Marc Elrich is considered by many to be the front-runner in the Montgomery County Executive’s race. Greater Greater Washington has endorsed George Leventhal, but we know that many activists we agree with but for whom housing is not their top issue are supporting Marc Elrich. We wanted to explain why we believe he would be a dangerous choice for County Executive.
Elrich has built a base composed of social progressives and labor unions that support policies like a higher minimum wage, along with neighborhood activists who oppose changes like new housing in their communities. Often those groups are not in conflict, but we also often hear neighborhood activists who want to help the less fortunate but not if it means fitting the less fortunate into their own neighborhoods.
Much of the coverage of a more urbanist bent has focused on Elrich’s bombastic statements, like calling a proposed plan for Long Branch “ethnic cleansing” or calling rain gardens “pits of death.” His ability to concoct memorable phrases is admirable and effective, though the way he employs them to occlude the benefits of proposals, such as environmental sustainability, is less praiseworthy. However, this isn’t the most important information for voters to understand about Elrich.
Members of our Elections Committee spent an hour talking with Elrich, during which he clearly laid out his thoughts about the county’s future. It’s apparent from the conversation that Elrich is highly intelligent and thoughtful. He has a more detailed understanding of many policy areas than the average politician. We believe he's genuine in his desire to help the people of Montgomery County.
Elrich has many admirable positions, but…
Elrich has a long record of service, in many ways quite positive. He was one of the earliest champions of Bus Rapid Transit in the county. He's said he'd like to impose parking caps and/or employ other policies to make parking not simply free and abundant, recognizing the costs it brings by encouraging and subsidizing car trips.
He spoke compellingly about the need to close the achievement gap, saying in our interview, “We integrated schools over fifty years ago, but we have the same gap we've ever had.” He is committed to reducing displacement of tenants in low-income areas and increasing affordable housing, both very worthy goals which the county should prioritize highly. He has pushed for the county to consider racial equity in all its actions.
However, his views on land use and housing are also wrong. His philosophy, if it dominated county planning, would choke off opportunities for younger singles and families to find homes and jobs in the county, or for the county's finances to remain strong amid nationwide demographic and economic change. We admire his progressive philosophy and empathy for “have nots,” but on planning, his policies only will serve those who currently have the homes and jobs they want in Montgomery County.
Elrichism, in a nutshell
Elrich calls himself a supporter of smart growth, the philosophy that new growth should be concentrated in the core of the region and near transit corridors. We support a smart growth philosophy, but Elrich's version of it isn't in line with the usual way people use the term.
He would generally curtail construction of new homes and offices in the vast majority of Montgomery County. He talks about allowing some growth within a half-mile radius of Metro stations or a quarter-mile of future BRT, and in most cases disallow it elsewhere. Within these half- and quarter-mile circles, too, Elrich isn't enthusiastic about allowing new apartment buildings near single-family homes, allowing homeowners in single-family areas to create duplexes, or permitting accessory apartments in basements or garages.
Broadly, Elrich isn't convinced Montgomery County needs to add many new homes or residents, or jobs. Many people with jobs in Bethesda or DC are now living in Frederick County and other outlying areas and driving through Montgomery to get to work. We asked Elrich what he’d do for these folks, and his answer was, “I prefer to put jobs in Frederick.” He’d encourage the growth of both households and jobs to happen there, and in Prince George’s County, and elsewhere.
And to the extent Montgomery County is forecast to grow, Elrich says there are some developments that have already gone through the approval process and are in the pipeline but still as yet unbuilt. Therefore, he said, “there's no panic” about the need to find places for new people or jobs.
Just go to Frederick?
We don't share Elrich's lack of concern about the county's growth. Many people who want to be part of the county can’t afford to. For instance, 38% of the demand for rental housing comes from households making below half of area median income, but only 19% of housing is affordable at that level. And good luck buying a home if you're at 50% of the area median; even for couples making $100,000, the county's median, only 15% of houses for sale are an option, and most of them are not in the areas near transit or top schools.
Elrich talked repeatedly about wanting millennials to be able to start families and find homes in the county, but didn’t address the fact that so many of them can’t afford to because those houses have grown too expensive.
“Just go to Frederick” is not a satisfactory answer either for the individual or for the county as a whole. If people live in Frederick but work near or inside the Beltway, they have to suffer very long commutes instead of spending time with family. As for jobs, it's unrealistic to scatter jobs broadly around the region. Many couples hold two jobs and when lower-paying jobs are involved, more than two. Even if one job is in Frederick County, the other(s) likely are not, consuming time and adding to pollution. Also, people can’t just move every time they switch jobs.
Further, since most people are willing to commute about 30 minutes, a new job in Frederick will mean more sprawl farther out toward Hagerstown, Harper's Ferry, WV, or Gettysburg, PA.
Elrich repeatedly referred to the Council of Governments' growth forecasts, which apportion new residents and jobs to all of the area counties based on the unbuilt potential in that county's zoning and a variety of other factors. He framed talk of allowing more people or jobs into Montgomery County as “grabbing” growth away from other counties.
While a regional mindset is admirable, the degree to which the region grows in the center versus at the edges is a major question with profound effects for commute times and the environment. Elrich seems largely uninterested in that, or still sees Montgomery County as an outer suburb rather than a home to major job centers in the region's core.
Finally, despite the way COG does its modeling, attracting economic activity is no zero-sum game; the county is not just competing with nearby cities and counties but the rest of the nation and world for new employers. And Montgomery County, with excellent schools, jobs, and quality of life, is a great place to welcome new residents and jobs.
Elrich calls it “grabbing” if Montgomery County allowed more new homes in desirable areas, but one could equally say it's “pushing” that growth today with restrictive rules that drive the COG forecast to predict fewer new people in the county and more in a place like Frederick, no matter what those people actually want. (See this article about a similar debate in DC for a deeper discussion of the way the COG forecast is used to make circular arguments like this one.)
Only add homes in 3% of the county?
A smart growth policy does recommend focusing new growth around transit stations and in commercial corridors. However, Elrich's definition is far more limited. For instance, he voted against the White Flint 2 sector plan, which plans for land around Montrose Parkway and Rockville Pike, because many of the parcels, he argues, are not within a half mile of a Metro station. “I put a circle around [the Metro station],” he said, and the land being studied was not inside the circle.
He would ideally set a growth boundary around “Bethesda, Silver Spring, probably Germantown, Wheaton, and a half mile along the Red Line, for example.” He argued that in Germantown, the fact that development was allowed on the edges impeded the downtown from becoming a “concentrated business district.”
That’s an extraordinarily narrow and unrealistic version of smart growth. Montgomery County is 507 square miles. A half mile radius circle around each of the 11 Metro stations covers 8.6 square miles, or just 1.7% of the county’s land.
Nine more non-Metro Purple Line stations gets another 1.4% of the land if the circle is a half mile and just 0.35% more if it’s a quarter mile, so 2.0-3.1% total.
By comparison, Arlington touts its smart growth approach of concentrating new homes and jobs around Metro corridors that make up about 10% of the county’s area. Plus, Arlington is also planning for ways to provide homes for more people on its other corridors like Columbia Pike and Lee Highway, has worked to allow accessory apartments in other areas, and otherwise is accommodating people’s living needs around the entire county.
To be sure, a smart growth policy wouldn't recommend allowing development in all parts of the county. Montgomery County has a 145-square-mile agricultural reserve, a widely-praised model for protecting natural and agricultural land. But Elrich isn't proposing just protecting existing forests and fields; the land in White Flint 2 was primarily strip mall or warehouse commercial space.
If Montgomery County built the entire initially-proposed 81-mile, 115-station BRT network (which is uncertain) and put quarter-mile circles around each of those, you get to about 7% of land, including places like White Flint 2. Then a “circle” policy might make sense — if Elrich supported actually using the space in those circles for more homes and jobs.
Not so much growth in the circles either?
But within these half- and quarter-mile circles, Elrich isn’t so enthusiastic about many kinds of changes. For instance, he opposed an amendment to the Bethesda Sector Plan which would have given density bonuses for building more affordable housing on properties near the edge of the Bethesda downtown core.
When asked in the interview, Elrich argued that these sites already have housing on them, some of which is “market-rate affordable” (though in Bethesda, maybe not all that affordable) and he wanted to push for more of the new housing to happen on the commercial land. Plus, Bethesda has a 4 million square foot cap, and that particular amendment wouldn’t have changed the cap.
But, some of the properties in question were within a half mile, or even less. And in our interview, he didn't show support for about increasing the cap either. Nor was he interested in expanding the Bethesda urban core area. Or allowing even duplexes where only detached houses are allowed today. He wasn’t a fan of accessory apartments, either.
Elrich said, “I need people to be able to get married (or not get married) and have kids and be able to move into houses. They are not living in apartments in Montgomery County, and developers aren't building any two-, three-, four-bedroom apartments. So there's no family housing being built.”
Let’s assume Elrich just meant in Bethesda, because he knows Montgomery County has added many new townhouses all around the county. And three- and four-bedroom apartments certainly exist and are possible, even if Bethesda isn’t adding them right now.
When asked if he’d support more housing if there were a requirement to add family-sized units, Elrich pivoted to saying there’s no room in the schools and it’s been hard to find new school sites. (The schools do have an expansion plan including reopening a former high school not far away, and one urbanist critique of MCPS has been that it requires far more suburban format schools than many cities with densities like downcounty Montgomery use for theirs.)
Indeed, school capacity is one challenge, as is transportation. That’s why Montgomery County charges new development with high impact taxes for both (though there’s significant criticism of these among experts). Sprawl development has its own, severe costs to the environment, and people living in Frederick County driving to jobs in Bethesda add to traffic in a way Montgomery County can’t tax, versus living near Bethesda even if they do drive.
More than that, this shift to schools made it seem like there’s probably no significant way of adding new homes that’d be okay with Elrich. He seems to be saying, in effect, that Montgomery County should have places for people to live, especially millennials with kids, but only add new homes right near Metro, and then not in buildings that are very tall, not anywhere there are single-family homes, not one-bedroom apartments because they are too small for families, not new three-bedrooms either because there isn’t room in the schools, and not, and not, and not.
There's plenty of growth already allowed?
Elrich argued that there is already a measure of new development in what's called the “pipeline,” of projects which have received approvals but haven't yet been built.
There's no panic. Montgomery County has — I might get this number wrong but — had 28,000 units in the pipeline that hadn't been built. So if there's a demand, there's no government regulation preventing those units from being built. There's units in Bethesda that are in the pipeline to be built. There's 28 million square feet of office space in a pipeline waiting to be built. So I'm not in a crisis where I don't have a place to put people and people can't pull building permits.
This is a misunderstanding of the way the development process works. Some of the unbuilt pipeline is simply what's moving from one stage to the next (which takes time), but it also includes large-scale developments which market conditions don't actually support building and often wouldn't be a good idea anyway.
For instance, Rock Spring Centre is a 2012 plan to build a large complex of offices and a movie theater with a small amount of residential in the Rock Spring area. Right now, employers like Marriott are moving out of that area in favor of areas nearer transit (Bethesda, in Marriott's case). So to say that there's plenty of stuff in the “pipeline” isn't really correct, when something like Rock Spring Centre isn't going to happen as designed. It's irrelevant whether it's got permits or not.
Plus, it's not within one of Elrich's “circles” anyway and would fall outside his proposed growth boundary (unless a proposed BRT line goes there). Elrich first argued that the county has plenty of space to develop, then said he doesn't want it in all of those places and instead inside the circles, but then put so many restrictions on the circles themselves to allow very little change even there.
No room for new people in Montgomery County?
One could have the attitude that actually, you’d just as soon not add many more people to the county. Elrich doesn't explicitly say this is his view, though he comes close; for instance, he complained that “the last senior housing project, the Bonifant, has many tenants who were not county residents prior to moving in.”
The consequence of his approach would be a society with nearly no upward (or westward) mobility. Bethesda, Rockville/Gaithersburg, and Silver Spring are major regional job centers. If we say, “sorry, these are full,” then the consequence is that these millennials who “get married (or don’t get married) and have kids” will have to wait for their parents to die before they can live in Montgomery County; or maybe they’ll buy a house and displace a lower-income family.
It will be impossible to reduce the achievement gap between wealthy, mostly white western schools and lower-performing, more minority eastern ones without creating opportunities to move to the western side. The achievement gap is caused by segregation, reports have found, and it’s getting worse. The country eliminated legal segregation in housing and schools, but then used zoning to re-segregate communities.
Montgomery County is growing more diverse, which is great, but many of the newer residents are less affluent than the county used to be. This creates a potential challenge for keeping the tax base strong to pay for all the services Elrich supports. He had a few ideas for cutting costs, like working the unions to look at ways to streamline county government employment in a collaborative way, which might pay off or might not.
A newly-released economic development plan lists many good ideas, some small like faster broadband and fostering nightlife, some big like expanding pre-K and, as already discussed, BRT. Many are good ideas, but do not address the county's fundamental structural challenges of whether to allow more people access to the county's opportunity or shut the doors.
Elrich is rightly really concerned about racial equity, but putting a “no vacancy” sign on Montgomery County would be a disaster for racial equity. Maybe his rent control ideas for the county could keep some of the county’s current renters there (it’s unclear, but maybe), but it's not a progressive value to want public policy that only about people who already live here and not those who want to come here.
We appreciate Marc Elrich’s 30-year record of public service, his commitment to equity, and many of his policies that don’t relate to housing and growth. But his approach to land use would overwhelm any other strides he might make on racial equity and the achievement gap.
That's why we urge voters, including progressives concerned about equity, to vote for a different candidate in the June 26 primary, whether that's GGWash's choice, George Leventhal, or one of the other contenders. For more thoughts on Montgomery County's election, check out all of GGWash's primary endorsements.