Voters in Montgomery County will cast four votes for four at-large seats on the county council on June 26. That sounds like you could support everyone you like, but there are 33 (thirty-three!) candidates running in the Democratic primary alone. The competition for your four votes is intense.
Greater Greater Washington sent a questionnaire to all 38 candidates that filed to run. We received responses from 22, including 20 Democrats, Republican Shelly Skolnick, and Green Party member Tim Willard. We looked over them closely, as well as readers' ratings in our head-to-head tool, candidates’ records when in office (where applicable), public statements, comments from our contributors, and responses to interviews and questionnaires from other groups. That includes publicly available responses to organizations with different perspectives, such as Progressive Neighbors, which often has a more skeptical view of housing and zoning, and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, which tends to prioritize more road infrastructure.
We don’t have a final four for you yet. We found something to like about just about every candidate who returned our questionnaire, and we're pretty excited that there are so many who share our views on expanding housing opportunities and the critical importance of public transit. The goal of this post is to allow our readers to “see our work” as we try to narrow down to four candidates to endorse.
In the interest of space and time (both ours and our readers), we’re not going to discuss everyone in the race and instead focus on responses from some of the candidates running for the Democratic party nomination that we found the most promising. Our “shortlist” is, in alphabetical order with links to their responses:
- County Department of Recreation head Gabe Albornoz
- Community organizer Brandy H. M. Brooks
- Environmental activist and lawyer Bill Conway
- Budget and procurement expert Hoan Dang
- Former CNN producer and Gandhi Brigade youth film program head Evan Glass
- Former Takoma Park council member Seth Grimes
- Former White House liaison to HUD Ashwani Jain
- Former Obama staffer and attorney Will Jawando
- Scientist and “free range mom” Danielle Meitiv
- County board of education’s Jill Ortman-Fouse
- Incumbent at-large councilmember Hans Riemer
- ESOL teacher Chris Wilhelm
Before we dive into the nitty gritty of responses to our questions, we’d like to point out that, with the exception of Ashwani Jain, all of the candidates listed above have opted to use the new public financing system. More than half are also first time candidates for office, and come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including five people of color. As Montgomery County is majority-minority, we hope this election cycle heralds an ever-upward trend of a more diverse and representative political class in our region.
“There are areas of the county where there are simply no affordable housing units at all”
Growing the stock of affordable housing has become a problem in large, wealthy metros across the US and Canada. We asked our candidates whether they would be in favor of changing zoning and reducing parking requirements within a half mile of Metrorail and a quarter mile of MARC, Purple Line, and BRT stations in order to help house more people. We also asked them to describe further ideas to address the rental affordability gap in our county.
A number of candidates declared that they were in favor of upzoning near public transit. Meitiv and Jawando were willing to go so far as to suggest changing the zoning of single family neighborhoods. Will Jawando told us:
First, let’s recognize that there are areas of the county where there are simply no affordable housing… There are communities that frankly use zoning rules to zero out any new housing development, particularly housing that would be affordable to middle-class and working-class families. So to begin to close the gap, we have to reduce restrictive zoning codes (delaying projects, or requiring off-street parking). We can encourage higher-density projects with mixed-use space that would see developers actually want to build affordable housing because of the market demand – and the fact that the higher-density of units makes the project financially attractive to the builder.
Danielle Meitiv wrote, “We should rezone certain single-home neighborhoods to allow for more multifamily construction. This will allow us to increase the number of affordable units in desirable areas without increasing the footprint of the housing.” Meitiv’s and Jawando’s answers to the Progressive Neighbors questionnaire were similarly bold about touching that third rail of local politics — single-family zoning.
Bill Conway also promoted increased housing construction: “We don’t get to repeal the laws of supply and demand.” Seth Grimes told us that he is in favor of increasing multifamily housing along busy commuter roads like University Blvd and Viers Mill Road and that he was a proponent of reduced parking in a re-development project near the metro station in Takoma Park while he was on the town council. However, we were critical at the time of what we saw as Grimes blocking higher density development in his home neighborhood, and so we’re skeptical that he would really be in favor of more housing in his own backyard.
Candidates also discussed ideas to increase the capacity of established neighborhoods. Brandy Brooks wants to allow houses to be (legally) subdivided, and Chris Wilhelm, Brooks, Gabe Albornoz, and Meitiv would like to streamline the approval process for accessory apartments. Albornoz also suggested conversions of vacant commercial buildings into residential units and building micro-units. Grimes drew our attention to a post he wrote recently promoting conversion of an old school to affordable housing.
Meitiv suggested improving mass transit to areas of existing low-cost housing, thereby increasing the number of affordable, transit-oriented neighborhoods. Similarly, Jill Ortman-Fouse would like to see rental housing more “equitably distributed and located in more affordable areas near underutilized public transportation options.”
When asked specifically about expanding the stock of affordable housing, pretty much every candidate pushed for increases to Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) requirements, often to 15% or higher. Hans Riemer has put forward legislation that would increase the MPDU requirement specifically in low poverty school catchments, thereby promoting economic integration. He would increase the Housing Initiatives Fund (HIF) contribution so that the county can buy more naturally-occurring affordable housing.
Ashwani Jain, referencing his background working for HUD (the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development), suggested bolstering HIF, capping rent increases, and implementing “just-cause” eviction laws. Evan Glass mentioned his experience working with Montgomery Housing Partnership and wrote that he would like to convene a task force to come up with fresh ideas for affordable housing.
Everyone on our shortlist acknowledged that new housing and other developments would have to be built, but some candidates were cautious in stressing the need to work with existing communities to make sure new changes served their needs. Bill Conway noted that “[development] should not occur at the expense of running roughshod over local neighborhood concerns,” even if change happened more gradually than we’d prefer. According to the Progressive Neighbors questionnaire, Jill Ortman-Fouse would also like to see more involvement by civic groups in the master planning process. Chris Wilhelm, a teacher, was supportive of building housing but concerned that adequate funding was available to build schools to absorb the putative growth in school-age residents.
Brooks would want to implement “community-centered planning” and, along with Grimes and Riemer, prioritized preserving existing affordable housing before building new housing. She suggested community land trusts as a way to prevent displacement. Both Wilhelm and Brooks were also concerned with retaining community green space in new or redeveloped housing, and Brooks would prefer mid-rise and infill development over large projects
In order to determine what our candidates would do in a real-world situation, we asked them their preferred plan for the old Silver Spring library. Greater Greater Washington advocated for the Victory Housing proposal for 92 apartments for low-income seniors and a daycare center in a new four story building. Bowing to neighborhood concerns, however, county executive Ike Leggett approved a proposal for childcare only, in the existing library building, with senior housing promised five miles away at a planned development in White Oak.
Most of our shortlisted candidates did not approve of this decision, and would have preferred to see housing at this site. Ashwani Jain wrote, “Traditionally, we tend to only build affordable housing units in areas that are significantly far away from employment, transit centers, shopping areas and public services. That is what the county just agreed to. But this is not conducive to a healthy and productive community and is the opposite of smart growth.”
Wilhelm, while in favor of the mixed childcare and housing proposal, made a point to note that he would have have pushed for more public green space on that site and in the Silver Spring area in general. Ourtman-Fouse and Dang saw advantages to a variety of different types of educational, housing, and parks plans. Albornoz approved of the decision by Leggett to build housing in White Oak and reserve this close-in site for childcare
“Hit 'pause' on any roadway expansion”
We asked multiple questions designed to get at candidates’ commitment to supporting transit, walking, biking, and other more sustainable transportation modes over new roads and single occupancy vehicles.
We asked a specific question regarding the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in dedicated lanes along Route 29 (Columbia Pike/Colesville Road) in East County. The county, in consultation with corridor neighbor advisory committees, approved a plan to run BRT in mixed traffic lanes south of Tech Road. This plan would leave BRT buses stuck in car traffic in the most congested areas, thereby limiting the benefit of this costly new service over the existing WMATA Z series buses.
Greater Greater Washington’s and Action Committee For Transit’s own Sean Emerson and Sebastian Smoot have come up with an alternative plan for Route 29, “Better BRT,” that would involve narrowing general traffic lanes and running buses in the median in a dedicated lane from Tech Road to Sligo Creek Parkway near downtown Silver Spring.
We were encouraged to see Chris Wilhelm, Danielle Meitiv, Hoan Dang, and Bill Conway testify at a public hearing in Rockville in late February testifying in favor of studying the “Better BRT” proposal, and they all reiterated their preference for BRT in dedicated lanes in their questionnaire responses. Hans Riemer indicated to us that he's been a proponent of dedicated busways with the council. (The council recently agreed to study this proposal.) Other candidates also expressed strong support for dedicated lanes in this corridor, even where it slows down car traffic. Brandy Brooks wrote, “Dedicated lanes are central to the “rapid” in Bus Rapid Transit… a huge incentive for people to get out of their cars and onto BRT, thereby also reducing congestion for those who do need to drive.”
Jill Ortman-Fouse was in favor of potentially extending dedicated lanes, but told both us and Progressive Neighbors that she would like to limit the impact to surrounding communities in the implementation of BRT and that she was not in favor of removing general traffic lanes and was sympathetic to residents’ concerns of increased traffic.
When asked about their priorities with respect to transportation funding, most candidates reassured us they’d really prefer moving dollars from road projects into transit. Most are opposed to building the M-83 highway in the Clarksburg area, which has been in the county master plan for decades but would spur greenfield development and disturb an ecologically sensitive stream valley. Conway, citing the February 2017 Midcounty Corridor Study Supplemental Report, concluded that the environmental costs to building this road were too high versus the putative benefits to car commuters. He instead preferred an alternative that involved BRT on MD-355 (Rockville Pike) combined with targeted road widenings and improvements.
With respect to building new roads in general, Danielle Meitiv wrote: “It is well documented that expanding roads does not alleviate congestion. Instead, it creates induced demand, which adds to congestion problems.“ Will Jawando told us that he would “hit 'pause' on any roadway expansion project in favor of ensuring that we first pay for our public mass transit projects.”
By contrast, Ashwani Jain took a more measured approach: “…a comprehensive plan requires understanding the varying needs of county residents, both UpCounty and DownCounty. These communities face different transportation issues, thus require different solutions. As such, I support the Purple Line, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), limited roadway investments like M-83 and the expansion of I-270, as well as designated bike lanes and sidewalks.”
Hoan Dang would also keep all road and transit projects in the master plans. However, he indicated that he preferred funding transit projects and suggested revisiting whether the Corridor Cities Transitway, currently planned as a BRT project, could be implemented with light rail to maximize effectiveness.
Hans Riemer also went beyond parroting back our list of transit priorities, proposing a mix of express bus service on Rockville Pike, shuttles to the Metro and MARC, and more MARC service to alleviate congestion in Clarksburg and Germantown.
“We must reimagine and redesign our communities around people, not cars.”
We asked candidates to describe their commitment to Vision Zero in Montgomery County. Some responded through the lens of their own experiences: Danielle Meitiv referenced safe streets for her “free-range” children, Evan Glass discussed working to bring sidewalks and crosswalks to East-West Highway in Silver Spring, Seth Grimes cited almost getting forced off the road by drivers while on his bike, and Brandy Brooks decried the narrow sidewalks and infrequent crosswalks on University Blvd near her home. Brooks wrote:
53% of pedestrian fatalities and 50% of cyclist fatalities occur when these users are illegally in the roadway. What that tells me right away is that pedestrians and cyclists don’t have enough of the infrastructure they need to move around effectively while staying safe… Adding more crosswalks on University would require drivers to slow down and stop much more — but that’s a good thing, because speed is a key factor in whether or not a pedestrian survives a crash.
Most of the candidates had similar policy prescriptions: more sidewalks, bike lanes, and crosswalks, and better designed intersections. Meitiv wrote, “We must reimagine and redesign our communities around people, not cars.” Chris Wilhelm especially stressed the importance of infrastructure, asserting that “physical changes are the most immediate and concrete steps we can take to reduce pedestrian injuries and fatalities as quickly as possible.”
While Will Jawando supports reducing road speeds and improving transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure, we were disappointed in what we see as false equivalencies of driver versus pedestrian behavior in his response. He wrote: “Too many people dash in front of cars mid-block, and too many cars ignore the ‘share the road’ laws… [We need] a far more vigorous public campaign. We must do a better job of educating everyone who uses the roads on their responsibilities, so we cut down on driving while stoned, drunk, tired or texting, but also unsafe pedestrian and cycling habits as well as unsafe drivers.”
As Brooks described above, seemingly reckless pedestrian or cyclist behavior is often the logical consequence of poor infrastructure. We hope, if elected, that candidates will be thoughtful on this point and avoid “victim blaming.”
Bill Conway and Evan Glass astutely pointed out that our most dangerous roads (including University Blvd, referenced above) are state roads, and Conway suggested that the county could advocate through the State of Maryland’s Towards Zero Deaths program in order to achieve its own Vision Zero goals.
Incumbent Hans Riemer already has a record of working towards improving pedestrian and bicycle safety. We remember well in 2014 when he passed a bill to mandate snow removal of sidewalks in the county. He is currently working towards a new roads code, and would like to budget for more road diets and protected bike lanes. Riemer has tried to push the state of Maryland to allow the county to lower speed limits on county owned roads below 25 mph and to implement HAWK signals on state roads, and hopes he will be more successful if re-elected with a stronger “Vision Zero coalition.”
Gabe Albornoz called upon his expertise as recreation director in calling for a road safety audit and would further increase “the use of automated enforcement to address excessive speeds, red-light, and stopped bus violations.”
Fighting for inclusive communities
To learn more about our candidates' thought processes, we asked them who they think is currently left out of the land use decision process. Many candidates have said that broader community input is important, and we're interested to hear whose voices they think should be more strongly heard.
We got a wide range of answers: immigrants, non-native English speakers, transit riders, renters and condo owners, people of color, the working poor, seniors, the disabled, parents of young children, children and teens themselves.
Hoan Dang pointed out that “unless a person or group is attuned to the process through membership in an organization or part of a community group, there is little chance to be informed of these public hearings.” He would create more “opportunities to allow the community to provide input at their own convenience, such as recording video testimonies using their cell phone, YouTube, or on social media.”
Danielle Meitiv wrote: “Montgomery County is undergoing a sometimes painful but necessary and inevitable transition from a suburban region to a dynamic, more densely urbanized county… I’m sympathetic to the concerns and frustrations of residents who feel as though their familiar neighborhoods are being developed too quickly, and feel their concerns are “bulldozed over” …we need to include local residents in developments plans from the beginning and be honest about the goals of development.”
Evan Glass wrote: “We should never try to silence public discourse; rather, we need to work harder to hear the voices that are not being heard.”
We are still finalizing our decisions and may contact some candidates for follow-up conversations. We don’t want to have deal-breakers or litmus tests; however, we do want to know who’d really be willing to fight in the trenches of the real world to build new housing, expand mass transit, and mitigate residential segregation. Who will stick to their values, and who will back down at the first angry letter or mean tweet?
Look for our endorsement post in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you're a US citizen of voting age in Montgomery County, have you checked if you're registered to vote in the June 26 primaries?