Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Housing for the Poor Forum: A Blogger's View

I should have posted something on the Housing for the Poor Forum last week, but Just Up the Pike did such a bang up job of covering the event that I kind of let it slip to the back burner. Anyway, the following was my take on the evening.

The forum was sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and held at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Catholic Church in Bethesda. Turnout was larger than expected at about 350 (organizers had to scramble to find more chairs; they had initially only set out 270). All five of the Montgomery County Executive candidates participated.

Initial Statements Regarding Housing for the Poor -

Robin Ficker (I) was the first candidate to speak and started out with a statement that caught me by surprise. He called for the removal of our troops from Iraq. While I was wondering how that related to housing, he went on to argue that the nation would be better served if the $200 billion spent on the war were instead used to fund vital programs here at home, like housing for the poor. The room erupted in applause (the most enthusiastic round Ficker received during the evening).

He went on to blast Leggett and Silverman for failing to lead on the housing front during their collective years in office. He pointedly asked where the affordable housing was in some of the county's newest developments like Kentlands, Lakelands, King Farm and Clarksburg. He took issue with the recently passed workforce housing measure, arguing that people earning over $90,000 didn't really need the help and that the county should remain focused on housing for the poor and those most in need. He pointed out that the county has let developers opt-out of the current 12.5% MPDU (affordable housing) law, and promised that if elected County Executive he would not allow that to happen.

And, of course, he commented several times on the fact that he doesn't accept any developer-related campaign contributions.

Chuck Floyd (R) was next. He started off on a biographical note, talking about his experience growing up on a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore. His family was poor, but as a kid he didn't realize it.

He spoke of his military service and of a stint working for Colin Powell at the State Department (afterwards he explained to me that Powell had asked him to handle the construction, development and security upgrades of America's foreign embassies).

He said residents need to understand why Montgomery County has an affordable housing issue: 1) MoCo is a donor county in the state (we pay more to the state in taxes than we get back); and 2) our taxes are too high to begin with. He suggested two ways to address the issue, creating public-private partnerships to increase affordable housing and a program to help the poor further their education so that they could get better paying jobs.

Bob Fustero (D) took the floor next. He spoke as an average guy just trying to make a difference. He pointed out that when he ran for Governor in 2002, he chose a former homeless woman as his running mate (he spent $600 on the campaign and amazed the pundits when he captured 20% of the vote against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend).

He renewed his oft-repeated call for 4% mortgages to help people afford homes (an idea he read about in Lowell Bryan's book, Bankrupt). Then he went off on a bit of a tangent, about how the poor and homeless are people too and shouldn't be ignored or just given handouts. He spoke of how he opens his home, allowing homeless friends to use his shower and laundry.

He called for Progress Place in Silver Spring to be turned into a five-story building with efficiency apartments that those in need could rent for $50 a week.

He described how when he started working at a local Giant supermarket 30 years ago he was paid $5.50/hr. That pay enabled him to buy a car, pay rent on a small apartment and covered his college tuition. According to Fustero, Giant now starts workers at $6.50/hr which isn't enough to pay for a home, let alone a car and college. He brought up the wage issue as a way to help the housing affordability problem (if people earn more, they'll be able to pay their housing costs). He also suggested expanding the county's mental health services would be helpful.

Ike Leggett (D) opened with the tale of his own family's poverty as he was growing up. He, his parents and his 12 brothers and sisters lived in a three room "shotgun" house. He got a lot of laughter and applause when he pointed out that while Floyd may not have realized he was poor growing up, "I knew I was poor!"

Leggett went on to suggest that with all of Montgomery County's prosperity and success, "if we can't get it [affordable housing] right here" then we're in serious trouble. He said that we have the local resources to be flexible and efficient with regard to housing needs for the poor.

He listed three things he would do as County Executive to address the housing issue: 1) Quadruple the size of the county's Housing Initiative Fund (HIF); 2) expand the zoning for affordable housing (he feels it's too restrictive); and 3) use the office of County Executive as a bully pulpit to influence the discussion of affordable housing and work with nonprofit and faith-based groups to address the issue.

Leggett went on to say that the burden is not Montgomery County's alone, but there has been a failure at the state and national levels as well. He said that the issue of housing for the poor is a "moral and ethical problem" and that we have a responsibility to help the "least of these."

Steve Silverman (D) started his remarks by saying that he didn't really understand homelessness and mental illness until he visited the Gude Drive shelters and saw firsthand the conditions of some of our county's residents.

He noted that he authored the first local Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the nation and was the first member of the Council to advocate the use of publicly owned land for affordable housing four years ago.

The cornerstones of Silverman's plan to address the housing needs of the poor include: 1) the use of available publicly owned land for affordable housing; 2) expanding the EITC; 3) rental assistance for families in need; 4) and a "housing first" policy.

He also set a goal of ending homelessness in Montgomery County by the year 2012.

Silverman commented that one of the biggest issues facing a County Executive, particularly with regard to affordable housing, is to make the case for specific projects with local communities. He pointed to his own leadership on recent projects including Seneca Heights and Dale Drive (in Rockville).

Working with General Assembly -

Following their initial statements, the moderator asked a couple follow up questions. The first concerned how each candidate would work with the county's state legislators to help the "poorest of the poor."

Ficker: The focus with regard to housing needs to be on the developers and not the legislature. He pointed out, of course, that he accepts no campaign contributions from developers.

Floyd: Didn't really address the question, but stated that government should stick to providing basic, necessary services (like housing for the poor). He blasted the current Council's "gutting" of the Annual Growth Policy and said housing needs can best met by community outreach, public-private partnerships and education.

Fustero: The current county delegation should be kicked out of office if they don't serve the needs of the community.

Leggett: The problem is not the county's delegation in Annapolis, but rather the delegates from other areas of the state. He pointed out that MoCo often projects two conflicting messages: first that we have the resources to do things other jurisdiction simply cannot, and second that we need more resources from the state. He argued that as the former Chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, he has built relationships with nearly every elected official in the state house and will be able to bring that experience to bear as County Executive.

Silverman: The first thing that needs to be done is make sure we elect a new Governor (this generated a lot of applause). He agreed with Leggett on the county's delegation and working with state officials. He stated that the state's school funding mechanism is a model for working with the General Assembly on other issues. He also argued that the state needs to look at its excess bonding capacity in order to fund housing partnerships.

Response to Skyrocketing Rents and Suggested Rent Controls -

A question was asked about the best way to address annual rent increases of 12-20%. Are rent controls the answer?

Ficker: He is opposed to rent controls. Says we need to encourage the building of inexpensive apartments, and notes that this is the responsibility of the developers. Points out (again) that he accepts no developer campaign contributions.

Floyd: We need to look at what other jurisdictions are doing. Notes that Takoma Park, New York City and Cairo (Egypt) have rent controls, but stops short of saying we need them as well. States that current MoCo citizens should have priority on waiting list for MPDUs and affordable housing. Also argues that we need to make sure infrastructure is fixed.

Fustero: Shocks the room by endorsing Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich because of his fiscal responsibility! Comments on how things are getting more expensive and tells story of being Treasurer of his condo association and fighting to keep costs down.

Leggett: Opposed to rent control because he believes that it would increase pressure on landlords to convert their units to condos and price out low income residents. Believes public exposure of high rent and affordable housing problems will help situation.

Silverman: Starts off saying that he's not concerned about rent increases at "the Grand" on Wisconsin Ave (luxury apartments), but is concerned about the effect on lower income residents. Points out that MoCo has an excellent rental assistance program in place to help those in need. Argues for an increase in state aid to the county for housing, and for authority (from the state) to offer local tax credits to landlords to prevent condo conversions.

My Final Thoughts -

Hey, props if you actually read through this far! The housing forum was an interesting event. Ficker surprised me by taking what I thought were rather liberal stands (as contrasted to his well-known conservative/libertarian anti-tax positions). I thought Floyd was impressive with his forthright statements, when I am sure he knew some of them weren't what the crowd wanted to hear. Leggett and Silverman both did well and seemed to be the most comfortable of the five (undoubtedly due to their experience in office). But it was Fustero who stole the show! Let me explain.

After the event, as the audience milled around and snacked on the ice cream sundaes the church provided, Fustero seemed to be the candidate who elicited the most response. And, surprisingly, not because he's a Democratic candidate who endorsed Governor Ehrlich (though that wasn't a plus for many of the attendees). People were struck by his honest portrayal of helping out those in need and his average-guyness. My best guess is still that either Leggett or Silverman will win the Democratic nomination (and the general election), but Fustero does have his fans.

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