Tuesday, May 22, 2012

SPOTLIGHT: The Issue of Race in Montgomery County // PLUS: MoCo Residents Fighting Affordable Housing Effort (Again)?

Maryland Juice caught an excellent article today from Center Maryland columnist Josh Kurtz. In his lengthy diatribe, Mr. Kurtz outlines how Montgomery County is an extremely diverse community -- both racially and socioeconomically. His thesis, however, is that the County's politicians are nearly all-white and oftentimes appear to be well-to-do. Kurtz discusses the political impact of this problem (excerpt below):
JOSH KURTZ: Hey Montgomery County leaders and voters: Tired of being the ATM for the rest of the state? Then it’s time to start electing a delegation to Annapolis that actually looks like the county....
The population, in the county, according to the 2010 Census count, is now majority-minority: 49 percent white, 17 percent African-American, 17 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian, and 4 percent who reported they were two or more races....

Almost one-third of all students were receiving free or reduced meals in school – and 41 percent of the student population had received free or reduced meals at some point in their academic career....

Yet the misconception persists around Maryland that Montgomery County’s streets are paved with gold – which can be mined at will by the legislature whenever the state is in a fiscal jam....

Plain and simple, it’s hard to make the case to the rest of Maryland that Montgomery County is a place with huge swaths of poverty and innumerable needs when so many members of the delegation the county sends to the State House look like they’re fresh out of an Ivy League fraternity – and counting the days till they can run for Congress.

In the past two elections, Montgomery voters have done a decent job of clearing out some of the legislative deadwood. But they haven’t done much to speed up the dismally slow process of diversifying the county delegation.

This majority-minority district currently sends just one African-American lawmaker to Annapolis among its delegation of 32, plus one Hispanic, one Chinese-American and, in an anomaly, three Indian-Americans. But you can’t say there’s a growth trend there when the lone Hispanic legislator, Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, who is 70, could wind up retiring in 2014, and one of the Indian-Americans, Del. Sam Arora, is already being targeted for defeat for his vote against same-sex marriage.

The county’s eight-member Senate delegation is, and always has been, 100 percent white. The two legislative districts in Montgomery County with less than 50 percent white population, according to state figures – District 20, in inner Beltway Silver Spring and Takoma Park, with 57 percent minority population, and District 39, which covers Montgomery Village and much of Germantown, with 53 percent minority population – have all-white representation....

But does the onus lie just with the voters? Organizations that recruit and endorse candidates need to do more to promote and nurture minority candidates. Community groups need to encourage their own leaders to run for office. And minority candidates themselves need to step up, in every sense of the phrase....

Maryland Juice completely agrees with the main points in Josh Kurtz's article. Indeed, in the past, we've pointed out that the newest members of MoCo's legislative delegation do not look like the legislators of yore. But still, the pace of change is not fast enough -- and the Party (at every level) does not seem to care about developing the farm team. In many instances (ie: Mike Miller *cough*) they sabotage efforts to diversify and modernize the Democratic caucus.


HYSTERIA OVER MAKING HOUSING MORE 
AFFORDABLE IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY

Indeed, when Montgomery County used to actually be much more white and rich, a certain political culture existed that under-prioritized issues like workforce housing/housing affordability. But amazingly, even today, we persistently see a small but vocal minority of residents become extremely animated every time policymakers suggest ways of making housing more affordable in the County. The result is that our housing policies are completely B.S. and are NOT designed to solve MoCo's affordable housing crisis. They are designed to placate the residents who can already afford to live in MoCo. As we now know, this problem is keeping young professionals from moving to Montgomery County. Maryland Juice previously reported that MoCo is now more expensive than New York and San Francisco. Seriously. Think about that.

Now read the latest news report of residents getting hysterical (again) about the idea of allowing MoCo residents to rent out their basements. County planners are hoping to allow homeowners (who actually live in their home) to rent out their basements (aka "accessory apartments") without having to go through a year-long application process. MoCo currently has nearly 1 million residents, but fewer than 300 licensed basement rentals due to the current ridiculous "special exception" process. But notably, when Philadelphia implemented a policy similar to the one being proposed in MoCo, only 1 in 1,000 houses exercised their right to have a basement tenant.

Unlike past "affordable housing" initiatives, the accessory apartment proposal does not risk creating an over-concentration of cheap housing in any one place. So what's the hysteria all about? Well, did you read Josh Kurtz's article above? I think people are scared of "poor" people moving into their neighborhood -- even though "poor" might simply mean young professionals who are just getting started in the County or seniors on fixed incomes. Further proof that the hysteria against accessory apartments is unfounded lies in the fact that the proposed MoCo rules would require the home to be owner-occupied. After all, what homeowner is going to rent to a crackhead or criminal, if they have to live under the same roof? Ain't gonna happen, folks!

Check out the disturbing report from today's Wheaton Patch (excerpt below):
WHEATON PATCH: Montgomery County residents turned out in force at two public meetings on Monday to express concerns about a proposed rule change that would eliminate the special exception process for some accessory apartments, also known as “mother-in-law” apartments....

An estimated 275 to 300 accessory apartments exist in Montgomery County today, Pamela Dunn told the crowded auditorium at the Park and Planning headquarters in downtown Silver Spring. Dunn is the project manager for the comprehensive zoning code rewrite underway at M-NCPPC....

Current regulations require a special exception for every accessory apartment in Montgomery County, a process that usually takes nine to 13 months. The county's board of appeals approves special exceptions for an average of 10 apartments each year....

Instead of the board of appeals subjectively deciding which special exception applications to approve, a by-right process would establish objective criteria, Russ said....

“It doesn’t mean no oversight; it just means no public hearing,” Dunn said.

Russ repeatedly said that streamlining accessory apartments would result in more affordable housing throughout Montgomery County and more opportunities for elderly homeowners to age in place on a fixed income.

Barbara Sanders, a Silver Spring resident, remembers when her son Greg returned to the area after earning a graduate degree and getting a job in D.C.--but was unable to afford anything more than a studio apartment. Then he found a family with a basement apartment in their 1930s-era colonial home, looking for a renter. The arrangement suited both sides perfectly, as the family used the extra income to send one of their children to college. But Sanders was one of only a few people in the audience with something positive to say about streamlining the accessory apartment process....

Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich attended the afternoon public meeting and shared how he had recently accompanied some county housing inspectors on their rounds in Wheaton....

“This is about taking other single-family neighborhoods and radically altering them,” he said after the meeting....

The next step is for the Planning Board to make a recommendation to transmit the zoning text amendment to the county council. Then, if a councilmember chose to formally introduce the ZTA, it would be sent back to the planning board, which would hold another public hearing before sending back comments to the council. Next, the council would hold its own public hearing, and the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee would hold worksessions. Finally, the ZTA would come before the full council for a vote.

The Planning Board is scheduled to take up the ZTA in June....

I hate to be all Rollin Stanley about this, but honestly, look at the photo below of the residents who turned out to oppose homeowners renting out their basements. Does this look like a representative sample of a vibrant majority-minority County?

PHOTO SOURCE: WHEATON PATCH 5/22/2012

OTHER POLICY CONSIDERATIONS: Republicans and Libertarians should be upset about this too, albeit from a property rights perspective. Montgomery County wants to tell me who can live in my house? My neighbors want to decide who I live with? Uh, no thank you.

Moreover, one has to imagine that a basement rental income stream may be a huge benefit to homeowners facing underwater mortgages, foreclosure, or who simply need a little extra cash to survive in expensive Montgomery County -- whether or not they are young families, seniors, or youths.

EMAIL THE PLANNING BOARD & COUNTY COUNCIL TO SUPPORT AFFORDABLE HOUSING & PROPERTY RIGHTS:

Maryland Juice will be following this issue very closely in the coming months. Stay tuned!

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