Development has divided the people of Montgomery County for decades. Takoma Park’s activist reputation began with successful protests against a planned freeway that would have divided the town back in the ’60s. Ten years ago, many county elections were largely decided based on opinions on the Intercounty Connector. At a heated debate last year, then-council candidate Hans Riemer closed by saying the fight over the ICC had “been the defining issue of progressivism in Montgomery County for the last 30 years. What is going to be the next defining vision?”
That fight has been going on in the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee. County planners are pushing new zoning regulations intended to promote development in communities such as Kensington, Wheaton and Takoma Park. Zoning Text Amendment 11-01 would create three Commercial Residential Zones, requiring developers to include “public benefits” in projects, with a specific preference given to transit facilities. Public benefit “points” would be awarded for things such as public art (15) and including a child care center (20). Fifty of the 100 points needed to secure approval may be awarded simply based on proximity to mass transit, prioritizing it over other pressing needs such as affordable housing, public facilities and green space.
Montgomery County is changing ethnically and economically. While many have noted the county’s new “majority-minority” status, in fact there is no longer a majority population group in the county, considering the more than 164 countries of origin among residents. But that doesn’t mean there are no broadly shared needs and concerns, and affordable housing is clearly moving up the list. According to Census figures, more than a third of county homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on their housing (the threshold for affordability, according to federal officials). Earlier this year, County Executive Ike Leggett said at the county’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, “There are more students in Montgomery County Public Schools eligible for free and reduced-price meals than there are students in the entire D.C. public school system.”
A developer’s choice of public benefits should be focused on a specific community’s most critical needs, and there is wide support for increasing the amount of affordable housing in the county. Activists from the group Neighborhood Montgomery in solidly middle-class Kensington have described affordable housing as a “much-needed benefit” in their protests. Although it is not involved in this specific fight, the Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County can boast of support from major developers, real estate agents and banks operating across the county.
Smart growth is important. Robust access to public transit may be the best way a community can affect its greenhouse gas emissions and ease traffic congestion. But that impact will be minimal if few people can afford to live near the system and use it.
Having no majority population is a testament to the openness of our community, but we, as a community, are still grappling with all the implications of who we are. The County Council will soon decide what “public benefit” means in the context of a changing community. Putting affordable housing on a level playing field with transit would go a long way toward ensuring the diversity Montgomery County residents value.
The writer is on the steering committee of Progressive Neighbors, which advocates for affordable housing in Montgomery County.