Sunday, February 26, 2012

Montgomery County More Expensive Than NYC & San Francisco // Fighting All Development Not Always Progressive or Green

INTRO: Montgomery County's population today is growing and changing in ways that make the once racially homogenous county one of the most diverse places in the region. This will have an impact on policy and politics for decades to come -- but in the meantime, policymakers will have to grapple with new priorities, new challenges, and new types of competition. Below we discuss a few aspects of this shift:
  1. MoCo's New Face: 46% Black/Asian/Hispanic
  2. MoCo Is More Expensive than NYC & San Francisco
  3. MoCo Needs to Attract Young People & Families

MoCo's New Face: A few weeks ago, the Montgomery County Taxpayers League hosted a discussion with the county's Planning Board Chair Rolling Stanley. The event was centered on the changing demographics of MoCo and how government services are delivered. Here is summary snapshot of some key stats from Mr. Stanley's presentation, which highlights the new face of MoCo compared to our neighbors:

MoCo More Expensive than NYC & San Francisco: As Montgomery County becomes more diverse, it is also becoming an exceedingly expensive place to try and survive. The Gaithersburg Patch recently reported that MoCo is now a more expensive place to live than NYC & San Francisco -- two locations that are famous for their high costs of living:
GAITHERSBURG PATCH: Families with young children in Montgomery County must earn at least $64,000 a year just to cover their basic needs without government aid -- about a 50 percent increase over the past decade that makes the county more expensive for working families than New York City and San Francisco, a new study says.

The study was done by University of Washington researchers, who calculated a "self-sufficiency standard" for each county based on family make-up and the local cost of housing, food, childcare, transportation, taxes and other essentials.

An adult with a preschooler needs to earn $64,606 a year or $30.59 an hour in order to be economically secure without public or private assistance. That goes up to $77,933 annually or $36.90 an hour if a school-age child is added. The same size household could get by with about $4 an hour less in New York City and about $2 less in San Francisco....

Demand has increased for county programs to help make up the gap between wages and the costs of basic needs. The number of families enrolled in the food stamp program more than doubled....

[Councilmember Valerie] Ervin said the budget has been cut over the last five years because revenue from taxes -- especially property taxes -- has decreased. Local governments rely on property taxes to fund their budgets....

Montgomery County planning director Rollin Stanley said in his blog earlier this month that many people in poverty are employed -- some work part time and others full time, and some have high education levels.

MoCo Needs to Attract Young People & Families: As MoCo strives to attract high-earning professionals, local blogger Dan Reed from Just Up the Pike argues that the county needs to be doing more to attract young people & families. Maryland Juice agrees with his thesis and thinks that this sort of cultural marketing and housing price-point issue is one of the greatest challenges facing MoCo. In a series of posts, Reed highlights several aspects to this problem:
Seriously, MoCo really needs young people to stick around

According to the Planning Department, Montgomery County has 15% fewer adults between the ages of 15 and 24 than we did in 2000. There are 17% fewer 25-to-34 year olds, along with 20% fewer 35-to-44 year olds. The first two age groups belong to the Millennials (or Echo Boomers or Generation Y, whichever you prefer). As I've said before, we're now the largest generation in American history, due to being the kids of the Baby Boomers, America's previous largest generation. Yet their ranks in MoCo have swelled over the past 10 years, while my cohort has shrunk.

Why is this?

Some of my readers didn't agree with my post last June about my newlywed friends who grew up in Montgomery County then moved elsewhere in the region. A lot of people didn't like my post last week about the difficulty of finding housing in MoCo for Millennials, which now has over 200 comments on Greater Greater Washington. But these things are connected. Montgomery County is an expensive place to live, and some of us (like my friends) have found that neighboring communities have more jobs, cheaper housing, and more stuff to do.

But if 30% of the county's population is over 65, as the Planning Department estimates will happen by 2030, we're not going to be able to manage. If we want the county to continue prospering, we have to draw young people.

"What" draws young people is pretty simple: Jobs, reasonably priced housing, short commutes, proximity to shopping and entertainment, and increasingly, neighborhoods where you can walk/bike/take transit instead of driving.

CONCLUSION: There are many reasons why it seems like MoCo often misses opportunities to reposition itself or plan for the future. At least part of this is due to the political culture that predominated in the County for many years. That has changed rapidly, as a pro-transit super-majority now exists in the county. Nevertheless, one can often point to vocal pockets of resistance to good projects. As Dan Reed points out in his latest post, one reason for this is that for years, many MoCo progressives have conflated practically all development with pro-corporate (read: bad) policies:
JUST UP THE PIKE: Takoma Park has long been known for their civic activism, dating back to the freeway fighters that stopped I-95 and I-270 from cutting through the area forty years ago. But that culture could prevent their community from allowing good changes to happen.

Writing in Utne Reader, the same publication that once called Montgomery County the "Most Enlightened Suburb," Alex Steffen notes that Takoma Park's progressive politics prevent it from being truly progressive (emphasis mine):
One of the most unfortunate side effects of the urban activism of the ’60s and ’70s is the belief that development is wrong and that fighting it makes you an environmentalist. We know that dense cities are both environmentally better and dramatically more equitable places. Walkable neighborhoods are better than the suburbs for people with a wide range of incomes, and what happens in cities that don't grow is that they gentrify and poor people are pushed out. Trying to fight change makes you less sustainable and more unfair....
Well-designed urban infill development in places like Old Town Takoma can get people out of their cars and bring customers to the area's struggling local businesses, which presumably are progressive ideals. Not allowing development to happen effectively enables all of the things progressives say they don't want, like more driving, more gentrification, more suburban sprawl and more destruction of farmland.

Those who know Maryland Juice's politics know that I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that environmentalism and progressive politics today go hand-in-hand with an understanding and embrace of transit-oriented development, urban infill, and expanding metro access to as many as possible. I would clarify, however, that at least some of the progressives who continue to fight smart growth development are often well-intentioned -- they just haven't all caught up to the radically different social justice and environmental considerations that have emerged today. Additionally, in past decades, many of their complaints would have been valid -- and many of the battles against unchecked development and highway growth may have been wise. But that doesn't change that today, DC's adjacent metro-served communities are commodities for our regional environment -- not just the immediately surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, one can already witness the greenfield development pressure up the I-270 corridor -- stretching into Frederick County (where English is now the "official language" -- whatever that means). In a very real way, constraining growth near transit in Montgomery County has a very real effect on plowing over farmland in Maryland.

As Greater Greater Washington recently pointed out -- failing to embrace change can lead to extremely unjust results. The smart growth bloggers point to the lessons in Munich Germany:
Height limit = high prices in one city: Gentrification is pricing the poor AND the middle class out of Munich. A height limit, which limits the amount of housing, is one contributing factor. (International, Erik W)

Where will we go from here?

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