Priced out as tran­sit growth pushes in

In low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties, the Pur­ple Line is seen as an op­por­tu­nity and a threat

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LUZ LAZO

There’s no luxury in the gar­den-style apart­ments of Lan­g­ley Park, Md. But with rents av­er­ag­ing $1,300 a month for two bed­rooms, they of­fer res­i­dents mod­est liv­ing in the heart of a vi­brant Latino en­clave, with easy ac­cess to 11 bus lines.

In a few years, if plans stay on track, two Pur­ple Line light-rail sta­tions will con­nect those res­i­dents to jobs in more af­flu­ent Mont­gomery County.

The Pur­ple Line prom­ises to bring in­vest- ment, the kind that could en­hance and di­ver­sify Lan­g­ley Park’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing hous­ing stock. But while that presents an op­por­tu­nity, it is also seen as a threat to low-in­come and tran­sit-de­pen­dent res­i­dents.

They fear that with the Pur­ple Line’s ben­e­fits — ac­cess, con­struc­tion jobs, eco­nomic growth — will also come soar­ing rents and the loss of af­ford­able hous­ing as prop­er­ties are de­mol­ished to make way for new con­struc­tion.

“It will push us out,” said Henry Cas­tro, 33, a win­dow tech­ni­cian who grew up in the Prince Ge­orge’s County com­mu­nity. “The rent went up al­most $200 last year. Can you imag­ine how ex­pen­sive it will be when the Pur­ple Line ar­rives? No­body will be able to af­ford it here.”

Res­i­dents have rea­son to worry, re­searchers

and hous­ing ex­perts say; they point to stud­ies in­di­cat­ing that un­less the gov­ern­ment acts to pre­serve af­ford­able hous­ing, low- in­come res­i­dents along the tran­sit route will be priced out of their homes.

A re­port from Univer­sity of Mary­land re­searchers and the im­mi­grant ad­vo­cacy group CASA found that in­creas­ing rent, crowd­ing, sub­stan­dard hous­ing and fore­clo­sures make the res­i­dents of the com­mu­nity’s 5,000 apart­ments vul­ner­a­ble.

Al­ready, rents have risen with new in­vest­ment in the com­mu­nity, which in­cludes a $34.8 mil­lion bus ter­mi­nal that opened late last year.

Sim­i­lar pat­terns have been re­peated across the Wash­ing­ton re­gion where tran­sit projects have spurred growth. Even Prince Ge­orge’s, which for decades was mostly ig­nored by de­vel­op­ers, has be­gun to see the im­pact in its inside-the-Belt­way com­mu­ni­ties, with de­vel­op­ment spring­ing up around tran­sit.

“That inevitably is go­ing to push out lower-in­come peo­ple be­cause when de­mand goes up, the prices go up,” said Maryann Dil­lon, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Hous­ing Ini­tia­tive Part­ner­ship, a non­profit hous­ing de­vel­oper based in the county.

“We have seen this pattern re­peat it­self in the Dis­trict along the Green Line, along the Red Line. And you are start­ing to see it in Prince Ge­orge’s County along the Green Line,” Dil­lon said. “Some­how there has to be some­thing done to help pro­tect lower-in­come peo­ple and to en­cour­age mixed­in­come close to tran­sit so that those peo­ple who are re­ally de­pen­dent on tran­sit can ben­e­fit from it.”

Small busi­nesses, many of them owned by mi­nori­ties and women, also could be hurt dur­ing con­struc­tion and could find them­selves un­able to com­pete with new busi­nesses that spring up. And the Lan­g­ley Park area at the cross­roads of New Hamp­shire Av­enue and Univer­sity Boule­vard could lose its unique cul­tural soul, some fear.

“I don’t want us to lose the vi­brancy and the di­ver­sity that we cur­rently have in our com­mu­nity,” said Prince Ge­orge’s County Coun­cil mem­ber Deni Tav­eras (D), who rep­re­sents Lan­g­ley Park. “That is what makes us who we are in Lan­g­ley Park and gives us the rich vi­brancy that we have.”

Con­struc­tion of the 16-mile light-rail line con­nect­ing Bethesda and New Car­roll­ton is on hold pend­ing res­o­lu­tion of a fed­eral law­suit that chal­lenges the project on en­vi­ron­men­tal grounds. Mary­land transportation of­fi­cials had planned to be­gin con­struc­tion last fall; the line is sched­uled to open in 2022.

But while con­struc­tion has stalled, new de­vel­op­ment is tak­ing off along the line’s route around Metro sta­tions at New Car­roll­ton and Col­lege Park and in Chevy Chase.

In an­tic­i­pa­tion of that grow­ing in­ter­est, a coali­tion of civic, gov­ern­ment and faith or­ga­ni­za­tions has been work­ing on a plan to help pre­serve neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter, look­ing at ways to train res­i­dents for bet­ter jobs and set up pro­grams that could help busi­nesses pros­per dur­ing the con­struc­tion dis­rup­tions.

Prince Ge­orge’s of­fi­cials say they are ex­plor­ing tools such as of­fer­ing tax in­cen­tives for land­lords who keep rents low and us­ing a county hous­ing trust fund to in­vest in af­ford­able hous­ing along the cor­ri­dor. The trust fund, how­ever, is empty. In ad­di­tion, Prince Ge­orge’s, un­like Mont­gomery and other Wash­ing­ton-area ju­ris­dic­tions, has not passed leg­is­la­tion that re­quires de­vel­op­ers to set aside a share of new hous­ing stock for lowand mod­er­ate-in­come res­i­dents.

Eric Brown, di­rec­tor of the county’s Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment, said of­fi­cials are look­ing into ac­quir­ing prop­er­ties in Lan­g­ley Park to part­ner with non­profit de­vel­op­ers that build low- and mod­er­ate-in­come hous­ing. In the past, how­ever, the county has not been able to come up with the fi­nanc­ing. As the county de­vel­ops a com­pre­hen­sive hous­ing strat­egy, look­ing at is­sues such as home­less­ness and the de­vel­op­ment of af­ford­able and mixed-in­come hous­ing, of­fi­cials also will fo­cus on ar­eas such as Lan­g­ley Park and oth­ers ex­pected to be af­fected by the Pur­ple Line, Brown said.

Com­pli­cat­ing things, Lan­g­ley Park has other hous­ing prob­lems. Many of its apart­ment build­ings and com­plexes are old, and grounds are run down. Res­i­dents have com­plained for years about pest in­fes­ta­tions and poor maintenance.

The apart­ments are crowded, and many of the prop­er­ties are so de­te­ri­o­rated that hous­ing ex­perts say im­prove­ments would re­quire them to be torn down and re­built.

Then there are the so­cial chal­lenges in an area where nearly 80 per­cent of res­i­dents are His­panic, about 1 in 5 lives be­low the poverty level and nearly 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lacks health in­sur­ance, com­pared with 7.5 per­cent statewide.

A ma­jor­ity of Lan­g­ley Park res­i­dents de­pend on pub­lic tran­sit to get around, and many work low-wage jobs — as nan­nies, cooks or clean­ers — in Mont­gomery County. The Pur­ple Line would help them get to work, com­mu­nity lead­ers say.

“In a way, the Pur­ple Line is a test — it is a moral test of what kind of peo­ple are we,” said the Rev. Jacek Orze­chowski of St. Camil­lus Catholic Church, which is based in Sil­ver Spring but of­fers Mass in Lan­g­ley Park. “Do we have the com­mit­ment to en­sure that the Pur­ple Line is done in a way that en­hances the neigh­bor­hood and pro­tects those who are fi­nan­cially vul­ner­a­ble?” Orze­chowski asked.

“The de­vel­op­ment can’t hap­pen on the back of the poor,” he said. “The peo­ple are aware of the threats. They are al­ready un­der se­ri­ous eco­nomic dis­tress, and many of them de­pend on pub­lic transportation. If they are dis­placed, where are they go­ing to go?”

How­ever, in the long run, even with all the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits of the Pur­ple Line, dis­place­ment is in­evitable, Tav­eras said.

“It is a harsh re­al­ity. When tran­sit comes in, there is dis­place­ment,” she said. “We have to be re­al­is­tic that there will be some dis­place­ment. We can’t say that there will be net-zero loss. That’s not go­ing to hap­pen.”

That wor­ries Maria Bueno, who opened one of the first Latino busi­nesses in Lan­g­ley Park more than two decades ago and has built a loyal clien­tele at Zo­diac Sports, where peo­ple come to send money to their home coun­tries and buy call­ing cards, cell­phone ac­ces­sories and sport­ing gear.

She fears that her Lan­g­ley Park shop will face the same fate as the Zo­diac record store her fam­ily opened 43 years ago in Adams Mor­gan. That store closed just as Metro’s Green Line came to nearby Columbia Heights in the late 1990s. Rents be­gan to go up, build­ings were ren­o­vated, and many of Zo­diac’s Latino cus­tomers — and then the busi­ness it­self — were pushed out of the Dis­trict’s Ward 1.

“There’s noth­ing wrong with new con­struc­tion and in­vest­ment, but all of a sud­den the cur­rent res­i­dents can no longer keep up with the rents,” Bueno said. Al­ready, she said, her land­lord for the first time had re­fused to com­mit to a 10-year lease.

Some won­der what will be­come of this in­ter­na­tional cor­ri­dor, this bar­rio Latino, a vi­brant area with bustling busi­nesses where peo­ple from the neigh­bor­hood and else­where come to eat pu­pusas and buy freshly made con­chas, the Mex­i­can sweet bread. It’s where they can find gro­cery stores with prod­ucts such as dark-pink iguana meat and min­u­tas, the Latino ver­sion of a snow cone, topped with con­densed milk and ta­marind jam.

Lan­g­ley Park is com­fort­able, said Cas­tro, who has lived there for 20 years. It’s home. It’s where se habla es­pañol.

“I want to take the Pur­ple Line to jobs in Bethesda,” he said. “That will be so con­ve­nient. But how does that help me if I can’t af­ford liv­ing here?”

“There will be some dis­place­ment. We can’t say that there will be net-zero loss.” Prince Ge­orge’s County Coun­cil mem­ber Deni Tav­eras (D)

MICHAEL ROBIN­SON CHAVEZ/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Maria Bueno, owner of Zo­diac Sports in Lan­g­ley Park, Md., fears that plans for the new Pur­ple Line will raise rents and drive her clien­tele and store out of the area.

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Takoma Lan­g­ley Cross­roads Tran­sit Cen­ter opened last year and has come to serve 12,000 cus­tomers daily. Peo­ple in Lan­g­ley Park worry that de­vel­op­ment ac­com­pa­ny­ing more tran­sit will push out long­time res­i­dents.

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