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Opinion Montgomery County lives in the real world of affordable housing

Townhouses and condominiums under construction in Germantown. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Marc Elrich, a Democrat, is the county executive of Montgomery County.

Throughout my political career, I have been a strong advocate for affordable housing, renters’ rights and preservation of affordable housing in Montgomery County. Recently, I have been criticized for my comments about reports from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and the Urban Institute assigning affordable housing goals for the region and for each jurisdiction. These reports reinforced what we already know: People coming to the region for employment need a place to live, and affordable housing needs are outpacing the supply of affordable units. But the reports also predict a future for Montgomery County in which 3 out of 4 future residents would require subsidized housing because of low wages. They do not predict that same future for the District or Fairfax County — an illogical distinction that throws the reports’ assumptions into question.

I will not accept that view of the future, and no elected leader should. So let’s be clear: We need to attack the problem of affordability from both the high costs of housing and the inadequacy of wages, and that is how I intend to proceed. Leadership requires defining the future we want and committing resources to realize it. The future I commit to includes residents across the income continuum, with housing affordable to them; it also includes education that prepares our workforce for well-paying jobs and support for economic development that retains and attracts companies that offer those jobs. From our growing bio-tech companies to our efforts to grow manufacturing, we are working to strengthen our job market with higher-paying jobs. That is not magical thinking; that is solution-based reality.

In Montgomery County today, more than 20,000 households earning 30 percent of area median income (about $36,000 for a family of four) are severely cost-burdened — that is to say, their housing costs exceed 50 percent of their income. And there are thousands more households earning between 30 percent and 60 percent of area median income who are similarly burdened. Neither study took these facts into account. The 40,000 households projected to form in the next 10 years create a need that is in addition to the need to provide housing for the current population that is already severely cost-burdened. Housing targets that ignore the current deficits are not particularly useful. While we have to produce new affordable units to begin to address this problem, the good news is that COG acknowledges that our existing plans and zoning can accommodate significantly more housing units than the targets it set for us. So, if we’ve zoned for it, why isn’t construction happening? One reason could be that developers have said they are not building more multifamily units because the current market does not support rents high enough to produce the desired return for their investors. And even if they start building, it’s pretty clear that more units would not equate to more affordable units. And we have no requirement that developers provide affordable family-sized housing.

I am determined to help these residents. So, here is what I am doing. I am working with developers and organizations active in affordable housing to build on the county’s existing policies (which produced more than 11,000 units in the past 10 years) to strengthen partnerships and identify creative financing strategies so that we can collaborate as effectively as possible in addressing this huge challenge. Just last week, for example, my housing department hosted a forum for developers to discuss these issues.

We are also making major investments to ensure that we change the prospects for our current and future residents. We, along with the state, will be investing tens of millions of dollars in early-childhood education to make it possible for our children to start school on a level playing field, which will help them to be successful in school so that when they graduate they will be ready for work or for continuing their education. Our schools are now embracing the need to prepare our high school students with the skills they need for jobs that are out there. We want to close the gap between the skills of our workforce and the skills required in the workplace. Montgomery College is doubling down on certificate programs so students are qualified for job opportunities. And the Montgomery County Council and I are working to reshape our Workforce Development program to upskill our workforce with the skills employers need. These are real changes aimed at changing our previously inadequate response to the challenges faced by our low-income residents. It is wrong to accept that high levels of poverty should be both acceptable and apparently unchangeable. Our residents deserve better.

That is why I am focused on changing the business climate, fostering business expansion, bringing high-quality jobs to our county and training our residents for those jobs. This does not mean, as some have asserted, that I want to exclude low-income wage earners. To the contrary, I have been a leading advocate for living wages, preservation of existing affordable housing, rent protection, family-sized units in new development projects with rents across a wide range of affordability guidelines and pathways to homeownership. Better jobs mean better pay and more opportunity for our residents. Working to help lift people up is what we should be doing at the same time we are working to preserve and produce affordable housing.

My reading of the affordable housing goals in the reports is that they are based on assumptions of the types of jobs expected to come and what income levels those jobs would generate, which, of course, relates to how much people can afford to pay for housing without being cost-burdened. For Montgomery County, the reports assume two things: First, that almost half of the next 40,000 households won’t have the skills or education to be employable above minimum wages, and, second, that we do not have the ability to attract better-paying jobs in the future, thus necessitating the need for a greater number of units for low-income wage earners. This reinforces my point that affordable housing is also a wage problem, so an assumption about affordable housing is essentially an assumption about the employability of future residents. While I strongly support creating housing for low-income people, I oppose assumptions that despite our multiple serious efforts, half of the households over the next 10 years will be low-income. These assumptions (or targets) ignore our current efforts to attack the problem of affordability from both the high cost of housing and the inadequacy of wages.

Contrary to the conclusions in these reports, I believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time by adopting policies that preserve and produce affordable housing and educating our workforce with the skills to enable them to have a better future. And because of our minimum-wage policies, starting wages for our residents will be significantly higher than every other jurisdiction except the District. These shifts in our housing, educational and job priorities and the millions that we will be investing in them are clear indications that we can and will do better for our current and future residents.

Affordable housing is an economic imperative and a moral obligation. We must address it to meet our economic potential and to provide a high quality of life for all our residents.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Montgomery County’s leader prefers magical thinking to action on affordable housing