Thursday, August 24, 2006
candidates' forum on low-income housing
First of all, my apologies for taking so long to get this out. I make my triumphant return to College Park and two days and am trying to get everything together, but I promise that everything I have to say - both about the forum and the Purple Line walking tour - will be said as soon as possible.
Last night I made the drive out to Bethesda for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington's Forum on Housing for Low-Income People, where all five County Executive candidates were in attendance. I was under the impression it was going to be a debate but, instead, a moderator read out three questions and each candidate had seven minutes to answer the questions. After that, the moderator read two follow-up questions, which each candidate had two minutes to respond to. This was followed by ice cream sundaes with a generous variety of toppings.
Robin Ficker was his usual self, asking to stand when he spoke, gunning the audience for applause (which annoyed the moderator) and making the kind of outrageous (by Montgomery County standards) statements that have earned him a reputation as the "lone outsider" in County politics, he told me.
By not taking developer contributions, Ficker said, he would be able to pressure developers to build low-income housing (at this point, the woman in front of me muttered, "who's going to do that?") and mentioned the BoKlok houses that IKEA builds in Europe. For those not familiar with BoKlok, I suggest you check it out. I mean, IKEA already sells us cheap furniture; what's to say people wouldn't live in an IKEA house?
Republican Chuck Floyd spoke extensively on his background, including his career at the Department of State and his childhood on a farm, where "we didn't know what poor was," he stated. In both rounds of the forum, he mentioned using public-private partnerships and job training to help people get out of poverty. They're both effective solutions, and already in effect, so I wasn't too impressed by it.
Political Yak (who I met!) said that Democrat Robert Fustero
stole the show, and I'd say it wasn't far from the truth. Fustero was the only candidate on stage not wearing a suit, but the main reason he stood out was because he had a better understanding of poverty than the other candidates. Fustero knows the homeless: they are his friends; they are his house-guests; in his run for governor four years ago, a homeless woman was his running-mate.
"A shelter is like a handout," he said, illustrating a plan to build a five-story apartment building at Progress Place in Silver Spring where formerly-homeless people could rent efficiency apartments at $50/week under the condition that they underwent job training and mental help. He also stressed a need to offer four-percent mortgages to new homeowners. Lower interest rates allow families to afford a larger mortgage, meaning they can buy a more expensive house. Fustero's plan would allow families to own in Montgomery County without putting more strain on the existing Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program.
Ike Leggett rarely looked at the other speakers during the forum, instead staring at the table or making cursory glances at Steve Silverman. He began his response by insisting that Montgomery County was already "very generous" and discussing his childhood in Louisiana. "Mr. Floyd joked earlier that he didn't know he was poor," Leggett said. "Well, I knew I was poor."
When my mother came to this country thirty years ago, she lived with eleven relatives in a one-room apartment in Mount Pleasant. She doesn't have to tell people she was poor. Since when has poverty become something you wear on your sleeve?
Even though he ran over his allotted time, Ike Leggett never put forth any real solutions. He said he would make the County "a national leader" in providing affordable housing, but insisted that we had to work with the State legislature (putting his clout as head of the Democratic Party to use) to get funding. It's all good and well, but I doubt homeless people can live in clout.
It wasn't until he visited the homeless men's shelter on Gude Drive that Steve Silverman understood "what it was like" to be homeless. As chair of the County Council Housing Committee, Silverman said he had fought to increase the rental assistance credit. "We have extraordinary resources and we should be prepared to use them," he said, fighting Leggett's suggestion that Montgomery County's wealth makes the state unwilling to give us funding.
When asked about rent controls, none of the candidates said they were necessary in Montgomery County, but only Steve Silverman would say something like "I'm not terrifically concerned [about rent increases] if you're at The Grand on Wisconsin Avenue," which earned a few laughs but completely side-stepped the issue, which he never quite returned to.
The forum ended with terrific applause and a brief blessing from the Monsignor, which caught me by surprise. All in all, I think it was everything it was expected to be. Robin Ficker continued to heckle the Establishment; Chuck Floyd is still dreaming about the State Department; Robert Fustero made the kind of common-sense statements that the Thirteenth-Wealthiest County in America cannot wrap their heads around; and Ike Leggett and Steve Silverman attempted to look like the "common man" but came off as politicians, which is what they are and what we hope to get in November.