Marc Elrich has always been a politician who holds at least one wet finger to the air to get a sense of which way the wind is blowing. But now he too may sense the winds of change regarding housing development in the county.
When he finally won a seat on the County Council in 2006, Elrich, along with current County Executive Ike Leggett, ran as on a platform that promised “slow-growth.” This was in response to backlash from Montgomery County residents who saw a surge in development in the years before the financial crisis.
He has since been a likely “no” vote on development proposals that don’t meet the standard of the communities they are to be situated in.
The only problem here is not all communities are the same. Just as he stood up to preserve low income housing in the Long Branch Sector Plan, he has also unfortunately stood up for the exclusionary zoning privileges of single-family communities who want to stop development near their land.
But after this week’s meeting with activist students of MoCo Students For Change, he might be setting a different course. When asked how to end the de facto racial and economic segregation in Montgomery County schools, Elrich responded:
“You can shift the boundaries west of Connecticut Avenue all you want,” [but] you’re not going to fundamentally change the balance in the schools…So I feel like we’re in it for the long term. You have to be willing to put affordable housing where we haven’t put it.” [our emphasis]
Elrich is undoubtedly the candidate to vote for in November if you’re even slightly attuned to issues of social justice and left politics. But this blog also doesn’t subscribe to the notion that he is a hero doing battle against Developers. A cult of personality around a politician helps no one. Therefore, it is critical to recognize that while Marc is loved by a large community of workers and left or left-leaning groups, his hesitancy on development is used by communities who are definitely not left-leaning but do want to protect their property rights.
A quick example would be the group “Don’t Flood the Lake.” Around 2013, the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan, including new mid rise apartments and a redeveloped town center, was proposed in response to the future Purple Line station slated for that area. However, neighbors concerned about traffic congestion lobbied against the development plans. They found support for their position in Marc Elrich, who stated, ““The purpose of planning is not to provide riders for transit systems…The purpose of planning, I thought, was to provide livable communities.”
While it’s true we want plans for livable communities, his remark begs the question: livable communities for whom? As the old line goes, “If you build it, they will come.” New renters will naturally seek units near affordable transit. It’s important to preserve affordable units where they exist (for example in the Long Branch Sector Plan). But it’s also important to equitably distribute responsibility for building affordable units. Otherwise those people are forced to live elsewhere, either the rapidly developing Silver Spring area or in Prince George’s county.
The Chevy Chase Lake area is almost entirely single-family neighborhoods and a 1960′s-era strip shopping mall. Asking that community, where home prices crawl close to $1 million, to build affordable housing units and public space for future riders the Purple Line isn’t disruptive, it’s a smart decision. It promotes racial and economic inclusivity rather than continued de facto segregation.
(To be fair, Nancy Floreen’s excuse to oppose the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan was far worse: she simply wanted to push off the responsibility to the new Council in the next term.)
Let’s be clear: we don’t like that urban development under Capitalism necessarily involves a small group of people profiting off investments. And we adamantly oppose development that results in the displacement of historically marginalized people and workers. But in the case above, and in other scenarios such as Chelsea Court in Silver Spring, it is older, whiter, single-family households that are resisting having their neighborhood “character” challenged.
Or to put it more accurately, these neighborhoods represent a class that interprets a change to their surrounding neighborhood as an assault on their property rights and property values. This is not a class leftists should be protecting. East Bay DSA is already making this egregious mistake; we can’t afford to follow suit.
The left must realize the construction of America’s suburbs was a deliberate political and economic project to both de-escalate the early-20th century radicalism and to provide Capital with new avenues of investment. When we re-regulate our communities to tear down boundaries that promote exclusion and segregation, we aren’t providing profits for Developers. We are giving people the chance to live in communities that can be democratically managed, if we fight to make them so.
So when Marc Elrich takes a stand in front of the next generation of Montgomery County voters and implies he will tackle inequality by taking privileges away from suburbia, we on the left should congratulate and encourage him.
It’s about damn time Chevy Chase builds some affordable housing.