Boarding houses for addicts, the poor assailed But Montgomery council OKs them as shelter

March 02, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

With their shared bathrooms and hot-plate kitchens, an updated version of boarding houses has become popular shelter for the working poor and recovering addicts. Just don't tell that to the people of Montgomery County.

County officials recently approved a measure that permits developers to build Montgomery's first boarding houses -- called personal living quarters -- in business districts and areas zoned for apartments.

But, in a departure from their county's progressive reputation, residents of Montgomery's urban communities are organizing against PLQs, as they are called, labeling them substandard housing that would draw the region's poor and drain local services.

"These are flophouses," said Blair Lee, former lobbyist for Montgomery County and a real estate developer. "Only Montgomery County puts up a sign saying, 'Give me your poor, your huddled masses.' "

The Coordinating Committee to Repeal PLQs, a coalition of community associations and business organizations, hopes to pressure the County Council to reconsider its unanimous vote.

Getting the council to backtrack is not likely, acknowledges Mark Ruppert, executive director of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. But he believes the same thing can be accomplished by opposing each PLQ as it is proposed.

Housing advocates and nonprofit groups in older cities have turned to dormitory-style dwellings because low construction costs translate into low rents. Baltimore has a number of them, including Paca House, a 106-unit combination of single rooms and efficiency apartments that opened late last year.

Opponents in Montgomery say boarding houses are fine for cities but have no place in the suburbs.

Perhaps what frightens opponents more than the quality of the PLQs is the potential quantity. Many people fear that the first units will be targeted for one of the empty office buildings in downtown Silver Spring, a blighted area of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings that has the highest commercial vacancy rate in Montgomery County.

The Montgomery measure permits a boarding house of up to 500 rooms, with one or two people to a unit depending on the square footage. PLQs of 50 or more rooms would need a special exception from the county Board of Appeals.

Montgomery Housing Partnership, a nonprofit group that provides shelter for the elderly and working poor, estimates that the county needs 500 to 1,000 rooms.

"An old office building is the easiest thing to convert," said Cynthia Rubenstein, a member of the Silver Spring Advisory Council. "I don't think anyone will be building any new buildings."

Opponents point to two signs they say are troubling. During the County Council's hearing on PLQs in January 1996, members discussed using buildings that had "no other viable economic use." And a December staff memo to the County Council notes that a project requiring a special exception "would need at least 50 units to be economically feasible. Additionally, at least 50 units would be necessary to make the common features feasible."

County officials say the PLQ opponents are overlooking the potential to attract high-end renters such as federal government workers on assignment; executives visiting their home offices; and college graduates in their first jobs.

"Give me a break," counters Lee. "What executive shares a bathroom? This is low-end housing. [Prince George's] is limiting townhouses because they think it attracts the poor. Baltimore is blowing up its low-income housing projects and sending the poor to suburbia. We are out of step with other jurisdictions."

Rubenstein warned that if developers of low-income housing think they can avoid controversy by bypassing Silver Spring for another community, they are wrong.

In Friendship Heights, a tony high-rise community, and in Chevy Chase, with its housing prices pushing $1 million, neighborhood groups also have expressed objections.

Rubenstein said that if Silver Spring is successful in turning away PLQs, other communities should be watchful. "The next commercial area over is Bethesda. The most sensible thing to do is to place these in Chevy Chase or Bethesda so tenants can be near their jobs in restaurants and hotels, and Potomac, so they can be near the service and landscaping jobs," she said.

County Councilman Derick P. Berlage, who represents Silver Spring, said compromises in the final version of the measure gave opponents "90 percent of what they wanted. "It's possible they won so much that no one will ever be able to put together the resources to build one of them."

Despite assurances from county officials that the program will be halted in three years if it proves troublesome, PLQ opponents remain angry.

"Montgomery County is known as the county with a heart," said Lee. "I worry sometimes that we're also the county without a brain."

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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