There’s no luxury in the garden-style apartments of Langley Park, Md. But with rents averaging $1,300 a month for two bedrooms, they offer residents modest living in the heart of a vibrant Latino enclave, with easy access to 11 bus lines.
In a few years, if plans stay on track, two Purple Line light-rail stations will connect those residents to jobs in more affluent Montgomery County.
The Purple Line promises to bring investment, the kind that could enhance and diversify Langley Park’s deteriorating housing stock. But while that presents an opportunity, it is also seen as a threat to low-income and transit-dependent residents.
They fear that with the Purple Line’s benefits — access, construction jobs, economic growth — will also come soaring rents and the loss of affordable housing as properties are demolished to make way for new construction.
“It will push us out,” said Henry Castro, 33, a window technician who grew up in the Prince George’s County community. “The rent went up almost $200 last year. Can you imagine how expensive it will be when the Purple Line arrives? Nobody will be able to afford it here.”
Residents have reason to worry, researchers and housing experts say; they point to studies indicating that unless the government acts to preserve affordable housing, low- income residents along the transit route will be priced out of their homes.
A report from University of Maryland researchers and the immigrant advocacy group CASA found that increasing rent, crowding, substandard housing and foreclosures make the residents of the community’s 5,000 apartments vulnerable.
Already, rents have risen with new investment in the community, which includes a $34.8 million bus terminal that opened late last year.
Similar patterns have been repeated across the Washington region where transit projects have spurred growth. Even Prince George’s, which for decades was mostly ignored by developers, has begun to see the impact in its inside-the-Beltway communities, with development springing up around transit.
“That inevitably is going to push out lower-income people, because when demand goes up, the prices go up,” said Maryann Dillon, executive director of the Housing Initiative Partnership, a nonprofit housing developer based in the county.
“We have seen this pattern repeat itself in the District along the Green Line, along the Red Line. And you are starting to see it in Prince George’s County along the Green Line,” Dillon said. “Somehow there has to be something done to help protect lower-income people and to encourage mixed-income close to transit so that those people who are really dependent on transit can benefit from it.”
Small businesses, many of them owned by minorities and women, also could be hurt during construction and could find themselves unable to compete with new businesses that spring up. And the Langley Park area at the crossroads of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard could lose its unique cultural soul, some fear.
“I don’t want us to lose the vibrancy and the diversity that we currently have in our community,” said Prince George’s County Council member Deni Taveras (D), who represents Langley Park. “That is what makes us who we are in Langley Park and gives us the rich vibrancy that we have.”
Construction of the 16-mile light-rail line connecting Bethesda and New Carrollton is on hold pending resolution of a federal lawsuit that challenges the project on environmental grounds. Maryland transportation officials had planned to begin construction last fall; the line is scheduled to open in 2022.
But while construction has stalled, new development is taking off along the line’s route around Metro stations at New Carrollton and College Park and in Chevy Chase.
In anticipation of that growing interest, a coalition of civic, government and faith organizations has been working on a plan to help preserve neighborhood character, looking at ways to train residents for better jobs and set up programs that could help businesses prosper during the construction disruptions.
Prince George’s officials say they are exploring tools such as offering tax incentives for landlords who keep rents low and using a county housing trust fund to invest in affordable housing along the corridor. The trust fund, however, is empty. In addition, Prince George’s, unlike Montgomery and other Washington-area jurisdictions, has not passed legislation that requires developers to set aside a share of new housing stock for low- and moderate-income residents.
Eric Brown, director of the county’s Department of Housing and Community Development, said officials are looking into acquiring properties in Langley Park to partner with nonprofit developers that build low- and moderate-income housing. In the past, however, the county has not been able to come up with the financing. As the county develops a comprehensive housing strategy, looking at issues such as homelessness and the development of affordable and mixed-income housing, officials also will focus on areas such as Langley Park and others expected to be affected by the Purple Line, Brown said.
Complicating things, Langley Park has other housing problems. Many of its apartment buildings and complexes are old, and grounds are run-down. Residents have complained for years about pest infestations and poor maintenance.
The apartments are crowded, and many of the properties are so deteriorated that housing experts say improvements would require them to be torn down and rebuilt.
Then there are the social challenges in an area where nearly 80 percent of residents are Hispanic, about 1 in 5 lives below the poverty level and nearly 60 percent of the population lacks health insurance, compared with 7.5 percent statewide.
A majority of Langley Park residents depend on public transit to get around, and many work low-wage jobs — as nannies, cooks or cleaners — in Montgomery. The Purple Line would help them get to work, community leaders say.
“In a way, the Purple Line is a test — it is a moral test of what kind of people are we,” said the Rev. Jacek Orzechowski of St. Camillus Catholic Church, which is based in Silver Spring but offers Mass in Langley Park. “Do we have the commitment to ensure that the Purple Line is done in a way that enhances the neighborhood and protects those who are financially vulnerable?” Orzechowski asked.
“The development can’t happen on the back of the poor,” he said. “The people are aware of the threats. They are already under serious economic distress, and many of them depend on public transportation. If they are displaced, where are they going to go?”
However, in the long run, even with all the potential benefits of the Purple Line, displacement is inevitable, Taveras said.
“It is a harsh reality. When transit comes in, there is displacement,” she said. “We have to be realistic that there will be some displacement. We can’t say that there will be net-zero loss. That’s not going to happen.”
That worries Maria Bueno, who opened one of the first Latino businesses in Langley Park more than two decades ago and has built a loyal clientele at Zodiac Sports, where people come to send money to their home countries and buy calling cards, cellphone accessories and sporting gear.
She fears that her Langley Park shop will face the same fate as the Zodiac record store her family opened 43 years ago in Adams Morgan. That store closed just as Metro’s Green Line came to nearby Columbia Heights in the late 1990s. Rents began to go up, buildings were renovated, and many of Zodiac’s Latino customers — and then the business itself — were pushed out of the District’s Ward 1.
“There’s nothing wrong with new construction and investment, but all of a sudden the current residents can no longer keep up with the rents,” Bueno said. Already, she said, her landlord for the first time had refused to commit to a 10-year lease.
Some wonder what will become of this international corridor, this barrio Latino, a vibrant area with bustling businesses where people from the neighborhood and elsewhere come to eat pupusas and buy freshly made conchas, the Mexican sweet bread. It’s where they can find grocery stores with products such as dark-pink iguana meat and minutas, the Latino version of a snow cone, topped with condensed milk and tamarind jam.
Langley Park is comfortable, said Castro, who has lived there for 20 years. It’s home. It’s where se habla español.
“I want to take the Purple Line to jobs in Bethesda,” he said. “That will be so convenient. But how does that help me if I can’t afford living here?”