Some of the most affordable rental housing in Bethesda is on the way out and Montgomery County Councilmembers can’t seem to agree on how to create more.
On Hampden Lane, 12 rental units that run from $1,150 to $2,405 a month will be replaced by The Lauren, which has announced its pending arrival with signs on the property that proclaim the luxury condo will be offering “Residences from the several millions.”
On Battery Lane, four garden-style apartment buildings have been approved for new zoning which would allow property owner Glen Aldon to raze the buildings and build three new, likely more expensive ones on the land.
On Tuesday, Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda) moved to table a bill that would have given tax breaks to developers who offer at least 25 percent affordable housing units in their projects. The county requirement is 12.5 percent.
That caused the sponsor of the bill, Councilmember Nancy Floreen, to question the Council’s commitment to affordable housing. Floreen introduced the bill in 2011.
“This is the sort of thing that makes me very angry,” Floreen said. “I’m sitting here with eight other colleagues, who time and time again, in every other context that involves not making a decision say they’re all for affordable housing. But when it comes time to actually do something we can come up with reasons. Everyone is very smart. Everyone wants to think some more.
“This has been before us for a year-and-a-half, so to suggest that we’re rushing to judgement is breathtaking,” Floreen said. “I just got to say, ‘Fine, be who you are,’ but I think it’s outrageous that my colleagues will not take any action on this.”
The Montgomery County Council today unanimously passed a bill that will make officials assess whether affordable housing can be added to new capital projects such as libraries or fire stations.
The bill, proposed last year by Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac), is meant to encourage one of the wealthiest counties in the country to provide more affordable housing on its own land.
Berliner, when asked about the lack of affordable housing for young people at a town hall meeting last week, said he envisions the assessment will lead to convenient pairings of new library facilities with three or four floors of affordable housing for seniors.
“We have wonderful libraries, tucked away in places far from residents,” Berliner said. “We need a lot of senior affordable housing, not just housing for young people. It’s a hard place to live when you’re on retirement. Seniors and libraries are such an obviously good fit.”
Berliner again referenced an affordable housing project on top of a new fire station in Alexandria at today’s Council session.
“The irony of course is our community is obviously well-to-d0. It makes it harder to do affordable housing,” Berliner said last week. “There is no silver bullett. That’s not going to dramatically change the equation.”
The measure was amended to allow routine maintenance projects of existing county buildings to go through without the affordable housing assessment. The Council will determine whether a county executive-proposed project is worthy of an exemption. The county executive will do the same of Council-proposed projects seeking exemptions.
Photo via Builder Blog
The residents of the Willard apartments in Chevy Chase have faced a pair of five percent rent increases since last fall, and they are unhappy Montgomery County’s voluntary guideline for a 2.8 percent rent increase last year seemed to go unnoticed.
A few dozen Willard residents made up a group of about 150 renters who met Monday night in Bethesda as part of the emerging Montgomery County Renters Alliance. They heard from and questioned state and local leaders on how to establish some form of rent stabilization and other measures to protect renters.
They heard back that despite figures showing renters make up 30 percent of the county’s population, politicians in Annapolis and Rockville rarely hear from organizations arguing on their behalf.
“All of the good sentiment in the world isn’t going to mean anything unless we’re organized on a daily basis. Landlords, god bless them, have lobbyists that are in Annapolis every single day of the 90-day session,” said State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Silver Spring-Takoma Park). “There are issues that affect apartment owners every single day there and there are issues that affect the tenants every single day there but we don’t have an organized lobbying presence of the tenants.”
County Council President Roger Berliner today introduced a bill that would require the county to assess whether affordable housing could be attached to any capital project.
Berliner referenced an affordable housing development on top of a new fire station in Alexandria, Va., as an example of the type of project that could result from the legislation.
Montgomery County has made increasing the amount of affordable and workforce housing for an increasing population of working class and elderly residents a policy goal. But some have questioned whether the county is gaining any traction in the effort.
In September, the Council approved a zoning change on Battery Lane that will allow the apartment owner there to rebuild what are widely known as some of the most affordable units in Bethesda into three high-rise buildings with the required 12.5 percent of moderately-priced dwelling units or MPDUs.
The apartments, while significantly cheaper than the average Bethesda rental rate, are more expensive than affordable housing rates. Still, Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park, said approving the Battery Lane rezoning and risking an increase in the apartment rates was not consistent with the county’s affordable housing policy.
Berliner hopes his bill, which has broad Council support, would serve as a promotion tool of that policy.
“This is intended to just bring a certain discipline and a certain realness to the situation,” said Berliner. “It doesn’t demand [affordable housing.] It doesn’t require it. But it requires a look at it.”
He encouraged the county to look at building affordable housing for the elderly as part of Library construction or renovation projects, citing the popularity of the county’s libraries with senior residents.
A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Jan. 17.
A discussion of apartment owner Glen Aldon’s proposal for three new apartment buildings on Battery Lane turned into a debate on best affordable housing practices. The four- and five-story red brick buildings just west of Woodmont Avenue have long featured some of Bethesda’s cheapest housing, though they technically cost more than current workforce housing rates.
Typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the current Battery Lane apartments is less than $1,700. In August, according to one real estate website, the average rental rate in Bethesda for a two-bedroom was more than $2,300. The average rental rate for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,775.
In a 7-1 roll call vote, the Council approved recommendations by Hearing Board Examiner Lynn Robeson that will allow for owners to pursue three new high-rise buildings with 692 total units and 41 moderately-priced housing units, (MPDUs) controlled rent apartments that exceed the County mandated 12.5 percent affordable housing rate for new developments.
Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) questioned Robeson’s argument that many of the current tenants on Battery Lane were doctors or professionals that could afford higher rents in newer buildings. She cited Battery Lane’s proximity to NIH, just to the north, and the Bethesda Central Business District, to the south, as evidence that people of higher incomes were attracted to the location despite the age of the buildings.
“We don’t have any evidence either way about who lives in the building. How many doctors can you point out and how many who aren’t doctors can you point out,” Elrich said. “I don’t think the case is made on either side of this. I think there’s value in maintaining supply. We are clearly going to lose a supply of affordable housing.
“I don’t see this as a reflection of good housing policy,” Elrich said. “I think it bodes ill for the rest of Battery Lane. I just think we’re kind of operating in a wishful thinking mode here.”
Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) voted for the proposal, but also questioned whether it was consistent with the county’s goal of “no net loss” of affordable housing units in new apartment developments.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult to achieve,” Leventhal said. “I can believe buildings like these have reached the end of their useful life. They need renovations. They’re relatively affordable and they will go away and they will be replaced by more desirable housing and they will be more expensive.”
County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) cited Glen Aldon’s track record in providing cheaper housing as a reason to rule in its favor.
The company wants to build three buildings on where the 4857, 4858, 4890 and 4900 Battery Lane buildings currently stand.
“Now they want to increase the number of units and they’ve expressed an interest in continuing their approach,” Riemer said. “We can’t guarantee that they will, but they have a track record of doing that, whereas if they wanted to sell tomorrow they could certainly do that.”