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Westbard has sought-after neighborhoods and top-ranked schools. But those who work in the community can’t take advantage of them because of sky-high housing costs. As the Planning Department creates a new plan for the area, will they make affordable housing a priority?
After graduate school, I worked for a bakery that sells cakes at local grocery stores, including the Giant in Westbard. I got to know the bakery staff, and quickly learned that very few of the people who work there and at other Giants in Bethesda live where they work, enduring long commutes to homes in other parts of Montgomery County or outside the county altogether.
That’s supported by the Planning Department’s findings that the median income of Westbard residents is nearly $200,000 a year. But one out of every three jobs in the area is in retail, and 60 percent of people who work in Westbard make less than $40,000 a year. As a result, nearly all of Westbard’s workers commute there from somewhere else, and nearly half from outside the county.
People will pay a high premium to live in Westbard because it feeds into Walt Whitman High School, one of the county’s top-ranked schools. One result: The median home sale price in the Whitman Cluster is more than twice as much than in other parts of the county.
That automatically excludes the people who work in Westbard, who instead move to more affordable neighborhoods in East County and the Upcounty. Not only does that mean more traffic as workers travel long distances to reach jobs, but it also results in increased socioeconomic isolation, which is reflected in our public schools.
So in a county where 43 percent of all students are on free or reduced lunch, fewer than 5 percent of students are at Whitman. A recent report from Montgomery County’s Office of Legislative Oversight notes that the growing segregation in Montgomery County Public Schools may contribute to the persistent achievement gap between students from high-income and low-income families, because concentrating disadvantaged students in certain schools makes it harder for even the best teachers and administrators to help them succeed.
How can we fix that? Redrawing school boundaries is one way, but MCPS officials don’t seem interested in doing so. They have expressed support for building more affordable housing in expensive areas like Westbard. That’s the responsibility of the Planning Board and County Council, but I hope school system officials will speak up for it.
For 40 years, Montgomery County’s affordable housing program has been a national model, setting aside one-eighth of homes in new developments for moderately-priced households. Parents can live closer to the county’s job centers like Bethesda, while their kids have access to the county’s top-ranked schools. And from a socioeconomic standpoint, integrated schools benefit everyone.
A 2010 study of MCPS found that low-income students in affordable housing in the Whitman and Churchill clusters outperformed their peers at other, high-poverty county schools. Meanwhile, Rick Kahlenberg, an educational researcher and a Whitman Cluster parent, notes that kids from affluent backgrounds benefit from exposure to the diversity they’ll encounter in the real world.
There are some affordable units currently being built at new developments around Bethesda, including three at Bethesda Mews on Old Georgetown Road and four at Little Falls Place near Westbard. These are only drops in the bucket.
That’s why it’s incumbent that the Westbard plan include a greater ratio of affordable housing. The county’s plans for Long Branch and White Oak, which have much more socioeconomic diversity than Westbard, recommend 15 to 20 percent of new homes be set aside for affordable housing. There’s no reason why Westbard have the same.
But families in the “W schools” paid a lot to get there, and naturally some are worried about redistricting. Whitman parents are already raising concerns about the Westbard sector plan, noting that the school is already overcapacity. Five years ago, the Walter Johnson High School PTA fought the White Flint Sector Plan, which will include some 1,100 affordable units, for the same reason.
“We have worked for our schools, we’ve contributed to our schools, we have in some cases chosen to buy homes here to be in these schools,” one parent told The Gazette. “It’s not a matter of not wanting to be in another cluster, it’s a matter of wanting to be in ours.”
Overcrowded schools are an issue. But it’s not an excuse to make Westbard’s neighborhoods or its top-ranked schools off-limits to the bakers and teachers and firefighters and other workers who make Westbard such a nice place to live.
Hopefully, county officials, including those from the school system, will sound the call about the importance of providing affordable housing in this community.
Dan Reed is an urban planner who grew up in Montgomery County and remembers eating Gifford’s ice cream before it was on Bethesda Row. He sits on the board of Action Committee for Transit, an organization dedicated to sustainable transportation in Montgomery County. He also writes at Just Up The Pike, a blog about Silver Spring, and Greater Greater Washington, a regional blog about planning.