The Hampshire Towers in Takoma Park in 2015. Tenants asked Montgomery County officials to put the rent increases on hold pending negotiations. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Matt Losak is executive director of Montgomery County Renters Alliance Inc.

As Montgomery County’s campaigns for public office heat up, most of the candidates will drape themselves in the banner of “affordable housing.” But what policies they actually stand by are often at odds with what affordable housing really means, especially for renters.

For a small percentage of renters struggling financially, federal subsidies can help. These include Section 8 vouchers and county and state rent subsidies through the rental assistance program that pays part of a tenant’s rent for limited periods, as well as emergency short-term charity subsidies aimed at preventing evictions through a network of nonprofits.

Then there’s the county’s “crown jewel” of affordable rental housing policy: the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program. The MPDU rental program requires some properties to set aside 12.5 percent to 15 percent of available units for people whose income does not exceed about 60 percent of area median income.

But preliminary research into these programs finds that only a small percentage of those in need can access them. According to the Housing Opportunities Commission, which manages the region’s Section 8 vouchers, there are about 1,600 voucher-assisted tenants and about 35,000 people on the waiting list.

The assistance programs are temporary, and available for only a small fraction of those who need them. The MPDU program availability, managed by the apartment owners, also suffers from long waiting lists that are not tracked or overseen by the county housing department.

Yet, most candidates’ platforms that support all or part of strengthening these programs emphasize the notion that affordable housing policy should be concerned primarily with the poor and working poor. They ignore, sometimes intentionally, broader policies that protect everyone from unpredictable and excessive rent increases, unjust eviction, poor maintenance and unresponsive building management and lackadaisical building code enforcement.

Today we are facing an unprecedented rental housing crisis in which affordability, stability and quality housing for a majority of renters are severely at risk. Housing costs in Maryland, even when adjusted for inflation, have more than quadrupled since 1940. The house and garden a postal worker could afford in downtown Silver Spring in the 1950s are now within reach of only the upper middle class. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than a third of senior renters are severely cost-burdened, paying more than 50 percent of their household income for rent, and that figure is expected to rise substantially each year as the population of seniors grows and rents increase annually well beyond the reach of those on low and fixed incomes.

Unstable communities have costs far beyond a single home. When children are forced to move from school to school — some schools in Montgomery County point to a nearly 33 percent annual mobility rate — academic achievement suffers. For seniors, the disabled and working families, indeed everyone else who chose their housing to be near jobs, transportation, health services, schools and family or to plant social and economic roots, housing needs go far deeper than simple shelter. Instability affects community health, investment choices, social engagement and crime rates.

Candidates may talk the talk of “affordable housing,” but what the voters must look for is whether they support policies that truly protect and preserve affordability or simply pay lip service to a few programs that help a small percentage of the population while supporting massive public investments that ultimately increase the profits of their biggest donors — the landlord and developer industries.

Serious pro-affordable housing candidates support rent stabilization, just-cause eviction laws that require landlords to justify an eviction, aggressive building code and renters’ rights enforcement and housing court reform so that courts summonses cannot be used as a weapon for landlord retaliation but as a bulwark against it. There are a range of programs to help the poor while building moderately priced housing for our community workforce. But with nearly 40 percent of county residents now living in rental housing, a figure up from about 24 percent in 2008 and still growing, voters need to ask candidates what they really mean by “affordable housing” and what costs we will face by failing to support policies that protect us all.