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Montgomery County has a rising population of residents who rent, rather than own, their home. The new County Executive has proposed increased funding to the County’s primary tenant advocacy contractor. However, the County Council is finding every reason to stall distributing the funding, to the detriment of the tenant community.
Montgomery County began as the idyllic suburban home for Washington D.C. professional class but it is increasingly a renter-majority county. The Montgomery County Council sees this transition and yet in the past months they have stalled critical funds to an organization that directly and exclusively works with the renter population, the Montgomery County Renter’s Alliance. As a result, renters in Montgomery County may go months without seeing any assistance for tenant advocacy come from the local government.
The percentage of renters in Montgomery County has increased 46 percent since 1990, growing at a faster pace than owner-occupied households. The County has added a little less than 100,000 households since 1990, 45 percent of those were renter households. The County Council has historically been ambivalent to the once minority renter population but, faced with increasing tenant agitation in the last ten years, has increasingly responded to the demands of the renter class.
County Executive Marc Elrich was seen as the predominant renter-friendly councilmember, attending tenant organizing meetings, drafting rent stabilization legislation, and shepherding the passage of Bill 19-15 in 2017, a major piece of tenants rights legislation. His close proximity to renters issues and tenants made him an ally for the Renter’s Alliance since the organization’s founding in 2010.
When crafting his proposed County budget, County Executive Marc Elrich recommended increasing funding for tenant organizing and advocacy. Elrich intended this increased attention and funding to be channeled to be channeled through the County’s existing contract with the Montgomery County Renter’s Alliance. However, while the County Council approved the increased funding for tenant needs, the Council differed from the Executive regarding the process and to whom the funds would be awarded.
Specifically, the Council questioned whether the increased funding should go to the Renter’s Alliance, or be split amongst a number of County non-profit organizations that assist tenants in various ways. Doing this would also increase the existing gap in funding between organizations dealing with tenant advocacy. Since April, a series of ongoing Council discussions have led to no conclusion.
YES TO TENANT ADVOCACY, NO TO TENANT ADVOCATES
In April, the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development committee (PHED — consisting of Chair Hans Riemer, Andrew Friedson, and Will Jawando) reviewed the Executive’s budget proposals for the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA, currently headed by interim director Timothy Goetzinger).
The Executive submitted a $58,574,829 budget for DHCA, a 13.6% increase over the previous year. Priorities for DHCA included affordable housing production, code enforcement, and tenant advocacy. Of the new funding, $1,428,733 went to the Office of Landlord Tenant Affairs, primarily for an all-new tenant advocate staff position. Another portion of money went to the Montgomery Housing Initiative Fund, for the creation, acquisition, and preservation of affordable housing. Finally, a significant increase in funding and attention went to tenant advocacy services, specifically a $218,000 increase to the Renter’s Alliance existing $70,000 contract with the County.
Elrich’s proposed increase doesn’t come without strings attached. The funding is expected to bring about an increase in the number of buildings the Renter’s Alliance assists, the number of county-wide educational events they host, and assist the organization with ensuring renters are accurately counted in the crucially important upcoming U.S. census.
With these new duties, and in light of the growing renter population, Council staff recommended the PHED committee approve the increases, with the provision that the Council would revisit collaboration amongst tenant organizations and the county after the increased services are in place.
Given the options of either funding much-needed tenant advocacy or deliberating county government contracting processes, the PHED committee waffled and opted for the latter.
SLASHING TENANT ADVOCACY FUNDING, WITH A SMILE
Councilmembers Riemer and Friedson glad-handed the DHCA and the Renter’s Alliance for their tenant advocacy service. They rejected, however, awarding the $218,000 increase to in a non-competitive bidding process.
Friedson desired to know the intricacies of how money would be spent and demanded power to dictate the outcomes for tenant advocacy. He also wanted to increase competition for the funds through a competitive bidding process. Hans Riemer went further to insinuate the funding increase was politically motivated, saying he wanted, “…services, not axes to be grinded, not looking for agendas to be advanced, we’re looking for services to our tenant community.” As previously mentioned, in their shared vision of safe, stable, and affordable rental housing, Renter’s Alliance and Marc Elrich appear as allies. Funding for increased tenant advocacy was approved, but the decision as to whom the money would be awarded would have to wait.
The entire Council met on May 7th to review the new budget and committee recommendations. Once again, the increased tenant advocacy funds were called into question, this time by Council President Nancy Navarro, who supported a competitive bidding process for the funding. Craig Rice agreed, asserting that Renter’s Alliance is too focused on downcounty, where “we have a lot of stock [of rental housing].”
Rice brought up an alternative organization, Family Services Inc. of Germantown. Family Services Inc is one of the philanthropic arms of the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt private non-profit psychiatric hospital. It is not aimed at grassroots tenant organizing and on their website only advertises “Relocation and renter assistance and help in applying for county rental subsidy programs, eviction prevention, money/debt management, and other services, are provided for Gaithersburg residents.”
The rest of the Council generally agreed with the sentiment of Navarro, Rice, Friedson and Riemer in making the process more competitive, even if introducing competition would weaken the overall goal of effective tenant advocay. Will Jawando raised concerns about stalling funding for tenant services and asked acting DHCA Director Goetzinger about the effect of going through the long process of competitive bidding. Goetzinger replied:
“I understand the concern of the Council. I think not going forward would greatly impact one of DHCA’s three priorities. There are a number of properties [that need assistance] down on the ground now, we already have the data that proves it, and I do believe the Renter’s Alliance is ready to do that…If what we’re talking about [changing the awards process to] is a Request for Proposal, or some other means, we will be back at the table next year without having done anything because the process takes a year.” [our emphasis]
Councilmember Jawando declared such a delay to assisting tenants was unacceptable, but he did not pressure the rest of the Council to consider the funding more urgently. The Council scheduled for further discussion amongst tenant advocacy groups and the PHED, rejecting the Executive’s request on behalf of Renter’s Alliance.
Nancy Navarro closed the discussion by re-iterating why a non-competitive award concerned her; she and other councilmembers would have to answer to organizations in their districts why they can’t access the increased funds. “Renter’s Alliance can’t turn around and ask us to provide a particular type of capacity for them without additional resources for CASA. It just doesn’t work that way.” she said.
Unfortunately, it appears the system does work the way Navarro describes, except to the disadvantage Renter’s Alliance.
PARITY FOR RENTERS RIGHTS
The tenant advocacy discussion resumed on June 10 before the PHED Committee. Attendees included Goetzinger of DHCA, Rosie McCray-Moody and Maureen Harzinski of Office of Landlord Tenant Mediation (OLTM), representatives of the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), Montgomery Housing Partnership (MHP), CASA de Maryland (CASA) and Renter’s Alliance (RA).
Discussion initiated with the nature, aims, and operations of tenant advocacy from each organization’s relative perspective before moving on to the real issue of distributing the $218,000 in increased funding.
Andrew Friedson was adamant about obtaining numbers and data pertaining to the services and staffing organizations paid for using county funds. Here, one can see a difference in strength between the existing tenant advocacy organizations.
CASA de Maryland has 3 full-time tenant organizers, a manager of that department, a lawyer, and a policy department. While CASA receives money from sources outside Montgomery County, the budget awards the organization a $250,000 non-competitive contract as well as a $15,000 County Executive Community Grant. Their FY19 Contract was in the amount of $281,263.
Renter’s Alliance, on the other hand, has subsisted on a $70,000 contract for at least three years which, as was described in detail during the PHED discussion, has been subject to the Request for Proposal process in the past. Obtaining money by R4P cost the organization months of effective advocacy. Renter’s Alliance Executive Director Matt Losak was asked by Friedson how they survived during the lapse in funding, Losak replied,“I’m not ashamed to say a good deal of our supplemental funding has been personal.”
It’s clear there’s a disparity between the organizations expected to conduct tenant services on behalf of the County.
Montgomery Housing Partnership and Housing Opportunities Commission have staff funded by the county, but their discussion with the PHED committee didn’t indicate much in the way of outlining a proactive approach to mass tenant advocacy. If the organizations mentioned by Councilmembers Rice or Navarro were properly notified by their county officials, they seemed not to care to submit their opinions on their work to the PHED committee.
Meanwhile, Renter’s Alliance has been working exclusively on the matter of stable, quality, affordable rental housing for nearly ten years. The organization asking for some congruence between their funding and the expectations set by the County Executive. Yet the Council has put tenant services on hold since April because they want to dilute and spread the funding to any organization that has a modicum of interaction with tenants.
The PHED committee ended by reviewing the three options legislative staff had drawn up for distributing the funds.
- The Committee could approve the initial request by County Executive Marc Elrich for a $218,000 increase to the Renter’s Alliance contract for tenant advocacy services. Councilmembers Navarro, Friedson, Riemer, and Rice disagreed with this.
- The next proposal, initially supported by Friedson, Rice and Navarro, was a Request for Proposal that could extend the process, as acting-Director Goetzinger explained, for at least a year. Riemer objected to this in committee due to the length of time an R4P takes and Friedson subsequently dropped his support
- The solution eventually settled on was that a modified “Request for Solicitation of Services” (R4SS) would be issued by the Council for tenant advocacy services.
The R4SS has a shorter period open for which organizations could respond. After the period for response expires, the Executive branch appoints a review committee, who makes a recommendation on from the responses and a non-competitive contract is issued. The process would take an estimated three to three-and-a-half months.
But even the R4SS is a needless prolonging of the process. As Will Jawando pointed out, after organizations submit their response to the R4SS, the review committee — appointed by the Executive — could simply recommend again the initial request for $218,000 to the Renter’s Alliance.
Against Riemer’s insistence for adding more organizations through competitive bidding, Jawando responded, “I don’t want to say, personally, it should be more organizations. I want whoever does [tenant advocacy services] to be culturally competent, and for it to happen in a good way. That might mean more organizations and it might not. I’m happy to go with the majority of the committee but I’m just pointing out we might get the same thing back and we’ve wasted time.”
TENANTS ARE TAXPAYERS TOO
In effect, certain councilmembers are using tenants as a proxy to exert and display their hyper attention to the county’s tight financing. Andrew Friedson, in particular, made a display of his mandate to provide oversight of “taxpayer money.” But this begs the question, are renters not taxpayers too? And who are the taxpayers Friedson feels beholden to serve the interests of?
Friedson represents District 1, where renters are mostly consolidated in the luxury Bethesda market. Outside that area, a majority of the district is designated as single family zoning. These homeowners prop up a substantial portion of the County budget through their property taxes. However, tenants are taxpayers too in the form of sales taxes and other regulations like bag taxes. They also contribute to their landlord’s property tax payments indirectly via their rent payments each month.
Research supports the suggestion that homeowners and renters differ in policy issue concerns. Generally, tenants want services funded by public financing; homeowners are concerned with housing, development and traffic. These run contrary to one another when homeowners resist the property taxes and revenue gained from development that go to fund the public services tenants disproportionately demand.
If Friedson wants to provide oversight to “taxpayer money” he should be more cognizant of who makes up the county tax base. Renters and homeowners demand different services from government, and Friedson is neglecting renters’ needs in favor exerting the “fiscal responsibility” homeowners want to see from local government (after all, for homeowners in his district, less public spending likely means less property tax increases).
What Friedson is calling for — metrics, numbers of services and staff, is partially outlined in the Executive’s proposal. There’s a criteria provided along with the proposed increase in funding that should satisfy the sceptical that there is a plan at work to bring the Renter’s Alliance to par with other organizations and then build collaboration amongst organizations. The bickering over oversight and how many organizations should be involved are putting individual councilmember pet projects over the dire need for tenant advocacy in the County.
No continuation of this discussion has yet been scheduled but a R4SS will likely be issued. Readers can register their opinion (as the Montgomery County taxpayers Friedson identifies them as) with the PHED committee and entire council.
The immediate goal for the Council should be to stabilize funds for tenant advocacy and assure tenants they are going to a trustworthy and credentialed organization. Right now, the Renter’s Alliance is only one such exclusively tenant-focused organization in existence. Because of the Council’s inaction, the tenants will suffer.
-Erik Online Wright
*The author is a frequent volunteer for the Renter’s Alliance