KENSINGTON — With just weeks until the June 26 primary election, five candidates vying to succeed the term-limited Isiah Leggett as the next County Executive explained their agendas on housing issues to voters at a forum Thursday evening.
While expressing commitment to the County’s housing needs, the candidates outlined differing approaches to issues such as land use, public housing, and rent regulation.
“This consistently never seems one of the top issues in the County of great concern, but that’s because the people that most need it are not the people most involved in our political process,” said current Montgomery County Planning Department deputy director Rose Krasnow as she opened the event.
Hosted by the Montgomery Housing Alliance at the headquarters of the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission and moderated by local housing advocate Theresa Dumais, the event included primary candidates Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich, George Leventhal, and Rose Krasnow, all vying for the Democratic nomination, along with Republican Robin Ficker, who is running unopposed. Del. Bill Frick (D-District 16) and businessman David Blair did not attend.
Krasnow, who previously served as the Mayor of Rockville from 1995-2001, said she would amend accessory dwelling unit laws to ease the licensing process.
Current Council member Marc Elrich (At-Large) added that he would expand the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Rental Program, which sets aside a certain percentage of residential units to be priced for those earning below the median income, and would also do a “deep study” to explore a Countywide rent-stabilization program for older apartment buildings.
Prior to being elected to the County Council in 2006, Elrich served for nearly two decades, beginning in 1987, on the Takoma Park City Council – the only municipality in the County with a rent-stabilization program designed to set limits on rent increases over a 12-month period.
Berliner (District 1), a colleague of Elrich’s on the County Council, said that he would continue to pursue a housing nine-percent low-income tax credit from the State, adding that he would work to get a “set aside” for Montgomery County.
Leventhal (At-Large), who serves on the County Council along with Elrich and Berliner, said that he would use the County Executive position to build coalitions with religious institutions, nonprofits, and developers.
“I will get involved immediately in an inventory of religious land … but primarily it would be a matter of convening interested parties, working with for-profit and nonprofit developers utilizing the low-income tax credit,” Leventhal said. “There’s a lot of acreage in this County that could be utilized that’s owned by churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious institutions.”
Ficker, who ran for the post in 2006 as an independent – receiving 9.4 percent of the vote (28,063 votes) – said he would not raise property or real estate taxes to “keep the cost of housing everywhere down.”
On zoning, the candidates expressed varying views on which land to open to higher-density development.
Berliner said that he would concentrate density around what he called “urban cores,” such as Rockville, Wheaton, Silver Spring, and allow for the affordable housing on or near public parking garages.
While Leventhal agreed that density should be concentrated near Metro and Purple Line stations, he said that the County Council is primarily responsible for planning and zoning decisions, while the County Executive should “bring together multiple players” to “identify more opportunities to use more County land.”
Elrich, who sat next to his Council colleagues, agreed with Berliner’s plan to use public garages, adding that many of them “are close to public transit.”
When Dumais asked the candidates to provide an example of when they stood up for affordable housing, Leventhal pointed out that Berliner and Elrich opposed his 2008 plan to house a transitional homeless family in a 1930s-era County-owned single family home in the Hillmead neighborhood of Bethesda,
“To this day, Roger Berliner’s opposition to allowing formerly homeless families in that home causes me chagrin and disappointment,” Leventhal added.
After opposition from residents, the County Council dropped the plan and eventually sold the property, and, Leventhal added, the “County now faces a real challenge housing homeless families.”
Responding to Leventhal, Elrich explained that he preferred subdividing the property into four lots to accommodate more housing.
Krasnow said that as the Mayor of Rockville, she supported the construction of Beall’s Grant, an affordable housing complex in the West End neighborhood of the city.
Berliner, who did not have the opportunity to respond to Leventhal’s comment, recalled his own efforts to get affordable housing as part of the Westbard Sector Plan in Bethesda, saying his position led to “people calling for my impeachment.”
In addition to mentioning his efforts to save a housing complex from demolition near the Silver Spring Metro, Ficker said he would work to enforce and strengthen the existing current housing code, referring to the 2016 natural gas explosion in Silver Spring at the Long Branch Apartment Complex that resulted in seven fatalities.
When asked about how they would reduce chronic and youth homelessness, the candidates laid out specific approaches.
Elrich explained that he would like to see more developments, such as Progress Place, a resource and housing center in Silver Spring designed to help individuals transition out of homelessness. Despite costing $15 million, Elrich said, it was a “moral” project – but he said he would make sure similar projects are more cost-effective.
Taking a similar stance to Elrich’s, Krasnow added she would encourage “creative” developments similar to Main Street, a future apartment building in Rockville with 25 percent of the units allocated for adults with developmental disabilities.
Adding to the comments of Elrich and Krasnow, Leventhal said that he would take measures, such as preserving the Rental Assistance Program, to help low-income residents avoid homelessness, increase housing availability to reduce chronic homelessness, and reduce dependency on shelters.
Taking a similar position to Leventhal’s, Berliner explained that since the recordation tax used the RAP “fluctuates,” he would find a steady source of income to ensure its future stability.
Ficker, who stood up from his chair while responding to every question, said the County Executive should be more “welcoming” to job creation and that the Council should immediately institute a $15 minimum wage.
“You’re not going to be homeless for very long if you have a decent job," he said.