same.” The council’s resolution expressed support for the COG targets but did not specify what would be done to reach them.

Elrich said he plans to introduce a “no net loss” rule, which would prohibit the loss of existing affordable housing units. But he plans to focus more of his efforts on raising household income.

Riemer, who chairs the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee, said he is skeptical of Elrich’s ability to drive economic growth — citing a 2018 incident in which Elrich told a pro-development nonprofit that instead of expanding housing in Montgomery, he would “prefer to put jobs” in neighboring Frederick County.

Elected last year over opposition from the business community, Elrich — who previously served three terms on the County Council — has a tense relationship with housing advocates. He was celebrated by renters and some affordable housing groups for securing greater tenant protections while on the council but also has long been spurned by urban planners for opposing high-density housing near transit.

Some critics argue that Elrich’s latest comments reflect “NIMBYism,” a not-in-my-backyard attitude that seeks to shield single-family neighborhoods from bigger or denser development.

Others, such as Velasquez, worry that Elrich’s position could undermine regional consensus. Across the country, Velasquez said, elected leaders who work regionally on housing plans tend to be more successful.

Navarro said she thinks Elrich should be concerned about appearing to deny the need for affordable housing — an issue that matters deeply to Montgomery voters.

Elrich, acknowledging these critiques, seemed unfazed.

“Yes, I may be alone in how I think,” he said, his voice unwavering. “It’s not the first time.”

Robert McCartney contributed to this report.

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