The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maryland must do more to preserve housing around the Purple Line

Construction related to the Purple Line on Bonifant Street in Silver Spring on Dec. 17, 2020. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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David Bowers is vice president and Mid-Atlantic market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing housing supply, advancing racial equity and building resilience and upward mobility.

Maryland’s leaders know the state does not have enough affordable housing to meet the need. According to the State Housing Needs Assessment, a framework created by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development with support from Enterprise Community Partners, the state lacks an estimated 85,000 affordable homes for its lowest-income families. As market forces push rents higher, the gap is growing.

Fortunately, many legislators and advocates have pursued solutions to meet Marylanders’ housing needs. With existing resources coupled with new funding for housing proposed through the Build Back Better bill, Maryland has many tools at its disposal to prevent the loss of affordable homes. The Purple Line, the long-awaited planned light rail that will connect Metro and other transit to even more communities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, is a prime location to put these tools to work. The time to act is now. Construction is set to resume soon.

When construction on the Purple Line began in 2017, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition, a multi-sector group, estimated that 17,000 affordable homes in the line’s vicinity were at risk of being lost to market forces. Rent increases will lead to displacement; 47 percent of all renters in the area around the Purple Line are already rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent. They can’t afford to pay more.

When construction paused in September 2020, it became clear that we were not on track to preserve those 17,000 homes, and many actors — state and local governments, philanthropy and the private sector — need to do more to prevent their loss.

The Maryland General Assembly should channel federal resources into creating housing trust funds and targeted, priority efforts for preservation that can be used to rehabilitate and maintain existing affordable housing along the Purple Line and elsewhere in the state.

It should also prioritize stronger protections for tenants. By engaging with both tenants and landlords, Maryland can enact policies that help resources flow through the market and keep people safely, stably housed. Infrastructure that was created to respond to the pandemic, such as tenant assistance and eviction-prevention resources, should be extended to provide long-term support for preserving affordability. The state should also look at its housing tax credit programs to incentivize preserving affordable homes near public transit and in communities with cost burdens or increased risks of displacement.

Local governments must be strong partners to help preserve affordability. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have made important progress: Both have advocated for the preservation and rehabilitation of homes along the Purple Line to ensure housing quality and stability for tenants. Both jurisdictions have created new funds to help secure properties from turnover. These important steps are necessary and welcomed. But more is needed to meet the Purple Line’s preservation goals. Local governments should use Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to expand existing funds that support the acquisition of affordable housing for preservation purposes.

The private and philanthropic sectors should also play a role by partnering and investing in affordable housing preservation. The Purple Line Corridor Coalition has already attracted millions of dollars from private entities for preservation efforts that otherwise might not have come to Maryland. Nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike have a chance to expand their impact while contributing to existing preservation pipelines statewide. In addition to serving as stable, low-risk investments, they also provide a critical and irreplaceable service to the community.

The Purple Line can be transformative for the communities that it runs through, but only if the people who live there are given the chance to benefit. Without proper investment from the state, municipal governments and private institutions, many low-income households will be priced out of the area. When construction resumes in this spring the focus will turn to finishing the project as quickly as possible. Before that happens, we must put safeguards in place to make sure every one of those 17,000 affordable homes remains intact on the other side.