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Too Few Affordable Homes

Potomac isn't hospitable to affordable housing.

County Council came close to shipping the Master Plan back to the Planning Board this week, over affordable housing.

"If you want to have affordable housing in Potomac, we have to have innovative strategies," said Marlene Michaelson, County Council's Senior Legislative Analyst during a Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee worksession on the Potomac Master Plan, Jan. 22.

"Either we have full compliance with the Housing policy which will warrant remanding the Plan, or, if you can live with the Plan making tradeoffs with some policies, — for instance, environmental protection — then I recommend a section of the Plan be added to suggest creative options for what Potomac can do."

Limited transit services, high-priced land, low-density zoning and no access to sewer, all make affordable housing difficult in Potomac, said Michaelson.

However, the county's housing policy approved by the county executive urges the county to locate affordable housing wherever and whenever possible, and to spread it throughout the county.

"We have said that we want housing to be up front and center from now on," said Councilmember Derick Berlage (D-5). "It seems to me that we should make this Plan address this and also to say that this area makes it difficult."

The PHED committee, which will make recommendations on the entire Master Plan to the full Council in February, deferred further discussion on the affordable housing policy within the Master Plan to next week's worksession, scheduled for Monday, Jan. 28 at 2:30 p.m.

"I would like the Master Plan to say, because of the high cost of land, because of environmental constraints, and because of limited transportation services, it will be difficult for the county to meet affordable housing goals in the Potomac Subregion," said Berlage.

Although the PHED committee will revisit the issue next Monday, there seemed to be consensus to take out the following language from the Master Plan on page 37:

"Site requirements for affordable housing parallel those for senior housing. Because of the nature of the subregion, not every acceptable site will meet all of those criteria. Ideal locations include sites:

* in or adjacent to activity centers

* planned as mixed-use centers

* well served by public transportation

* convenient to shopping, medical offices, and other services and amenities

* located in priority funding areas and areas served by public water and sewer."

"In Potomac, it may be impossible to find sites that meet … all the criteria and no site should be excluded when considering sites," said Michaelson.

"Either we want affordable housing or we don't want affordable housing, but why would we restrict ourselves," said Steve Silverman (D-At-Large), council president. "Is the assumption that people in affordable housing don't have cars?"

Next Monday, the PHED committee will discuss land acquisitions and school surplus sites, such as those on Brickyard Road. The Planning Board discussed the school surplus sites on Brickyard Road as possible sites for elderly and affordable housing during its worksessions on the Master Plan, but did not recommend it because of distance from shopping centers and the lack of public transportation.

Potomac and Darnestown both have slightly more Moderately Priced Dwelling Units than the county average. The subregion has 1,288 of the county’s 10,600 affordable units developed under the MPDU program, which requires some affordable housing to be included in any new development of more than 49 homes.

As of January 2000, the Potomac subregion contains approximately 800 of the county's 15,600 government subsidized or mandated affordable housing units. Government funded low-income complexes include Chelsea Towers, 22 units; Lakeview House, 151 units for the elderly; Magruder's Discovery, 134 units; and Scotland, 65 units, all in the Potomac Planning Area. In addition, Potomac has 69 scattered site units.

Ideas the PHED committee discussed and will continue to discuss next week include:

* Directing the Housing Opportunities Commission and the Department of Housing and Community Affairs to acquire the maximum number of new and existing Moderately Priced Dwelling Units in Potomac for rent or for resale as affordable housing.

* Giving priority consideration to development of affordable housing on appropriately located publicly owned land that is proposed for reuse or sale.

* Designing a program to set aside land in larger subdivisions for affordable, senior and special needs housing.

* Giving priority consideration to the Potomac Subregion in the distribution of public financial support for affordable housing, in view of the difficulty of achieving this housing in the Subregion.

"Of the four, the first is the most important," said Callum Murray, of Planning Board staff.

"Failure to give options in the Plan is a defect of the Plan. The problem is we have an area we acknowledge that we don't want more density in, so we're trapped," said Berlage.