A school bus stops outside the apartments at North Bethesda Market on Woodglen Drive. Photo by the author.
We’ve noted before that a growing number of families are interested in urban living, whether to be closer to work, to be less reliant on driving, or to give their kids more exposure and independence. However, apartments or condominiums big enough for families can be hard to find, even in areas like White Flint with lots of new construction.
Growing up, I lived with my parents in a 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Silver Spring. I didn’t have a yard, but I found that the “the city was my playground,” filled with interesting people and new experiences. Our building, and the other apartment buildings around it, were filled with kids, and in the summer I could ride the elevator to the roof and hang out in the pool. I loved walking with my parents to stores, the Metro, and Woodside Park across the street.
However, when my brother was born, our family needed more room, so we moved to a house on a cul-de-sac several miles away. There wasn’t much to walk to, but there were still lots of kids around and, of course, we had a big yard. I’m not sure if we would’ve moved there had we been able to find a big enough apartment closer in.
Other families in Montgomery County seem to desire an urban experience as well. While the county’s largest concentrations of young families are in East County and the Upcounty, young families still make up one-tenth of all households in White Flint, downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, and 15% of all households in downtown Wheaton, areas which are almost entirely made up of apartments and townhomes.
Does that mean we’re building lots of family-sized apartments for them? Not quite.
Writing about the virtues of family-sized apartments, Washington Post columnist and architect Roger K. Lewis notes that municipalities prefer smaller units because developers market them at childless adults, who often pay more in taxes than they use in return. Montgomery County Public Schools estimates that it costs as much as $180,000 to educate a child from kindergarten through 12th grade, which means people without kids effectively subsidize those who do.
Another reason why there aren’t more family-sized apartments is the difficulty of getting construction financing. Fire codes require that high-rise apartments be built out of steel or concrete, which makes them more expensive to build than houses or garden apartments, which have wood frames. At the same time, there’s a perceived lack of demand for family-sized apartments, so lenders are reluctant to give developers money for them.
As a result, the few large apartments or condominiums that do get built are expensive. A quick look at real estate listings around the White Flint Metro station revealed just 3 apartments with 3 bedrooms, ranging in price from $3,995 to $4,700 a month, and 4 condominiums priced between $549,000 and $959,000.
Those prices are out of reach for many working families, even in an affluent area like this, but even those who could afford them could buy a nice house for the same money. Families seeking the urban experience might just settle for a more affordable house or townhouse, justifying lenders’ reluctance to fund the construction of larger apartments.
However, there are ways around that. Lewis recommends public subsidies to make larger apartments more affordable for families, arguing that the government already favors homeowners by giving them tax breaks on their mortgages.
Another solution that doesn’t require government assistance are so-called “mortgage helpers,” or condominiums with a built in rental apartment, kind of like a granny flat. In Vancouver, where “mortgage helpers” are common, this could be a 3-bedroom condo in which one of the bedrooms had its own bathroom, kitchen and private entrance.
In this scenario, a family would buy the entire unit and rent out the third bedroom, giving them a source of income. Later on, if they need the room for another child, they can just take it over. This flexibility makes “mortgage helpers” attractive to families who otherwise may not be able to afford a high-rise condominium, which in turn increases demand and makes lenders willing to fund them, meaning more of them get built.
A combination of changing desires, changing demographics and limited budgets has pushed more and more people, including parents, to urban environments. While many families will continue to prefer houses with yards, it’s important that places like White Flint accommodate the families who want to live here. Building more family-sized apartments may not be easy, but by responding to changing needs, White Flint will be able to draw and keep new residents for decades to come.