Quiet way to mix rich with poor Montgomery marks 22 years of success

November 05, 1995|By C. Fraser Smith

WHILE Baltimore plans to dynamite more of its high-rise public housing projects, Montgomery County quietly celebrates 22 years of housing policy that puts poor families in ground-floor dwellings within blocks of the rich.

While the federal courts and housing experts decry the government-assisted ghettoization of America's poor, Montgomery happily pays community association dues for public housing tenants in 150 different neighborhoods.

Since 1973, when the county began to require a mix of low-, moderate- and high-priced housing in new developments, more than 9,000 moderately priced dwelling units, called MPDUs, have been constructed. Some 1,100 public housing units were constructed at the same time -- so smoothly as to be unnoticeable to the untutored.

The policy has achieved its objective: making space available in one of America's wealthiest counties for police officers, firefighters, schoolteachers, government employees and first-time homebuyers who might otherwise be forced to live far from their county jobs.

Developers and others opposed the policy when it was introduced in the early 1970s, though the era was more open than now to "liberal" ideas. Today the policy is held up as a model for other areas, including the Baltimore region -- proof, according to its advocates, that a county can make way for lower-paid and poor residents.

These accommodations have been made without noticeable increases in the crime rate, without disruption of schools -- and without lowering property values, according to a variety of sources.

In his recently published book "Baltimore Unbound," David Rusk offers Montgomery's system as proof that poor families are not disruptive forces if they are widely scattered in healthy suburban communities.

With widely hailed foresight and political courage, political leaders in Montgomery encouraged developers to go along with the scheme by giving them relief from so-called density regulations, the zoning laws that establish the number of units that can be built on an acre of land.

No one contends that all of this occurred without controversy or that the controversy has ended. Norman Christeller, a former county councilman who championed the program, recalls an exchange during a debate more than 20 years ago, before the ordinance was passed.

"If you have your way," he told one of his opponents, "your children [and other first-time buyers] won't be able to live here."

"If we have County Council members like you," came the instant reply, "I wouldn't want them to."

Allowing a few more units in each new development has made money available for land and construction sufficient to house many lower-income families and the poor.

"My impression," says Del. Nancy K. Kopp, Democrat of Montgomery, "is that it's worked quite well in a community like Montgomery, especially in the 1970s and 1980s when we were growing a lot and there was money to be made. There was a commitment to a diverse community."

At the same time, she points out, the Montgomery plan was not aimed at the typical big city housing tenant: a poor, single-parent family with assorted social problems. Cost: one-tenth of 1 percent

Mr. Rusk argues that the Baltimore region could easily afford to pursue such a policy and add 500 public housing units and 1,000 moderately priced dwelling units a year: The cost would be $50 million to $60 million a year -- about one-tenth of 1 percent of the total personal income in the region.

His book was published in the same week that Baltimore officials announced a settlement that could send 1,300 public housing tenants from the city to new accommodations in Baltimore County. County officials, left out of the negotiations, reacted with anger and sought legal advice.

Baltimore County Republican Rep. Robert H. Ehrlich Jr. said Thursday that House GOP leaders had agreed to insert language into the appropriations bill for the Department of Housing and Urban Development that will "defund the settlement."

Baltimore officials backed the court ruling but opposed the proposals by Mr. Rusk, a contradiction apparently explained by the potential loss of political control.

Cost: one-tenth od 1 percent

Mr. Rusk calls for a metropolitan-area-wide governmental entity to plan and control the dispersion of poor families on the theory that they would fare better in neighborhoods with less social pathology -- and bring fewer problems with them.

Against these developments, the Montgomery policy acquires immediate significance. Could it be a model for the Baltimore region?

Maryland's former housing chief, Jacqueline Rogers, says the Montgomery County program provides an ideal alternative to the current chaos and to court orders over which local officials might have no control.

In Montgomery, she says, "Concentrations of very poor people are so low that there is no community impact. Families flourish. Their children go to good schools. Social norms are adhered to. There is no increased crime income. You have to have a rigorous housing authority."

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