Greater Greater Washington

Single-family homes are the minority in Montgomery County

People often think of Montgomery County as a place where you go to buy a big house with a yard, and in many areas that's still the case. But most households live in townhomes or apartments, and that share will only increase in the future.


Montgomery's housing stock is getting more diverse. Photo by the author.

There are nearly 376,000 homes in Montgomery County according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey. Less than half, or 48.5% are single-family detached homes. One out of three homes are apartments or condominiums, while another 18.2% are "single-family attached" homes such as twins and townhouses.

But different kinds of homes are clustered in different parts of the county. Single-family homes predominate on the more affluent west side and inside the Beltway. Townhouses are more common in newer neighborhoods far outside the Beltway, while apartments cluster along the Red Line and in farther-out areas.

Single-family homes spread out around the county

Not surprisingly, single-family homes predominate on Montgomery County's rural fringe, and in suburban areas. In several neighborhoods, particularly west of Rock Creek Park and in the far northern part of the county, single-family homes are the only type of housing, such as Parkwood in Kensington, Rollingwood in Chevy Chase, and the Town of Chevy Chase itself. 99.5% of all homes in Bethesda's Bradley Manor, recently named the nation's second-wealthiest neighborhood, are detached houses.


Areas with a concentration of single-family homes. All images by the author.

Single-family homes are also very common in older neighborhoods inside the Beltway, which were built early in the 20th century when the county first began suburbanizing. Today, they sit in close-in, highly coveted locations, very close to Metro stations and major job centers. Meanwhile, farther-out areas have a much more diverse mix of housing.

Townhouses are far beyond the Beltway

If you're looking for a townhouse, you may have to look far beyond the Beltway. The county's largest concentrations of attached homes are in parts of Germantown and Montgomery Village, where townhouses comprise over 70% of all homes. Other areas include Westlake, next to Montgomery Mall in Bethesda; Dalewood Drive, across from Wheaton High School, and Westfarm in White Oak.


Areas with a concentration of townhomes. All images by the author.

Why is this? The county's 1958 zoning code and subsequent 1964 General Plan established specific "urban" areas where townhomes and apartments would go. Meanwhile, older, close-in neighborhoods began fighting the construction of anything that weren't big, expensive single-family homes. So townhouses got built farther out, where land was cheap and the zoning allowed them.

Apartments hug the Red Line & sprawl outward

Multi-family homes in Montgomery County tend to fall into one of two camps. You'll find clusters of them around Red Line stations, especially in Silver Spring, Bethesda, and White Flint. These are usually high-rise and mid-rise buildings, and they're often more expensive. The rest are mainly cheaper garden apartments outside the Beltway in areas like Briggs Chaney, Aspen Hill, and parts of Gaithersburg.


Areas with a concentration of multi-family homes. All images by the author.

Notably, areas with the highest concentrations of apartments also have a lot of young people, a high rate of transit use, and a low rate of car ownership. But those living in apartment clusters farther out don't have the same access to shops, jobs, and transit as those in areas like Bethesda or Silver Spring. Creating more town centers in other parts of the county, like at White Oak, will allow those residents to have more access to economic opportunities.

Multi-family homes are the county's future

Single-family homes are still the most common housing type in Montgomery County, and more will continue to be built. But they'll make up a decreasing share of the county's housing stock. Between rising housing costs, increasing traffic, and a diversifying population that's also getting older, there's a growing demand for different housing choices.


Single-family homes like this one in Olney are still being built, but not as many as there were.

As of this April, there were 36,038 approved but unbuilt homes in the development pipeline, most of which will be built in town centers like Silver Spring or Bethesda or in Clarksburg, the county's one last greenfield area. Just 8,644, or 24% will be single-family detached homes or townhomes. And that doesn't include homes that are allowed under zoning but haven't been approved.

This is a big shift for Montgomery County. While the county has sought to concentrate growth near downtowns and transit lines since the 1960's, many residents and community leaders still think of it as an exclusively suburban place. But in the coming years, the definition between city and suburb will continue to blur.

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Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

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I've always thought the reason, or another reason, for all the town houses in Germantown and Gaithersburg was that at the time the land was developed - early 1980s - the mortgage rates (averaging 13% - 17%) - made anything more ambitious utterly unaffordable for most families.

I've been in some of these houses and it was very evident that the build quality was also sacrificed to make them as cheap as possible.

by jeffb on May 28, 2014 12:53 pm • linkreport

This (and not the DC real estate market) is a pretty good indiciator of where supply/demand shows up in the market.

Stop building SFM and watch the existing ones soar. I've had one friend in Potomac who bought in 2006 and is still looking at close to 100% appreciation.

Yes, the mortage rates have a lot to do with it, rather than demand, but if (once?) those rates return to a more normal position it should be interesting.

by charlie on May 28, 2014 1:01 pm • linkreport

I've had one friend in Potomac who bought in 2006 and is still looking at close to 100% appreciation.

That person is lucky because the median home value in 20854 was 939K in spring 2006 and is currently 853K (according to Zillow which can be inaccurate but I don't have actual sales data handy).

by Falls Church on May 28, 2014 1:10 pm • linkreport

Attempting to embed a house price index image:

If embedding doesn't work:

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/fredgraph.png?g=BRj

by Nick on May 28, 2014 3:52 pm • linkreport

So single family homes are still the biggest segment of the housing market in the county. I think there is a market for all housing types (even mobile homes) for a multitude of reasons. I think ideally the apartments would be concentrated around transit centers with concentric ring of townhomes and then single family homes. But the housing market did not bring townhomes (AKA rowhouses) until late in the game. Imagine areas like Aspen Hill, Silver Spring, Wheaton and Rockville as dense townhome communities instead of shoddy-built single family homes.

On the flip side, many of the townhome communities that were once intended as affordable housing for first time buyers, peaceful neighborhoods have been bought up by HOC as public housing and hence drove out what was left of the middle class. Turning great neighborhoods into the ghetto is the mission of HOC and MHP. They are very good at what they do and they have destroyed communities such as Montgomery Village and Briggs Chaney. Now loaded up on federal dollars they are going after single family neighborhoods buying up foreclosures and turning them into group homes. This is wrong and must stop. Mr. Leggett needs to be held responsible for this growing divide in Montgomery County.

by Cyrus on May 29, 2014 12:05 am • linkreport

Some interesting stuff, Dan.

I'm not sure if your main point was just to discuss how Montgomery County is set up or if it is more about your lead:

"People often think of Montgomery County as a place where you go to buy a big house with a yard, and in many areas that's still the case. But most households live in townhomes or apartments, and that share will only increase in the future."

If the article is intended to build on this opening paragraph, I think it would be good to compare Montgomery County's numbers to other counties. Is 48.5% low compared to similar counties? I see Fairfax is at 49% (difference is not statistically significant) and PG is a little higher at 51.4%. Fairfax has more townhouses than Montgomery, but less apartments.

Not sure what other counties to compare. Westchester, NY, is 45.6% SFH and has very few townhouses (tons of apartments). Fairfield County, CT, is 58% and Bergen County, NJ, is 54.1.

by jh on May 29, 2014 7:35 am • linkreport

Don't many townhomes have yards? Is a townhome more like an apartment or more like a detached home with a yard? You blame the zoning code for the distribution but is it not also the case that it was cheaper to build on an empty lot instead of buying up existing single family homes for reconstruction?

It is just plain silly to talk about converting the large number of single family neighborhoods into townhomes. The economics don't work. And many newer townhomes now sell for more than older single family homes. Isn't it important that we keep some affordable housing near transit centers?

The whole suburban versus urban debate is pointless. We have urban and suburban areas of Montgomery County. But so long as a good many workers commute to jobs elsewhere Montgomery County will always be viewed as more suburban than anything else. It does not change the decisions we need to make regarding where we focus future growth.

by Woody brosnan on May 29, 2014 8:00 am • linkreport

"But so long as a good many workers commute to jobs elsewhere Montgomery County will always be viewed as more suburban than anything else."

The measure of wether an area is suburban or urban dosen't depend on where residents commute to a job. There are people in DC who reverse commute. Also, how Montgomery County is viewed is irrelevant unless somehow one finds the "urban" brand derogatory. What matters is that we develope intelligently, meaning for the long term. Simply covering more farmable land with low density homes is not the way to move forward, unless you want to pay for the infrastructure and upkeep to maintain these far flung subdivisions. As has been noted before, the proportions are in line with surrounding communities.

"It is just plain silly to talk about converting the large number of single family neighborhoods into townhomes"

What's silly is this fear that somehow there's an urbanist cabal intent on making everyplace urban. You say you're for reducing commuting times and the amount of carbon dioxide emmisions. How do you intend to do that if not by adding density at transit stations?

by Thayer-D on May 29, 2014 8:17 am • linkreport

I am for adding density at transit centers when it is line with other policy objectives, for instance in DTSS,Wheaton, White Flint, Glenmont and most of the Purple Line stations.

The fear of the "urban cabal" is fed when people go on blogs like his and talk about converting all single-family housing near transit stations to high-density.

by Woody brosnan on May 29, 2014 8:46 am • linkreport

The fear of the "urban cabal" is fed when people go on blogs like his and talk about converting all single-family housing near transit stations to high-density.

I'm fairly certain you're the only person who's talking about that here.

by MLD on May 29, 2014 8:53 am • linkreport

Local governments have limited power to actually make something happen like convert all the single family houses in an area to high density. What you are describing is a driven by market forces that seek to match demand for a location wtih supply. A local government can choose to accomodate that demand, which also coincides with other public policy goals such as utililizing available (or improvable) infrastructure, or it can act to thwart that demand by keeping zoning that reflected conditions that no longer apply. If they do the latter, you can expect some market distortion and creative efforts to circumvent the zoning, like group homes, basement apartments, and the like. It also pushes development to areas less well suited for it.

If a local government upzones an area where there is not strong demand already, there will simply be no impact. Ergo, it's not local government driving the boat.

by Crickey7 on May 29, 2014 9:06 am • linkreport

And where were all the people who now want the area to be preserved just like it is now, when these were converted from even lower density? These expanses of single family homes did not sprout from the soil like Jason and Athena's dragon teeth. They were a product of market forces simultaneously accomodated and steered by local government policy. To imagine they represent some kind of immutable apex in human lifestyle is pure hubris.

by Crickey7 on May 29, 2014 9:21 am • linkreport

I am for adding density at transit centers when it is line with other policy objectives, for instance in DTSS,Wheaton, White Flint, Glenmont and most of the Purple Line stations.

So you're a part of the urban cabal then?

Anyway, even if there is a movement to convert existing sfh neighborhoods to high rises they're certainly failing at it. The greatest majority of the new density we've seen has either been on vacant land or redeveloped commercial properties.

by drumz on May 29, 2014 9:32 am • linkreport

But there's a real difficulty here-- most affordable multi-household dwellings are in places far from transit and amenities. How is this a pattern for future development?

by Matt on May 29, 2014 9:55 am • linkreport

The headline is just plain wrong. Based on your stats, two-thirds of the residential units in Montgomery County are single-family homes. (48.5% are detached; 18.2% are attached). Townhomes (and duplexes) are single-family homes and it's not really in the interest of people who advocate denser development to suggest that there's a stark distinction between single-family detached homes and any form of housing that involves sharing walls.

I know when we were on the market for a single-family home we looked at a range of types -- we were more interested in living space and neighborhood than in exterior style and our realtor (in DC) treated that as normal.

by BTDT on May 29, 2014 9:57 am • linkreport

MLD

Not quite. In the context of our discussion of the DC height limit, and other limits on the density of development in on parcels that are either vacant, single use commercial or industrial, or low density multifamily housing, the alternative is often presented, including by one commenter on this thread, of increasing the density of exising SFH/TH neighborhoods to the densities associated with central Paris and some other european cities.

While I appreciate that aesthetic vision, and would not personally object to a market based conversion like that in a place where I lived, I do not think its politically realistic, and I think what you see here wrt to lower MoCo is reflective of that.

There are places in this country (certain industrial cities in the rustbelt) where the extent of decay means there is no real political opposition to the physical transformation of SFH neighborhoods. Thats not a viable path for the level of change we need in this range though. We either densify as much as we can on the "soft" parcels (vacant, comm/indust, low density multifamily) or we will not densify adequately, period.

Note, this does not excuse those in lower MoCo who object to BOTH the transformation of SFH parcels, AND who are fighting density on commercial properties in the area.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 29, 2014 10:21 am • linkreport

"Thats not a viable path for the level of change we need in this range though. We either densify as much as we can on the "soft" parcels (vacant, comm/indust, low density multifamily) or we will not densify adequately, period."

A couple of questions:
What do you think is the "level of change we need"?
What would you qualify as densifying "as much as we can"?
Who is the "we" in this equation?

by Thayer-D on May 29, 2014 10:31 am • linkreport

We are the people of this region.

The level of change we need is that to achieve a major shift in mode from SOV. Its also that needed to have a significant impact in the apples to apples price of housing.

densifying as much as we can is going to vary with each location and issue, each of which has unique political, physical, and economic factors. This is not, IMO, the thread to raise those individual factors. I do recognizes there are arguments to be made about the tradeoffs among those locations/issues (is it necessary to raise the height limit in DC when there is still room to upzone "soft" parcels in some in demand DC neighborhoods, and when improved public safety could bring some areas EOTR more into the picture - and the tradeoffs among parcels in DC, soft parcels in close in parts of the suburbs like Crystal City, and soft parcels in locations near the beltway served by only one metro line, like Tysons or White Flint).

However one alternative that is not likely to generate significant numbers of new units is Hausmanization. In this context, we see the fears generated about it in SFH areas near metro stations in lower MoCo. And that urbanists must defend densification by disavowing even market based Hausmanization.

I used "the level of change we need" because I want to acknowledge it can happen in select locations. In particular MetroWest in FFX was built on the site a SFH neighborhood. In that case the entire HOA voted to sell out, which eased land acquisition. Most of the adjoinging areas were townhouses or multifamily, which significantly reduced the seriousness of opposition. Despite that, NIMBYs managed to place limits on density from what the developers had considered viable in the marketplace, and from what the County had originally supported.

There may be opportunities to do other metrowests in the region, but I think they will be few, and relying on them will be hardly different from "freezing the region in amber".

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 29, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

To MLD, This is what Dan wrote,"Imagine areas like Aspen Hill, Silver Spring, Wheaton and Rockville as dense townhome communities instead of shoddy-built single family homes."

So is that not talking about converting single-family neighborhoods to high density? People are on this blog all the time attacking single-family neighborhoods. I never said it was a cabal.

To be clear, I favor allowing residential to share space with retail and commercial in our urban areas near transit centers. I do not favor converting surrounding single-family neighborhoods to higher density. I do not favor tearing down homes that sell for $400k to $500k to build townhomes that sell for $600k to $800k.

by Woody brosnan on May 29, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

This is what Dan wrote

Actually, that is in a comment by Cyrus - it's not in the article. And in context, the statement pretty clearly is examining what could have been if those places had been built that way (had townhomes not been brought in late in the game), not suggesting that they now be replaced wholesale.

by MLD on May 29, 2014 10:55 am • linkreport

I do not favor converting surrounding single-family neighborhoods to higher density.

Why?

I do not favor tearing down homes that sell for $400k to $500k to build townhomes that sell for $600k to $800k.

Why?

by drumz on May 29, 2014 10:57 am • linkreport

Woody

I think that call to imagine is a good way to get people thinking about the consequences of the past. Clearly having SFH's closer in, while townhomes and multifamily cluster much further out, is far from optimal in terms of transportation, and can have other consequences. I don't think its a call for massive upzoning, so much as a warning about the consquences of what we do going forward.

I do note that many SFH areas currently "protected" from townhouses, are "exposed" instead to having their older homes replaced by those very large SFHs called McMansions. I am not sure thats an alternative all residents of such areas prefer, and I do think thats a potential path to multifamily housing that many homeowners in those areas may find to be worse than townhouses.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 29, 2014 10:57 am • linkreport

If you don't want people tearing down homes for which there is less demand than for denser homes, then what you are saying is that you want the State to exercise its regulatory power to artifically depress the price of low density land closer in. That's a subsidy for those who like that life style at the expense of everyone else, and it comes at a greater cost to society.

by Crickey7 on May 29, 2014 11:04 am • linkreport

To Drumz,

Why should we tear down perfectly good housing stock just to put up more expensive townhomes? You tell me why that is a good idea.
We have an affordable housing problem in Montgomery County. Should not people of moderate means have the opportunity to live near transit?
We also have an achievement gap in Montgomery County schools. Research shows that children from low-income families have higher achievement rates if the classroom includes children from families of moderate and high incomes. So it is important to have a balanced housing policy in the county.

by Woody brosnan on May 29, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

Woody

if those houses are not in historic districts they CAN be torn down. Not to create 700k townhomes, but to create million dollar plus McMansions. SFH zoning is NOT an affordable housing program.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 29, 2014 11:16 am • linkreport

Why should we tear down perfectly good housing stock just to put up more expensive townhomes? You tell me why that is a good idea.

Personally, I don't really care either way. But the way we provide housing in this country is that people build it on land they own and sell it at a price they can get it for.

So then, the best way to provide more affordable housing is to either:

A: let more of that system happen than we allow,
B: Completely change the system to something else.

I think option A is far more acheivable than B.

Besides, if you replace 1 sfh with 2 or more town homes you've still increased to overall supply even if the specific items change price.

Finally, I think what's happening is already what you'd like to see (we build more mixed use areas near transit and leave the existing neighborhoods alone). So I'm left wondering what the problem is.

by drumz on May 29, 2014 11:19 am • linkreport

Well, not that I don't care per se. But I agree with what AWITC says that restrictive zoning isn't the same as preserving or creating affordable housing.

by drumz on May 29, 2014 11:24 am • linkreport

Restrictive zonind hurts affordability. Even with the artifically depressed price of an SFH in MOntco, it's not affordable. While housing that could be affordable is blocked.

by Crickey7 on May 29, 2014 11:42 am • linkreport

I think it's about balance. On the one hand you have those that feel every single family neighborhood should be sacrosanct, while on the other hand you have those who think that every building site must have as tall a building as possible.

Kaid Benfield has been a great advocate for this middle ground. Unfortunatly, it involves nuance and elaboration, so I will let him state this in his usual eloquence.

"2. Density, but at human scale. A Main Street won’t be walkable without a significant minimum density. Yet it shouldn’t be overwhelming, leading to both vehicular and pedestrian congestion, diminishing the pleasure of a leisurely stroll and blocking light. Victor Dover and John Massengale, in their epic and highly recommended book Street Design, write eloquently about the best ratios of building height to street width. Personally, I like a mixture of building heights ranging from two to about eight or so stories. It’s all situational, of course: Fifth Avenue in New York City is a Main Street of sorts and can be terribly exciting for the pedestrian; but a two-story building would be way, way out of place there. That noted, Fifth Avenue is not the kind of smaller-scale, true “Main Street” I’m trying to describe today. "

http://bettercities.net/news-opinion/blogs/kaid-benfield/21145/what-makes-good-main-street-work

by Thayer-D on May 29, 2014 11:55 am • linkreport

I see references there to Corning NY and Rutland Vt, places with far different housing and transportation issues than Greater Washngton. I also see references to Denver and Atlanta, places that AFAIK allow much greater heights in the regional CBD than we do.

I do not dispute that you can make a great walkable street by retrofitting in a 2 to 8 story main street, even when its largly surrounded by SFH's. What I do dispute is whether that will address in the demand for housing in TOD WUPs, and thus enable the mode shift that has so many benefits, only using such tools.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 29, 2014 12:15 pm • linkreport

If by balance you mean seeking to steer investment in a way that promotes a variety of societal goals with an acceptably low level of market distortion, I agree.

by Crickey7 on May 29, 2014 12:23 pm • linkreport

Indeed, there are very few single-family neighborhoods in Silver Spring that don't include either townhomes or apartment buildings inside their limits or on the edge. My neighborhood, North Woodside, has Woodside Mews. Woodside has townhomes along Georgia. Ditto for Woodside Forest. Lyttonsville and Rosemary Hills each have big apartment complexes.

Here is the problem: When urban advocates that I should be partnering with go around telling the folks that I'm trying to convince that they live in "shoddy" houses, and imply or suggest that their neighborhoods should be something else, it makes my task more difficult.

Have any of you ever looked at who actually votes in a Democratic Primary, which is the only election that means anything for Montgomery County offices? Some of the highest percentages in Montgomery County are in the polling places in the down county single-family neighorhoods. Either learn how to talk to them or organize the renters.

by Woody brosnan on May 29, 2014 12:58 pm • linkreport

While I agree that in public statements its important to keep non-alienating language to build coalitions, I think that censoring every reference to physical reality can unnecessarily constrain policy discussions.

In general I find that political discussions in our country today are too much focused on the discourse itself, and not the tangible reality. While I can have some degree of sympathy for those who race or sexuality is insulted ("this harms the self-esteem of children leading to underachievement") I find it perplexing when folks get upset because their house was dissed. Especially in the context of a society in which that kind of house is still so normative.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 29, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

Many Townhouses are condos with terrible fees and association restrictions. People in Howard County pay more to be living outside of Columbia Association rules, especially for SFHs.
HSAs are a big factor in why people move out.

by asffa on May 29, 2014 1:55 pm • linkreport

About the "shoddy" those post-WWII boom SFHs on the tiny "flag" lots were built more solidly then homes built more recently which is why they're still around though usually expanded on with more floors or larger kitchens, etc.
Mine got hit by this June's mini-tornado by an oak tree - which dinged the roof. The crews all said if it'd been a newer home, that tree would have broken straight through the entire house.

by asffa on May 29, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport

The economy going the way it is, fewer people are able to afford nice SFHs. Sad but true.

by Steve D. on May 30, 2014 9:59 am • linkreport

Any "nice" property in MoCo is difficult to afford unless your family has two generous incomes. The county has no other option but to build dense development further out so that it can be affordable. The problem is getting people to and from where they need to be in a reasonable amount of time. BRT is a good start but I don't think it's the answer for everything. For example, by looking at the maps and the patterns around the red line, it seems that heavy rail would be more appropriate for route 29 than BRT. The same goes for points north of 270.

The county also needs to take a hard look at attracting more high paying jobs as commutes into DC and VA become even more ridiculous. This would pay huge dividends on the quality of life in the county.

by Lane on May 30, 2014 11:25 am • linkreport

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