Aspiration to Own Single-Family Homes Remains Strong
Thrive Montgomery 2050, the County’s proposed long-range planning document, is being promoted by Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson as a kind of all-purpose urban planning elixir for racial justice and social equity.[i] His solution? Increase housing density with more multiple dwelling units and fewer single-family homes. The advocates of these land-use policies are fond of calling it “Smart Growth.” A better name is “Very Expensive Housing” policies.
Arguments that higher density will reduce housing costs deserve closer scrutiny. If raw land were to sell at the same prices as single-family home uses, more units on the same tract would certainly reduce costs. However, this requires ignoring the reality that land zoned for higher density also commands higher prices.
Few would confuse high-density San Francisco or Manhattan as affordable real estate markets. Nor do high-rise apartments in downtown Bethesda cost less than many single-family homes in the County.
Land values in these high-density areas are typically expressed not as a cost per acre, but as a cost per “buildable square foot.” This land is valued by dividing the maximum number of square feet allowed by zoning policy to be built on a given parcel of land.
Montgomery County’s sky-high housing costs create significant beneficiaries. Long-term owners benefit from the substantial appreciation of their homes. Some “cash-out by selling and moving to less costly communities. Others “cash-in” by borrowing against their appreciation.
However, high housing prices also produce significant burdens. According to one study, more than half of Montgomery County renters are paying too much for housing, with costs often gobbling up more than 50% of their incomes.[ii]
The County’s previous up-zoning policy changes have created winners. A decade and a half ago, the Council loosened building density and height restrictions in downtown Bethesda. Developers were allowed to build larger and taller buildings than previously allowed on a given parcel. More square footage and more floors meant high profits for developers. A Maryland Tax Education Foundation study at the time produced a conservative estimate of the wealth transfer to affluent Bethesda landowners and corporations of $100 million.[iii] As Thrive critics, including County Executive Marc Elrich, have already pointed out, higher density alone does not improve housing affordability.[iv]
The government’s response to expensive land costs has been to impose additional layers of regulation to “solve” the problems caused by their policies. Builders are expected to add non-market rate, affordable housing units to their plans. While a lucky few affordable housing lottery winners benefit, the added cost contributes to additional expenses for new construction costs.
Rather than address their faulty economic and marketplace assumptions, Thrive supporters have tried to demonize opponents, suggesting that: “the squeakiest wheels tend to be middle-aged white homeowners.”[v] The implication apparently is that aspiration for single-home ownership is limited by race.
Thrive Montgomery 2050 critics, such as Kim Persaud of EPIC of MOCO, forcefully reject this. She points out that 43% of Montgomery County African-American households are homeowners, and 49% of Hispanics.[vi]
Data from Pew Research further challenges the assumption that underpins Thrive Montgomery 2050 that a preference exists for greater density. Pew polling has found a strong aspiration for Americans to live in a community where “houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.” In recent years there has been a drop in the share, saying they would prefer to live somewhere with smaller houses that are “closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.” Racial differences are minimal. Supporting the ”bigger house, farther apart “ value proposition are Whites 63%, Blacks 60%, and Hispanics 56%. [vii]
Thrive Montgomery 2050 reflects the desire of far too many so-called experts to force other people to live the way they ought to live, rather than the way they really want to live.
[vii] Pew Research Center survey conducted July 8-18, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/08/26/more-americans-now-say-they-prefer-a-community-with-big-houses-even-if-local-amenities-are-farther-away/