Despite holding a full-time job with the federal government, Chantal Rice still can’t afford a three-bedroom apartment in Montgomery County — so that she, her daughter and her son can all have their own rooms.
She knows that if she didn’t work she would be eligible for all kinds of benefits — food, housing, child care, medical — but because she makes just enough to be solidly middle class, about $62,000 a year, Rice said she does not qualify for government help.
So for now she shares a bedroom with her daughter and keeps her eyes peeled for that elusive prize — a three-bedroom home for less than $1,200 a month.
Problems like Rice’s are set to be addressed at Friday’s 22nd annual Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County. Elected officials, housing experts and activists will meet at the Bethesda North Marriott Conference Center to talk housing issues and discuss solutions.
Among the guest speakers are Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Dist. 7) of Baltimore.
With the Cartier store on Wisconsin Avenue, multimillion-dollar mansions in Potomac and private schools that cost more than four-year colleges, one might be forgiven for thinking only the wealthy call Montgomery County home.
But as Rice and her family illustrate, that is not the case, and the toughest challenge for the struggling middle class is often housing, advocates say.
Montgomery County has grown progressively more expensive during the last decade, according to a 2012 study by the University of Washington School of Social Work.
An adult with two young children in Montgomery County must earn at least $36.90 an hour, or more than $77,000 a year, just to cover their basic needs without help from the government. That’s more than is needed in either New York City or San Francisco, and represents a 50 percent increase in the past 10 years, adjusted for inflation, according to the study.
It’s also a lot more than Rice makes.
The Great Recession has only made things worse, said Susan Yancy, of Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission, but “its especially felt at the lower income levels.”
The poverty rate in Montgomery County has risen from 5.4 percent in 2000 to 6.3 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
More than 15,000 people are on a county waiting list for federal housing vouchers, which supplement payment for qualified renters, Yancy said. Another 10,000 are on a waiting list to get into public housing, which is run by the Housing Opportunities Commission.
In addition to operating the federal voucher and public housing programs, the commission finances, develops, and manages properties and offers mortgages for first-time home buyers.
But there is just not enough help to go around, said Lise Tracey, executive director of the Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County.
“It’s just tremendously expensive,” Tracey said. “The need is so great, and so many people can’t afford it. The alternative is multiple families living in homes, or living with their parents, or people living in less expensive counties and commuting to work here.”
The county has some housing programs, such as one that designates a certain percentage of any new development as Moderately Priced Dwelling Units. They’re a good start, but “not a panacea,” said Barbara Goldberg Goldman, the founder of the Affodable Housing Conference.
According to the county’s website, only a handful of moderately priced apartments are available at any given time. As of April 30, two three-bedroom apartments were available for $1,320 a month. That’s $120 more a month than what Rice can afford.
And when you’re counting every penny, Rice said, $120 is huge.
Affordable housing is not just a charitable act, but enriches all of Montgomery County, Goldman said.
“It makes for a better, a richer community as a whole,” she said.
For Rice, who moved here from Prince George’s County in 1992, Montgomery County is home.
“I love it here,” she said of her community in Germantown. “The opportunities are better here for my kids.”
But it’s not right that someone who is working full time should be forced to choose between paying the electric or the gas bill, Rice said. More programs should be aimed at people like her, those who are employed but still struggling.
“I would like the county to stop sending the message not to work,” she said. “My tax dollars help fund these programs.”