Montgomery County's new general plan ignites debate over race and affordability Thrive Montgomery 2050, the county's proposed new master plan, is alienating residents who worry it foretells the end of suburbia.
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Montgomery County's new general plan ignites debate over race and affordability

A new proposed general plan in Montgomery County, Md., supports the idea of allowing more duplexes and small apartment buildings in some single-family neighborhoods. The proposal has prompted furious opposition from many homeowners. Payton Chung/https://www.flickr.com/photos/paytonc/33489409198/ hide caption

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Payton Chung/https://www.flickr.com/photos/paytonc/33489409198/

Over the last several decades, Montgomery County, Maryland has evolved from a majority-white bedroom community to a diverse, densely populated urban-suburb. But as officials make a plan for the next 30 years, residents are deeply divided over what the county's future should look like.

The Montgomery County Council is preparing to vote on a final version of Thrive Montgomery 2050, an update to the jurisdiction's 52-year-old general plan that has been in the works since 2018. Planners say the blueprint will guide the county's future decision-making on housing development, transit, environmental resilience, and other key policy areas for the next three decades.

But a foundational policy outlined in the plan — a proposal to open up some single-family neighborhoods to a mix of housing types, such as duplexes and triplexes — has ignited furious opposition. Neighborhood associations and homeowners have published op-eds, approved resolutions, started petitions, waged comment wars on social media and online forums, and submitted public testimony raising alarm about what they believe "upzoning" could do to their neighborhoods. Some worry the plan will raise property taxes and worsen traffic congestion; others spread unfounded rumors about a "social engineering" plot to wipe out single-family homes and replace them with low-income apartments.

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What does Thrive say about housing?

A draft version of Montgomery County's updated master plan makes several housing and development policy proposals, including:

  • Focusing growth in downtowns, town centers, rural villages, and activity centers along major transportation corridors
  • Building "complete communities" that include housing, retail, and office development and allow "15-minute living"
  • Encouraging more housing of all kinds, especially near transit, through zoning changes and incentives
  • Investing in subsidized affordable housing, especially for low-income households
  • Preserving existing affordable housing

Some opponents of Thrive are expected to rally outside the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission's headquarters in Wheaton during Thursday's planning board meeting.

County planners have attempted to correct inaccuracies circulating online about Thrive, but their efforts are often met with suspicion or conspiracy theories. "The level of misinformation is pretty extraordinary," said Gwen Wright, the county's director of planning, in an October meeting.

County Executive Marc Elrich has egged on the opposition, sometimes spreading misinformation himself. In public comments made to the planning board last year, he warned that adopting Thrive would give lawmakers carte blanche to phase out single-family zoning and set off a storm of new, expensive development countywide. The council has not proposed eliminating single-family zoning, though Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At Large) has introduced legislation that would allow more density in neighborhoods within a mile of a Metro stations. Lawmakers have not yet voted on the bill.

The ideas outlined in Thrive reflect policies now gaining ground in cities and suburbs across the U.S. as housing prices rise and climate change sets in. They emphasize building walkable communities, encouraging alternatives to driving, investing in subsidized affordable housing, and selectively introducing denser residential development in transit-adjacent neighborhoods where it's now illegal to build anything other than single-family homes. The blueprint itself wouldn't make any zoning changes; land use decisions are made by the council through a separate legislative process.

Montgomery County is projected to add 200,000 new residents by 2045, but approximately 85% of the county's land is already built out, according to the planning department. Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, calls Thrive a pragmatic response to population growth, development constraints, and swelling home costs.

"Thrive is based on the idea that we cannot simply preserve existing housing and hope that it's going to maintain affordability. We need to increase supply, or ultimately there's no way to constrain prices," he says.

That proposition has provoked blowback that seems to intensify by the week.

The affordability question

The 132-year-old neighborhood of Woodside, near downtown Silver Spring, is in many ways an ideal candidate for more housing. Its attractive bungalows, brick homes, and spacious townhouses are located a short walk from the Silver Spring Metro, with buses running all day on nearby Georgia Avenue. The popular Woodside Urban Park sits at the southern end of the neighborhood, and Whole Foods is less than a mile away.

Woodside is also fertile ground for anti-Thrive activism.

The Silver Spring neighborhood of Woodside is at the center of a debate over zoning and diversity in Montgomery County. Ally Schweitzer/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Ally Schweitzer/DCist/WAMU

Bill Pierce, who has lived in Woodside since 1999, is concerned about what more density could to do his neighborhood. Strolling north on Second Avenue, the homeowner points to several single-family houses he believes would be prime targets for redevelopment.

"This whole stretch here could be part of downtown," Pierce says, gesturing toward a cluster of attractive bungalows.

Most homes on this block are assessed at more than $600,000, tax records show, and their market value is probably higher. One house on the street, assessed at $607,000, sold for $830,000 in April.

The county is studying this area as part of the Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities plan, which is separate from Thrive, but follows many of the same principles, such as encouraging density and walkability. The plan is still being revised and it's up for a vote next year. (Planners are also working on a set of recommendations for the council on how to achieve more "attainable" housing. The three plans are different efforts, but they're often conflated.) If this stretch of Second Avenue is ever rezoned to allow more density, homes that are torn down here could be replaced with duplexes or even small multifamily buildings. Because they'd be smaller than single-family homes, planners say, they could be priced lower than the homes that stand here now.

But that doesn't mean they'd be affordable to all, Pierce says.

"To buy these pieces of property, literally would cost millions," he says. "[Developers are] not going to sell these houses at a loss."

Casey Anderson with the Montgomery County Planning Board agrees. Only public subsidies can create housing for the county's most vulnerable residents, he says, but density changes could generate smaller market-rate homes that are more affordable than what's here today.

"Some of the confusion is rooted in a misunderstanding about what the alternatives are," Anderson says.

More than a third of Montgomery County's land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes. That means when an older house is torn down in those areas, it can only be replaced by another single-family home — usually one that's bigger and more expensive than what was there before, because the homebuilder must recoup the high cost of land. These so-called teardowns have become common in the county, particularly in affluent areas like Bethesda, county data show.

Teardowns will continue to proliferate if they're the only legal option, Anderson says. He calls it "straightforward math" that splitting the land's value across two or three homes, rather than one, would result in lower prices.

Pierce says there have been very few teardowns in Woodside — except for one, where he's standing right now. He points to a 6,000-square foot residence on Second Avenue that just finished construction this year. Assessed at $1.05 million, the large, modern house replaced a decaying 100-year-old home that was less than half the size. A duplex or triplex could have been built here under different zoning, but Pierce says this home fits into the neighborhood nicely.

"When the homeowner built and designed this, he worked with the president of our civic association and his neighbors just to make sure he wouldn't offend any sensibilities by building some monstrosity," Pierce says. "You can see the biggest part of it is that it has a really lovely back porch."

Zoning and segregation

Supporters of the Thrive plan say it takes an important step toward undoing decades of zoning policy that has promoted racial and economic segregation. Historically, governments in Montgomery County and elsewhere used single-family zoning laws to create racially exclusive neighborhoods, in addition to federal lending practices that barred Black residents from obtaining mortgages in communities like Woodside. Today, many of those neighborhoods remain majority white and affluent.

"[Thrive] gets into making sure that these communities aren't places that can only be accessed by people of certain incomes," says Jane Lyons with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an advocacy organization that has endorsed the recommendations in Thrive. "[We need] complete communities with amenities that can be enjoyed by people, no matter what your socioeconomic status is."

The Coalition for Smarter Growth organized the pro-Thrive group Montgomery for All, which has rallied support for the revised general plan.

Many supporters of the plan have accused its critics of NIMBYism, which stands for "Not In My Backyard." But Wheaton resident Kimblyn Persaud says that term doesn't describe Thrive opponents like her.

"I'm like, 'What are you talking about? Not in my backyard? It's already in my backyard," says Persaud, who founded the group EPIC of MoCo. The community activist has produced a stream of YouTube videos suggesting that Councilmember Hans Riemer — whose committee has been working on Thrive — and Anderson are deceiving the public about the true costs and outcomes of the plan. (Riemer is running against Elrich for county executive; businessman David Blair is also in the race.)

Persaud is worried that neighborhoods like hers, where housing costs are more moderate than they are in the county's western half, are "low-hanging fruit" for developers seeking to cash in on upzoning. If Wheaton's few remaining working-class pockets are opened up to duplexes or apartments, she says, developers will simply scoop them up and flip them into high-dollar multifamily buildings.

"We have the lowest of the lowest-income people here. We have people who actually rent space on a couch," says Persaud. "This one-size-fits-all does not fit every community in Montgomery County, and Wheaton is one of those."

Wheaton is also home to many duplexes, which tend to sell for lower prices than single-family homes in the area, according to Zillow.

Councilmember Will Jawando, who sits on the council's housing committee, shares some of Persaud's concerns. He says that's why he pushed for the plan to include even stronger language about subsidized affordable housing, as well as protections for low-income renters facing displacement. Jawando has also introduced legislation to stabilize rents around mass transit stations, in addition to his proposal to upzone transit-adjacent neighborhoods.

"A lot of the debate has focused on missing-middle housing, but that's only a small component of an overall housing strategy that we need to address the crisis," the councilmember says.

Jawando, who grew up in Long Branch, says he's sought more input on Thrive from Black residents, who make up 20% of the county's population but have been underrepresented in the plan's months-long public engagement process. When the council held two virtual public hearings on Thrive in June, nearly 90 residents testified, and only six were Black.

The councilmember convened an African-American focus group to discuss Thrive, and he plans to engage more Black leaders and residents as the blueprint works its way through the legislative process this fall and winter. He says there are certain components of the plan that would particularly affect Black residents, like its vision for growing the East County area, which is home to some of the county's only Black-majority neighborhoods.

Plus, Black residents historically have been on the receiving end of land use decisions, rather than an instrumental part of crafting them, he says.

"All too often, we hear from the squeaky wheel," Jawando says.

In the case of Thrive, the squeakiest wheels tend to be middle-aged white homeowners like Bill Pierce.

"Yep, I'm an old white guy — I'll give you that," Pierce says.

But he bristles at the suggestion that Thrive critics like him oppose racial diversity. "My wife and I came here because of diversity. Because it was a place where there's different housing and different people of all stripes," Pierce says. "When you actually look at this neighborhood and who lives here, I would guess we're not that different than the broad makeup of Montgomery County."

The census tract that contains Woodside is 55% white and 23% Black — not radically different from the county overall, which is 43% white and 19% Black, according to 2019 Census estimates.

Pierce says his biggest problem with upzoning in his neighborhood is that it would deprive current residents of the opportunity to contest new development. If the area is ever rezoned for denser housing, developers could build anything that complies with the new zoning, instead of having to seek a special exception that gives existing residents a chance to weigh in. Taking away that right is akin to voter disenfranchisement, Pierce says.

"We won't have any power anymore — no ability to negotiate with the builders. We're done. So they've taken our voice away," Pierce says. "In the world of neighborhoods and housing, it's like taking away or limiting our right to vote... and that's just wrong."

But that's the way things work now, says Casey Anderson with the planning board.

"If you live in a single-family house, you don't have to negotiate with your neighbors over whether you can build it at all, or what color you're going to paint it. So I'm not sure why your neighbors should get a vote on whether or not you can build a duplex," Anderson says.

The planning board chair adds that in a democracy, there will always be tension between individual rights and the public good, and debates over county planning are no different.

"But at some point, you have to have some balance between those two things," he says.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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