This story was updated at 3 p.m. Oct. 1, 2019, to correct a word in the headline and at 6 p.m. Oct. 2, 2019, to include information about a public hearing.
Housing, education, and a lack of information on county programs are some of the most significant barriers to racial equity identified by Montgomery County residents in a series of community forums.
The three meetings, held between March and July, were the lead-up to a sweeping racial equity bill the County Council introduced in mid-September. County Executive Marc Elrich and Council President Nancy Navarro co-hosted the meetings.
Last week, the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight released a set of findings from the forums.
Navarro, who sponsored the bill, said she specifically requested community feedback as a step in drafting the legislation. The council adopted a resolution in April 2018 that required meaningful engagement with those most affected by racial disparities within the county.
“Feedback is something I’ve requested for as long as we’ve been working on this issue,” Navarro said. “We wanted to know what the community was experiencing in terms of inequality.”
The resulting legislation is a wide-ranging bill with the lofty goal of eradicating racial disparities in Montgomery County. The bill sets several requirements, including the formation of a new executive office dedicated to racial equity and social justice.
The county executive would draft a countywide plan with short- and long-term goals for addressing inequality. All future bills would be required to include a racial inequity and social justice impact statement, similar to the financial impact statements currently required with new legislation.
At the community forums, residents also identified data collection and clear policy goals as an important component of the bill.
A public hearing on the bill will be held on Oct. 29.
The draft legislation would require the newly established Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice to develop metrics for measuring progress on reducing disparities. The countywide action plan would also have to include metrics, Navarro said, and county departments would be required to identify milestones in their own separate action plans.
But the bill offers no suggestions on what kind of data the county should collect, nor does it identify specific disparities that could be addressed through legislation. That kind of information could sharpen the intent of the bill and codify the fact that inequality still exists in Montgomery County, said Deepa Iyer, a lawyer and community activist with the Montgomery County Racial Equity Network, a coalition of local nonprofits dedicated to addressing disparities.
“I think there are some lingering questions like, how is that data going to be collected?” Iyer said at a follow-up forum hosted by the group. “And is there a way to get more concrete recommendations for improvement? It sounds like there’s a process in place to start implementing concrete policies, but I still think the council could provide a roadmap for getting us there.”
The report from the Office of Legislative Oversight included data on existing racial disparities in Montgomery County, findings that highlight the difficult ambitions of the bill.
The unemployment rate for black and Latino residents is double that of white residents, and their average household income is $72,000 lower. Only 2% of white residents live in poverty compared to 6% of Asian residents, 11% of black residents, and 12% of Latino residents.
Residents also cited a lack of information on county programs as another barrier to reducing inequality. “Many people of color do not know of the availability of first-time homebuyers’ programs,” one is quoted as saying in the report.
Homeownership is another clear disparity in Montgomery County, with only 44% of black residents owning homes compared to 75% of white residents.
Concrete policy goals and specific methods for data collection will be established after the passage of the bill, Navarro said, when the county can start enforcing the requirements.
“That’s when you get to the implementation stage, to setting specific regulations,” she added. “Everything that was appropriate to put into legislation is in there.”
Some of the biggest disparities identified by residents, though, are outside the council’s control.
Educational inequality was one of the biggest issues cited in the report, especially school segregation and unequal allocation of educational resources. But Montgomery County Public Schools, despite receiving county funding, is governed by state laws and an elected Board of Education.
MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said the school system has been collaborating with the council to separately address those challenges. The system recently commissioned a study on equitable access to resources and hired a consulting group to conduct an analysis of school boundaries.
“We’ve been doing equity work for years, but our relationship with this County Council really spurred us to put in an even greater investment,” Turner said. “It’s now front and center in our priorities.”