The Great Divide
Montgomery County is famously a place for the well-heeled, and for the wealthy. But it’s also a place now where some line up for free food and sleep four to a room.
Deirdre Hernandez comes from a privileged background, but now struggles to get by as a divorced mother of three living in Rockville. "It just goes to show, you don't always end up in the same position your parents were in," she says. Photo credit: Francis Tatem
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When Ted Leonsis moved to Potomac earlier this year, the owner of the Washington Wizards and the Capitals sports teams joined an elite club of billionaires who call this exclusive enclave home. Leonsis paid $20 million for the historic, nearly 20,000-square-foot Marwood chateau on 13 acres—a home whose interior was featured in upscale Veranda magazine shortly after he moved in.
Less than a mile away, Redskins owner Dan Snyder lives in a 13,000-square-foot mansion set on 14 acres that slope toward the Potomac River. Snyder previously lived in a “modest” 8,000-square-foot home in Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School district that he purchased in the mid-’90s. He bought the Potomac estate—which includes two additional buildings—for $10 million in 2001 from Queen Noor, widow of Jordan’s King Hussein.
Neither man was to the manor born. Leonsis, 54, is the son of Greek immigrants who, by his account, never made more than $30,000 a year between them. Snyder, 46, grew up middle class in Silver Spring and is a University of Maryland dropout. But they’re lords of the manor now.
They inhabit a realm that unfolds as you drive beyond the Beltway along roads that follow the river. It’s a world of wealth and privilege largely immune to the economic cycles that afflict mere mortals. In this land of the fabulously wealthy, it’s nothing to spend $150,000 or more on an outdoor living room, or to cough up the $110,000 initiation fee for membership at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club, once you’ve climbed the eight-to-10-year waiting list.
But this is not the world of Henry Aleman, who lives roughly 17 miles away. A house painter until he became disabled four years ago, Aleman is a Salvadoran immigrant who says he once painted Snyder’s house inside and out. He remembers that it was muy grande, with many rooms.
Aleman’s living quarters, not so much. He, his Salvadoran wife and their two American-born children have lived in a small, two-bedroom basement apartment off Piney Branch Road in Takoma Park for the past 10 years. To make the $1,170 monthly rent, they’ve been subletting a room to a married couple with an 8-month-old daughter for $500 a month.
The four Alemans sleep in the other bedroom, with three beds jammed together and no space to walk. Their only steady income is the $300 a week Henry’s wife, Ester Maria, earns. She baby-sits three children in the tiny apartment and takes an occasional cleaning job.
The family uses food stamps to shop at a nearby Giant; the kids get free meals at school. Aleman, 37, came to the United States on Nov. 26, 1993, the day after Thanksgiving, fleeing his native country in the wake of a civil war. A stocky man of medium height, he used to earn $18 an hour working for an up-county, Latino-owned company.
“I painted too much houses in Potomac,” he says. “Potomac have too much money.”
But then came the health problems—a broken leg and, more recently, an infected right foot, with complications from diabetes in the other. He doesn’t have health insurance, and doesn’t qualify for Medicaid. He worries a lot about his family’s finances, and its future.