- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

Montgomery County officials dedicated the Pembridge Square Apartments last week in Wheaton during a ceremony that unofficially recognized that housing prices in the Maryland suburb are skyrocketing beyond the means of low- and middle-income households.

The apartments in the 2300 block of Blueridge Avenue off University Boulevard were renovated from a 50-year-old rental housing property by the Montgomery Housing Partnership. The nonprofit group rebuilds run-down properties, then rents them to low-income residents.

“This neighborhood in Montgomery County is experiencing rapid gentrification due largely to its proximity to a Metrorail station with direct access to downtown Washington, D.C.,” said Robert Goldman, Montgomery Housing Partnership president. “The opening of Pembridge Square Apartments will help ensure that our low- and middle-income neighbors are not pushed out of the community.”

Until recent years, Wheaton and nearby Silver Spring were among the lower-priced communities in Montgomery County.

Projects such as redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring and expansion of the Westfield Shopping Town in Wheaton are raising housing prices to levels closer to more expensive suburbs, such as Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

“The efforts that the county is making to make areas more appealing that were on the decline has stopped that decline,” said Elizabeth Davison, director of the Montgomery County Housing and Community Affairs Department.

However, the revitalization has hurt new residents seeking opportunity in the metropolitan area’s growing job market.

“Recent construction has been high-priced units” in Silver Spring and Wheaton, Miss Davison said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, acknowledged escalating housing prices in the Wheaton area during the dedication ceremony: “This whole area of Montgomery County has been a victim of its own success.”

The $18 million purchase and renovation project was funded by grants and loans from the state of Maryland, Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp.

The work included renovating 133 units with new kitchens, bathrooms, carpeting, windows, security and heating systems at an average of $40,000 per unit.

Twenty units were set aside for households with incomes no more than 30 percent of the median annual salary for the D.C. area, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development says is $85,400 for a family of four.

The other 113 units are set aside for residents whose incomes can be as high as 60 percent of median income.

Residents pay from $615 per month for an efficiency apartment to $1,100 for a three-bedroom unit.

Single-family housing in Montgomery County has jumped from an average of $220,000 per home in 2000 to $380,000 through October 2004, according to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which monitors housing prices.

“This region has comparatively done very well in terms of the economy,” said Carl Moritz, acting chief of research for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. “As people see home prices going up, it creates a sense of urgency and they feel they want to get in the home market, too.”

The Mortgage Bankers Association last week predicted “a strong but modestly slowing housing market” nationwide in 2005 with demand continuing to raise home prices.

The Pembridge Square Apartments are within a short walk of the Westfield Shopping Town and the Wheaton Metro station, making it an attractive site for developers. Westfield Shopping Town is expanding to include a Macy’s department store intended to appeal to upscale clientele.

Expensive town houses and other apartment complexes are under construction within blocks of the Pembridge Square Apartments.

“What’s going on in Wheaton is the housing has taken off,” Mr. Goldman said. “You got town houses selling for $600,000. This project is to preserve the affordable housing we have.”

Unlike some other projects of the Montgomery Housing Partnership, the Pembridge Square Apartments project received support from homeowners in the area.

In 1995, about 200 homeowners organized the Wheaton Citizens Coalition to block the partnership from building a low-income apartment complex on 5 acres along University Boulevard. The area was zoned for single-family homes.

“What they were proposing was different from that,” said Marian Fryer, president of the coalition. “It was apartment buildings.”

The property had deteriorated and become a haunt of drug dealers and prostitutes.

“We thought it was a wonderful idea for them to take over that development because it was needed,” Mrs. Fryer said.

Xania Merino, a resident of the complex since before it was renovated, said the previous landlords allowed the property to deteriorate to the point where it lacked heating and air conditioning. In the winter, the windows sometimes would freeze shut from the inside, she said.

“For someone who has children, it was very difficult,” she said.

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