With four days until Election Day, Montgomery County executive candidates Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen and Robin Ficker appeared together on the debate stage one last time Thursday night.
The candidates spoke at the Friendship Heights Village Center, which lies at the county’s southern border with Washington, D.C., and near a dense retail district on Wisconsin Avenue. The debate was the 15th forum attended by the candidates the last two months.
When moderator Louis Peck, a contributing editor with Bethesda Beat, asked the candidates how they would protect Friendship Heights from overdevelopment, Erlich, the Democratic candidate, said it was important not to increase the height and density of buildings in the area.
“You ought to be able to see the sun. You should be able to drive out to Wisconsin Avenue and make a left turn in less than 20 minutes,” he said, noting that even the New York City borough of Manhattan has areas where green space balances the number of skyscrapers.
Floreen, who is running as an independent, repeated an often-told anecdote by pointing out that she launched her political career in Montgomery County by challenging the height of a proposed building in Silver Spring. The challenge, she said, is striking a balance between finding space for retail without creating too much density.
Ficker, the Republican candidate, also repeated his often-used line that he is “the only candidate with green signs” in the race.
“I’m a parks guy. I’m gonna defend your parks,” he said.
When discussing the possible location of Amazon’s second headquarters, which CEO Jeff Bezos is expected to announce before the year’s end, the candidates all agreed that it would be beneficial to Montgomery County if the company chose the White Flint location that is one of 20 under consideration. Elrich said the addition of 3,000 to 5,000 jobs per year wouldn’t create the nightmare scenario of increased congestion on Rockville Pike, provided that the state provides necessary money for capital projects.
“If the state thinks this is a great idea, they’re going to need to give us money for transportation, and they need to give us school [construction] money,” he said.
Floreen agreed, but said even if Amazon locates in another part of the greater Washington region, the county would still benefit from increased commerce. Ficker, meanwhile, blamed county officials for putting too many constraints on businesses and not investing in Amazon stock.
“I know after talking to them that they want freedom. They want freedom from regulation. They want freedom from tax increases,” he said.
Ficker added when questioned about his vision for the county in 20 years that he and Bezos would be “retired and playing racquetball together” as they discussed how Amazon had located in White Flint. Floreen said her vision would be to ensure the county “sheds its reputation for being unwelcome to business,” and Elrich said his main goal was to close the achievement gap in public schools.
When the candidates were asked about how to bring down the cost of housing, Floreen reiterated that the best way to lower the cost of housing is to “create more housing.” She said the county needs to examine how to turn defunct structures such as strip shopping centers into housing units.
“I think we need to be creative in looking at ways to work with the private sector,” she said.
Elrich responded by saying Floreen’s suggestion didn’t make sense because “flooding the market with housing” would be counter to the economic interests of developers.
“Why on Earth would you drive down the price of your housing units?” he said.
Elrich said the real issue is that no rental units are being built specifically for low-income earners.
“Our greatest shortage of housing is for the 22,000 people who are earning 30 percent of AMI (average median income) or less, which means they can afford to spend about $900 a month on rent. There are no units being built in that price range,” he said.
The candidates were also asked whether they would support legislation requiring landlords to have “just cause” when evicting tenants. Elrich said he was supportive of a bill that was proposed in the state legislature last year. He said examples of what constitutes a just cause are when a tenant fails to pay rent or makes too much noise.
“If someone calls the housing department and says ‘I’d like you to make an inspection because there’s a mice problem,’ that is not a just cause. If you have issues with the landlord about the quality of your building, that is not a just cause for an eviction,” he said.
Floreen said she was less familiar with the issue, but that a portion of property tax revenue currently goes toward the county’s housing initiative fund.
Floreen also criticized Elrich for supporting rent stabilization, arguing that it created a disincentive for building owners in Takoma Park to keep up their buildings in accordance with the building codes. Elrich responded by saying that he never proposed rent stabilization, but rather the poor upkeep of the buildings was the result of a lack of building code enforcement from the county.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org