The Montgomery County Council today approved a zoning change that could mean the loss of 260 apartments in what is widely known as Bethesda’s most affordable area.
A discussion of apartment owner Glen Aldon’s proposal for three new apartment buildings on Battery Lane turned into a debate on best affordable housing practices. The four- and five-story red brick buildings just west of Woodmont Avenue have long featured some of Bethesda’s cheapest housing, though they technically cost more than current workforce housing rates.
Typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the current Battery Lane apartments is less than $1,700. In August, according to one real estate website, the average rental rate in Bethesda for a two-bedroom was more than $2,300. The average rental rate for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,775.
In a 7-1 roll call vote, the Council approved recommendations by Hearing Board Examiner Lynn Robeson that will allow for owners to pursue three new high-rise buildings with 692 total units and 41 moderately-priced housing units, (MPDUs) controlled rent apartments that exceed the County mandated 12.5 percent affordable housing rate for new developments.
Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) questioned Robeson’s argument that many of the current tenants on Battery Lane were doctors or professionals that could afford higher rents in newer buildings. She cited Battery Lane’s proximity to NIH, just to the north, and the Bethesda Central Business District, to the south, as evidence that people of higher incomes were attracted to the location despite the age of the buildings.
“We don’t have any evidence either way about who lives in the building. How many doctors can you point out and how many who aren’t doctors can you point out,” Elrich said. “I don’t think the case is made on either side of this. I think there’s value in maintaining supply. We are clearly going to lose a supply of affordable housing.
“I don’t see this as a reflection of good housing policy,” Elrich said. “I think it bodes ill for the rest of Battery Lane. I just think we’re kind of operating in a wishful thinking mode here.”
Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large) voted for the proposal, but also questioned whether it was consistent with the county’s goal of “no net loss” of affordable housing units in new apartment developments.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult to achieve,” Leventhal said. “I can believe buildings like these have reached the end of their useful life. They need renovations. They’re relatively affordable and they will go away and they will be replaced by more desirable housing and they will be more expensive.”
County Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) cited Glen Aldon’s track record in providing cheaper housing as a reason to rule in its favor.
The company wants to build three buildings on where the 4857, 4858, 4890 and 4900 Battery Lane buildings currently stand.
“Now they want to increase the number of units and they’ve expressed an interest in continuing their approach,” Riemer said. “We can’t guarantee that they will, but they have a track record of doing that, whereas if they wanted to sell tomorrow they could certainly do that.”