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Residents, Groups Speak Out on Affordable Housing

County Council will consider proposed changes to the program starting with committee sessions next month.

Even though the County Council hearing on proposed changes to the county’s affordable housing program went on for nearly five hours until 12:08 a.m. , only a portion of those who had wanted to speak publicly on the issue were able to.

Forty-seven speakers testified Sept 23 on behalf of community, religious and business organizations on three proposed council bills, six proposed zoning text amendments and subdivision regulation amendments and on the affordable housing program as a whole.

The proposed changes — and the 4-inch thick file of testimony given at the hearing and mailed to the council — will be examined more closely by the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee next month. Council members Nancy Floreen (D-at large), Marilyn Praisner (D-4), and Steve Silverman (D-at large) make up the committee.

Floreen and Silverman sponsor council bill 24-04 while Praisner is a sponsor of 25-04. “Nothing gets killed in committee,” said Patrick Lacefield, spokesman for the county council. Rather, the committee members consider the testimony they have received, meet with experts and propose changes to the legislation before bringing it back to the whole council.

The first group of speakers — Elizabeth Davison and Lewis Bolan representing the office of the County Executive, Derick Berlage speaking on behalf of the Planning Board, Richard Nelson Jr. of the Housing Opportunities Commission, Sue Guenther of the Community Action Board and Betty Miller of the Commission on Aging—received the most attention and questions from the council.

Davison said that the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program “is still working well for the majority of situations” but that high rise rental apartments, where economics all but prohibit developers from providing MPDUs, have been the main exception to the success of the program as a whole. She also expressed concern that due to county-imposed price control periods, MPDU owners cannot use home equity to pay for college or medical expenses the way other homeowners can.

Davison also noted that “it is important to note that the MPDU program is not the only answer to the affordable housing program,” a sentiment that was echoed my many of the speakers that followed.

Planning Board Chairman Berlage applauded the council’s efforts to make housing in the county more affordable, saying that the “magnitude of the affordable housing crisis cannot be overstated.” The Planning Board recommends two major clarifications to the proposed legislation, Berlage said. “Any flexibility in development standards is conditioned on the developer agreeing to put all MPDUs on site,” and that the flexibility allowed should only be the precise amount required to generate MPDUs. “For example, if a building needs one extra story [to provide MPDUs] then the building should get one extra story and not three,” he said.

“Transparency is fundamental in public decision making,” said Ralph Bennett, speaking on behalf of the Housing Opportunities Commission. “A complicated web of overlapping and interlocking laws and regulations guide land use decisions in Montgomery County,” he said.

The proposed legislation generally advances the goal of building more affordable housing, Bennett said. He addressed several of the proposals specifically. “ZTA 04-13 has already generated considerable controversy,” he said referring to amendment that would allow developments to exceed master plan guidelines for height and density in order to build MPDUs on site. Many residents, who sign an agreement of understanding about the master plans when they buy a home, feel that allowing developments to trump the master plans is unfair and undermines the value of the plans. “HOC’s position is clear,” Bennett said. “We support using the density and height limitations contained in the zoning ordinance even if they exceed master plan or sector plan guidelines in order to achieve MPDUs on site. Each case will and should be considered individually. … We’re facing nothing less than a housing crisis. A master plan with a long time horizon cannot be expected to address issues like this as they arise and this MPDU discussion highlights that shortcoming.”

Overriding master plan guidelines is one of a handful of issues that have created the most division among officials and community members who generally agree that the county needs more affordable housing and that the current program is a good one but needs revision.

A second divisive issue is the “unbundling” of fees for amenities. In some condominium and apartment buildings, monthly amenities fees create an additional financial burden that MPDU owners or renters could not support. Some have suggested that the MPDU residents could simply be relieved of the fees — and the amenities. But critics say that that proposal could create a classist divide where children from MPDUs would have to watch as children from market units enjoyed their building’s playground or swimming pool. The council asked staff to investigate the legality of the proposal under fair housing laws.

Calls to end buyout agreements, which allow developers to make a payment to the county's Housing Initiative Fund in lieu of constructing MPDUs, also came up at the hearing. Many community groups say that the buyout prices are too low and that they undermine the affordable housing program. Council member Tom Perez (D-5) joked that he "got asthma" dusting off the bill he introduced in July that would have ended the buyouts, but several speakers said they had not forgotten the bill and continued to support it.

At the same time, the affordable housing changes stir up a familiar issue: the concern that wealthier suburbs like Potomac and Bethesda get preferential treatment.

"For the person that made reference to not wanting to support MPDUs on the larger lots to support our pristine rural nature," said Robert Stewart of the Montgomery County Government Employees Ogranization, "if that was a code word for everybody else in ... Silver Spring, Takoma Park gets affordable housing but Potomac doesn't, our union is very much in opposition to that mindset. We think affordable housing ought to be … dispersed throughout the county."