“In the D.C. region, where local governments are struggling to address a severe housing shortage that is driving up prices, elected officials are under growing pressure to push back against civically engaged homeowners who mobilize against new housing construction.
Montgomery County, an affluent D.C. suburb that has experienced transformative growth and demographic change in the last 30 years, exemplifies how hard that can be.
“We have this system where local governments are the gatekeepers for new housing production,” says Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who examines the national housing shortage in her book Fixer-Upper: How to Repair America’s Broken Housing Systems. “Local governments, in turn, have outsourced a lot of their authority to existing residents, so existing homeowners in particular have essentially veto power over proposals to build new housing.”
Right now, homeowners are challenging hundreds of apartments and townhomes that developers have applied to build in Montgomery County, including more than 180 homes for lower-income residents. The citizen activists, most of whom have hired lawyers, contend that the new housing will clog traffic, harm the environment, block views, create construction noise, or have other negative effects on their quality of life. At least one dispute has been elevated to court.
Homeowners are simultaneously fighting a proposed long-term plan for the county that would encourage more housing near jobs and transit. Resistance to the plan, called Thrive Montgomery 2050, is loud and persistent. County council members — most of whom are either up for re-election or running for other elected offices this year — have responded by holding additional hearings and delaying a vote on the plan by several months.
Officials say there are multiple reasons for lagging home construction, including the pandemic, sky-high land values, costly labor and materials, onerous regulations, and inflexible zoning. But homeowners who protest development are part of the problem.”
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