Thrive Montgomery 2050 fails to protect affordable housing. Ironically, this is being done in the name of building more affordable housing. Well, sort of. Affordable housing means housing for those at the lowest income levels, either regulated by the county or naturally occurring. Thrive has noticeably evolved away from focusing on “affordable” to “attainable”, with the latter meaning more units but not necessarily an increase in affordable units.
Thrive doesn’t worry about protecting existing affordable places to live. The idea is that tearing down currently affordable buildings isn’t a problem because they will be replaced by new buildings that will contain a greater number of affordable units.
There are major problems with this logic. For a start, the new buildings don’t necessarily have to contain more affordable units. In Bethesda, Brown/Aldon is tearing down 477 naturally occurring affordable apartments on Battery Lane. The new set of buildings, planned over the next 15 years, will include 1530 new units but only 306 MPDUs (moderately priced dwelling units). As a result, the project will cause a net loss of 171 affordable units—and that’s generously counting the MPDUs which are geared towards those earning 60-80% of area median income, not the lowest income.
So we’ll experience a net loss in affordable housing—in the middle of an area where everyone agrees we could use more of it. Under this logic, often we will be destroying existing naturally occurring affordable units for very little or no gain in regulated affordable units, and an increased number of more expensive units.
Thrive proponents even want to pay developers with our tax dollars to tear down existing buildings and build denser in the name of affordable housing. If there is sufficient demand, why do we need to bribe them to build it? And why should we financially aid the destruction of existing affordable housing?
Bribing developers to do something the market is telling us doesn’t make sense is a waste of money. It is a one-off “solution” that provides no guarantee that more housing, and especially affordable housing, will follow. Yet that won’t prevent councilmembers who would chuck our taxes away from pointing to the building as a great new accomplishment.
The most inequitable part of all this, however, is the total lack of consideration for the current residents of existing affordable housing. Renters get thrown out of their homes, so the new building can be built. But finding new affordable housing in desirable locations is difficult, and many will experience major dislocation and need to move much further away. In some cases, the County will literally be paying builders to do projects that will throw low-income residents out in the name of affordable housing.
Thrive should be modified to protect existing affordable housing. Let’s encourage new building, including with MPDUs, in areas without it. We shouldn’t cannibalize our existing stock of affordable housing and dislocate people in this chimera of progress.