Dozens of working-class families living in an Aspen Hill apartment complex faced potential displacement when they found out in December that their rent was going to spike by over 5%. County Executive Marc Elrich announced Tuesday that in under six months, the county bought the apartment complex and sold it to a community partner, helping residents in over 385 affordable units avoid a housing crisis.
“We saved the homes of hundreds of families who would have been forced out if we didn’t intervene,” Elrich said during a press briefing. “If we’re going to solve our affordable housing problems, we have to get serious and use everything in our toolbox.”
Elrich said the county is “more aggressively” using a particular tool – the county’s right of first refusal to buy properties that go on the market – to preserve affordable housing by gaining control of properties and selling them to community partners with similar values.
The county is losing affordable housing units at an “alarming rate,” Elrich said, calling its current housing protection strategies “absolutely inadequate.” He said officials estimate over half of the region’s remaining 20,000 affordable units will be gone by 2033.
Westchester West Apartments is located in the Aspen Hill neighborhood of Silver Spring. With help from local community advocacy group Action in Montgomery, the county purchased the property for $67 million on June 8 and sold it to Enterprise Community Development for $75 million. Under the agreed upon terms, the new owners would not raise rent as aggressively and would ensure a fixed number of units would continue to serve low-income residents.
Under the terms of the agreement, the complex will serve 35 households with incomes below 50% of the median household income in the region, Elrich said—equal to around $50,000 a year. Around 275 units will serve residents with median household incomes between 50% and 60% of the median household income. An additional 35 units will remain unrestricted by income so as not to displace residents who currently make more than the requirement, according to Elrich.
Westchester West resident Maria Vasquez spoke to members of the press via a translator to express her gratitude to the county for helping her family avoid displacement.
“This is their home. This is the way they can be safe,” translator Pilar Olmedo Gordon said on Vasquez’s behalf. “[She] feels committed to know a little more about her rights […] and duties as tenants.”
Council member Natali Fani-González (D-Dist. 6) said when she took office in December, the first phone call she received was from AIM informing her about the impending housing crisis at Westchester West. She said her team organized a meeting with community members held completely in Spanish and credited female residents like Vasquez who worked quickly to organize and advocate for themselves.
“Immigration status and language is never an obstacle in a place like Montgomery County that welcomes everybody,” she said, thanking Elrich and other officials for their collaboration.
Acting DHCA Director Scott Bruton said the complex’s new ownership also agreed to a few “nonstandard protections” for tenants, including a rent stabilization agreement pledging not to increase rent on income-restricted units by more than the county’s voluntary rent guidelines or 3%, whichever is higher in a particular year. In addition, no lease on an income-restricted unit can be voluntarily terminated by the owners without identification of a lease violation, according to Bruton.
Elrich explained that the county’s involvement in preserving the affordable housing at this apartment complex was only made possible by a government policy called the right of first refusal, or ROFR. When any property hits the housing market for sale, the county is allowed a fixed time period to decide whether it wants to purchase the property itself before other buyers can make offers, he said.
“We only got to do this because the property was up for sale,” he said of the recent buyout. “We can tell [landlords] what our voluntary guidelines are, but we have no ability to say they’re enforceable. We would have been powerless here had it not been for the right of first refusal.”
According to data from the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA), the county received 44 ROFR notices from rental properties last year, representing nearly 6,700 units. Of those 44 properties, the county chose to exercise its right to purchase two complexes totaling 466 units. The previous year, DHCA received 60 ROFR notices and only exercised its right of refusal once, purchasing a four-unit property.
On Tuesday, Action in Montgomery member Jeff Eagan shared a “note of warning” with the media, saying he believes this is far from the last time the county will have to discuss right of first refusal as a strategy to combat its housing crisis.
“Landlords and developers see Montgomery County as a cash register. We’re a target,” he said. “We need to be nimble, we need to be responsive and we need to listen to the people in our community.”
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