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Along the Purple Line, worries that new transit will bring higher rents

Affordable housing advocates say they want to prevent the gentrification that often follows new transit stations

The Purple Line is under construction in late December at the intersection of Wayne Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway in Silver Spring. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Even as most construction on Maryland’s Purple Line stalled for the past 16 months, a group of academics, housing advocates, companies and nonprofits has continued to try to prevent the rail line from pricing out the residents and businesses it is intended to serve.

Leaders of the Purple Line Corridor Coalition, which operates out of the University of Maryland, say the lull in major construction since the project’s prime contractor quit in September 2020 has granted more time to try to ward off the fast-rising rents that typically follow new transit stations. The concern is particularly acute for areas along the rail alignment that have remained relatively affordable in eastern Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“The big hope is that the line is an effective transportation option for people,” said coalition member David Bowers, of Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing nonprofit. “The bigger hope is beyond the tracks — that the opportunities it brings are shared equitably among folks along the corridor. … We don’t want to look up one year after the Purple Line opens and see they’re gone.”

Coalition members say they want the Purple Line to help revitalize communities while avoiding the kind of gentrification-fueled displacements seen around Metro stations in the District’s U Street Corridor and Columbia Heights. Doing so, they say, requires addressing the potentially harmful effects of economic development that new transit lines are designed to attract — years before the line opens.

The Purple Line initially was scheduled to open in March 2022, but the $2.25 billion project is several years behind schedule.

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“You really need to start early if you want to get ahead of what we see happening in the D.C. region and beyond,” coalition director Sheila Somashekhar said. “Sometimes when you invest in communities, it doesn’t benefit the people who have been there a long time. … We’re already seeing rents rising along the [Purple Line] corridor in areas that, in some ways, are the last bastions of affordability in our region.”

In addition to nonprofits and the private sector, the group includes planners and public officials from both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as research support from the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education. The work differs from other attempts to preserve and create affordable housing and commercial space, members say, because of its public-private community approach and broad scale, covering a 16-mile corridor outside the nation’s capital.

“This is a chance to be really pioneering,” said Gerrit Knaap, the center’s director and the coalition’s founder. “I think we’re breaking new ground and providing a model for how this can get done collaboratively.”

At most immediate risk, advocates say, are small businesses, many of them immigrant-owned, that could go under before the line opens. Many have struggled during the pandemic at the same time that Purple Line work has ripped up roads outside their front doors and consumed customers’ on-street parking. Since the lead contractor quit over cost disputes with the state, most Purple Line construction sites have lain dormant, but crews have continued to dig up roads and close lanes to move utility lines.

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Elizabeth Lakew said she had to close her Danny Hair Studio and Silver Spring Beauty Supply store on Bonifant Street in downtown Silver Spring for four months at the start of the pandemic. It’s been difficult to convince customers to return, she said, when part of Bonifant remains blocked and limited to one-way traffic for utility work. The beauty supply store lost its on-street parking, while noise from digging often is so loud that she has to take phone calls in the back of the store, she said.

While Lakew said she’s concerned that her rents will increase after the Purple Line opens, she’s more worried about being able to pay now. She said she’s several months behind on her store rent and a month late on the salon’s.

“We can’t pay rent because we’re not making any money,” Lakew said. “We don’t know how long we’ll be here.”

Jeremy Hinds, owner of Party Warehouse near a future Purple Line station in the Lyttonsville area of Silver Spring, said construction-related traffic delays “just tanked our business.” Many customers who avoided the area’s worst backups during work on a nearby bridge have yet to return, he said.

Hinds said he hopes having a Purple Line station nearby ultimately helps his family business of 27 years — if he can afford to stay.

“I hope it pays off,” he said, “but if the rent goes up, that’s a big question mark, for sure.”

Suburbs seeking transit look for ways to prevent residents from being priced out

The coalition is supporting small-business owners during construction by helping them ramp up social media marketing, apply for government financial aid and participate in public promotions that encourage residents to patronize Purple Line-area businesses.

The Montgomery council recently approved $230,000 in grants, funded by state money, for county businesses hurt by Purple Line construction. Businesses also can apply for another $2 million in state aid.

Some business advocates say they worry the worst is yet to come. Full construction, which started in 2017, is expected to resume this spring, assuming the state approves a new contract with a recently selected replacement construction team.

“We’ve only seen the beginning of it, and there have been so many stops and starts,” said Javier Rivas, of the Latino Economic Development Center, which assists local businesses. “That adds to the sense of fatigue and the unknown of what’s next. … It’s been bad, and it’s only going to get worse.”

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Local and state officials have long touted the economic development potential around the Purple Line’s 21 stations, particularly in older inner suburbs with lower-income residents who rely on buses. Light-rail, they say, will provide a faster, more reliable connection to the Metro system and increase mass transit access to jobs.

But Purple Line communities between Metro stations — such as the Long Branch area of Silver Spring, Langley Park and Riverdale — also are most vulnerable to rising rents, experts say, because new light-rail stations will make them more attractive to developers.

“I’m not too worried about Bethesda and College Park,” said Knaap, who also teaches urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland. “The rise in rents is much more likely to occur between Metro stations because that’s where the accessibility is going to change. … Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park and New Carrollton already have good transit access.”

The coalition hopes to maintain at least 17,000 homes in the Purple Line corridor that are considered affordable for households earning $70,000 or less annually, in part via a $10 million loan fund for community groups that create or preserve affordable housing. In addition to helping people continue to live in the area, housing advocates say, stable rents allow residents to save for a home, a key way to build wealth.

Montgomery, Prince George's reach deal to preserve affordable housing along Purple Line

George Leventhal, of Kaiser Permanente, said the health insurance company recently contributed $5 million to the loan fund and participates in the coalition because of the link between affordable housing and wellness.

“You can’t expect a patient to be medically compliant if the patient doesn’t have a medicine cabinet or refrigerator,” said Leventhal, a longtime Purple Line supporter and former Montgomery council member. “If you’re thinking ‘Where am I going to stay tonight?’ going to see the doctor is way down on your list of human survival needs.”

Bowers, the affordable housing advocate, said the coalition can help nonprofit developers buy apartment buildings and preserve lower rents. Governments can help finance lower-cost or rent-restricted housing via tax credits and require that some lower-income units be included in new housing developments, he said.

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Coalition members say affordable housing ties into a bigger challenge: preserving the culture of communities like Langley Park. The area along University Boulevard, known as Maryland’s International Corridor, is home to one of the Washington region’s largest Latino communities and dozens of pupuserias, Central American bakeries and supermarkets that sell piñatas alongside tortillas.

“Something that gets forgotten is neighborhood identity and neighborhood vibrancy,” Rivas said.

Jorge Sactic, owner of Chapina Bakery in Langley Park, said he could start making doughnuts and bagels to complement his specialty Guatemalan breads if his clientele changes. But he worries many residents in the area, including those who cram into apartments to share rent costs, will be priced out. If they leave, he said, so too will the Spanish-speaking businesses that rely on them.

“The Purple Line will have benefits,” Sactic said, “but how good is it going to be if we can’t enjoy it because we can’t afford to stay?”