Five Montgomery County executive candidates took the stage Tuesday night to share their stances on homelessness and hunger at a forum in Silver Spring.
The forum held ahead of the July primary was hosted by Shepherd’s Table, a Silver Spring-based organization aiming to address food insecurity and homelessness by providing essential services, according to its website.
Around 30 people were present at the start of the forum, with more trickling in throughout the night.
Here are the candidates who participated:
• David Blair (D) of Potomac, a businessman and philanthropist
• Incumbent Marc Elrich (D) of Takoma Park
• Peter James (D) of Gaithersburg, general manager of Crystal Clear Automation
• At-large County Council Member Hans Riemer (D) of Takoma Park
• Shelly Skolnick (R) of Chevy Chase
Two other candidates, Republican Reardon Sullivan of Gaithersburg and Green Party candidate Devin Battley of Derwood, did not participate.
Blair said he wants to pursue a “housing first” initiative, following models in Houston and California. This would prioritize providing permanent housing before targeting other needed services.
He pointed out that despite Montgomery County being one of the wealthiest areas in the country, it doesn’t always feel that way.
“We can use those resources better and we can eliminate the residents that are experiencing homelessness,” he said.
Other candidates took different approaches when tackling questions about homelessness. Peter James, for example, advocated for directing money towards home ownership.
James, who also proposed improving county transit by giving away free electric vehicles, said home ownership will solve the issue of poverty.
“It’s only through home ownership that we’ll build generational wealth,” he said.
Skolnick suggested converting vacant office buildings and empty big box stores into housing units. With lots of people still working from home and preferring to shop online through sites like Amazon, he said many of these buildings are currently unused.
“They’re just closing hundreds of stores nationwide,” Skolnick said. “Why don’t we just convert them into housing?”
Riemer, the chair of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, said he’s working on a proposal for a fund that would help preserve housing along the route of the under-construction Purple Line, a 16-mile light-rail line that will run from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
Such a fund would enable housing along the light-rail corridor to be purchased and ownership to be then transferred to nonprofits. This would maintain affordability, he said.
Elrich, the incumbent, said the fiscal 2023 county budget includes money to create spaces at county shelters that are similar to private quarters. The idea draws inspiration from Progress Place, which was built in 2016 as a safe place for people experiencing homelessness to have most of their needs met in one location in downtown Silver Spring.
“You have the transition from congregate living to a shelter that has individual private spaces in the next budget,” he said.
The five candidates shared different ideas for addressing food insecurity problems.
Blair spoke in support of funding existing organizations such as Manna Food Center, a nonprofit food distribution center in Gaithersburg.
For the long term, he suggested subsidizing fresh and healthy food options for residents by following Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America model. This initiative centers around food equity, which is comprised of a healthy food supply, access to affordable food and knowledge, according to its website.
“We need to start empowering folks by putting this fresh food right in their communities where they can have more options and healthier food as well,” he said.
Riemer said he believes in doing more than providing charitable support to people. He advocated for providing people with the means to meet their challenges through fair wages.
He wants to expand food provided to residents in need through county programs to “culturally competent” food as well. Riemer said not everyone knows how to prepare or likes to eat the food that they receive.
“It’s just not as effective,” Riemer said.
Elrich shared that during the pandemic, the county government relied more on community groups and organizations to identify community needs. He said he wants to continue this trend.
He also said that he is working to change the county’s grant system for nonprofits providing essential services from a reimbursement model to one that provides upfront payments.
“I’m not going back to the system where the government makes decisions,” he said.
James said he wants to focus efforts on food production. This would enable the county to be a food provider and exporter instead of relying on importing food from other places.
He advocated for the county to build and maintain year-round greenhouses.
Skolnick said he would use the concept of eminent domain to encourage low-cost grocery stores such as Aldi and Lidl to come to the county by providing places for them to open stores.
With food prices rising because of inflation, grocery shopping has become more expensive, he said.
“It’s a way to address that problem in the short run and in the long run,” Skolnick said.
When is the election?
The primary election is July 19. Early voting begins July 7. Mail-in ballots will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19 or are dropped into a ballot drop box by that time.
Christine Zhu of Gaithersburg, a rising junior at the University of Maryland who is studying journalism and Spanish, is the Bethesda Beat summer intern.