2022 | Politics

District 6 Council candidates eyeing ways to expand, preserve affordable housing

Focus on using existing space better, many say

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Candidates for the newly created District 6 seat on the Montgomery County Council are focused on retaining and expanding access to affordable housing.

Nine people are running for the seat encompassing Wheaton, Glenmont, Forest Glen and Aspen Hill. Six of the eight Democratic candidates participated in a recent forum, hosted by Bethesda Beat and Bethesda Magazine, in which they shared a range of opinions about how to ensure the future generation of county residents can afford to live in the area.

County Council districts were redrawn last year due to the expansion of the council from five district seats to seven and the results of the 2020 Census.

The candidates running in the July 19 primary for the District 6 seat are:

• Natali Fani Gonzalez (D)
• Omar Lazo (D)
• Maricé Morales (D)
• Brit Siman-Tov (D)
• Steve Solomon (D)
• Christa Tichy (D)
• Mark Trullinger (D)
• Vicki S. Vergagni (D)

Siman-Tov and Trullinger did not participate in the forum. Viet H. Doan, a Republican, is running unopposed and therefore guaranteed his party’s nomination in November.

Those who did participate said the county needs to better take advantage of existing housing.

Fani Gonzalez, former member of the Montgomery County Planning Board, said that it is important to preserve housing “where we have low-income communities,” but also make sure “those buildings are healthy and safe.”

“The issue with the affordable housing crisis we’re facing … is not solved with one solution. We need to be creative and make sure we have a big toolkit,” Fani Gonzalez said.

Vergagni, who has worked for national nonprofits, said that the condominium community in which she lives has seven times purchased units that have been sold in foreclosure, then renovated the units and sold them at market rate. They then wrapped the fees the previous owner owed the condominium association into the resale price, post-renovation.

“This can be done and enacted so easily if we will just get on the ball,” Vergagni said. “We need to make a long-term low interest fund to loan to these communities.”

A self-proclaimed local safety advocate, Tichy said the county currently offers 7,441 “rental assistance vouchers” to low-income residents, but that number should be doubled.

She also said the county needs to incentivize more potential landlords to rent their properties by shortening the timeline for the eviction process and not as strictly limiting the amount that landlords can raise their rents.

On Feb. 4, the County Council updated the “voluntary rent guidelines” to say landlords could not increase tenants’ rent by more than 0.4%. That restriction was in place throughout much of the pandemic as many renters throughout the county struggled to make payments. The mandate expired Sunday. But between Feb. 4 and May 15, landlords could not “notify tenants of a rent increase greater than 0.4%,” according to the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Morales, an attorney and former state delegate, said the county should mandate more subsidized housing when new developments are built. She noted that, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are working from home, so officials should also “look at buildings where we no longer need office space” and “reimagine” what it is used for, potentially more affordable housing.

“And we know from social behavioral science that you don’t want to just keep vulnerable communities amongst themselves,” Morales added. “We want to be able to have unified housing for everybody and make sure that if we build unified housing that people can have access to those developments.”

Solomon, a radio host, agreed, and said the county needs “to utilize spaces better,” pointing specifically to empty storefronts across the county.

“That’s become much more of a problem since there’s so much more telecommuting, so we have to utilize spaces better,” Solomon said, highlighting the success of the Pike & Rose development in Rockville.

Omar Lazo, co-owner of Los Chorros Restaurant in Wheaton said preserving and expanding affordable housing is one of the most important issues facing District 6.

He said that proposed updates to the county’s general plan, now called Thrive 2050, could help preserve affordable housing, including by maintaining existing moderately priced dwelling units (MPDUs) in multi-unit complexes. He said, however, that he is concerned the plan could lead to gentrification.

“There’s so many things in Thrive that I am for,” he said. “The only thing that worries me is making sure that there are safeguards in place so that the people that truly need affordable housing will have access to that affordable housing.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com