Tough Nut

Dear Readers,

How boring has the Takoma Park City Council been this year? So boring, Dear Readers, that when former mayor Kathy Porter showed up at the Feb. 4th meeting, the new mayor and council jumped onto the big council desk, scattered papers into the air, and screamed “OOOK OOOK OOOK!!!” while walking on their knuckles like chimpanzees. The former mayor frowned, though with a fond twinkle in her eye, and barked her familiar old admonishment, “Bad council! No cookie!”

Not really. But, it might have happened that way. Until the former mayor’s appearance the council had been subjected to days of yawn-inducing agenda items, most of them interviews of citizen committee applicants, that would make even the most hard-core council-wonk feel like a caged animal.

Of course, we don’t know how exciting the closed portion of these recent meetings have been. Those closed sessions have all been city attorney briefings, one of them the annual litigation update. O, to be a fly on that wall!
The former mayor appeared before the new council as part of a panel briefing them on affordable housing.

Yes, Dear Reader, here we go again with affordable housing. No bellowing landlords or weeping tenants this time around, however. This was just a look at the range of possibilities to maintain or create affordable housing, both rental and owned, in the city.

The Takoma Park Affordable Housing Policy and Action Plan, adopted in 2002, calls for such periodical reviews. In addition, as the council hashed out revisions to the rent control law last year, it resolved to take a look at the overall issue of affordable housing. The trends then were alarming – a steep rise in home costs and property values, and the conversion of many apartment buildings to condominiums. These trends were depleting the rental stock and making the city unaffordable for the low-to-middle income people who live here and want to live here.

The other members of the panel, city staff members Linda Walker, and Sara Daines did most ot the talking, especially Ms Walker, who is the Affordable Housing Manager.

Your Gilbert admits it was hard not to glaze over, as most of the ideas described — including nonprofit subsidized housing development and low-income home buyer assistance — involved some sort of federal, state, or county grant, program, or legislation. The acronyms and jargon were buzzing around Your Gilbert’s ears like mosquitoes in a swamp.

Sparing you the details, the short story is there are many interesting possibilities to discuss, but the devil is in the details. Those devilish details include not only cost but unintended consequences. For example, Ward 1 councilmember Josh Wright pointed out that the city might assist a low income family to buy a house, but what would prevent that family from selling it at market value therefore making the house unaffordable to other low-income people?

The former mayor, reminding them that the city has “chewed on this nut of providing affordable housing” for a long time without finding the perfect solution, commended the council for their interest in affordable housing,. Well, she SAID “I commend the council,” but when former mayor Porter says “I commend” to anyone, Your Gilbert can’t help but wonder if she means something else entirely. “You blockheads, you are wasting your time!” perhaps.

Anyway, she went on to reiterate what she said many times during her administration, that as controversial as it is, rent control gives the city the best bang for the buck as far as an affordable housing policy is concerned. She pointed out that other programs are a lot more expensive.

She also touted the city’s law that requires landlords who choose to sell their properties to offer the property first to the tenants The city also helps tenants in such situations purchase the building.
Porter speculated that the city’s future affordable housing policy would take the form of enabling nonprofit ownership.

Your Gilbert notes that one of the difficulties rent control has in Takoma Park is that the city is a small island of rent control, while in surrounding areas, rental rates soar – adding to resentment among local landlords. According to The Gazette newspaper County Councilmember Marc Elrich is proposing rent control in Montgomery County. Elrich is a former Takoma Park councilmember and was one of the architects of the city’s rent control ordinances. Perhaps the island is about to become much bigger.

Meanwhile back in Takoma Park, it is Your Gilbert’s opinion that the city council is treading on its own feet. On one hand, er foot, they dream up affordable housing policies, but agonize about how much it will cost taxpayers. On the other foot, they do everything they can to gussy the town up, which drives up property values.

If the council is serious about this, and doesn’t want to add to the tax burden, it should pass laws that forbid any more home additions, require every city block to have at least two junker cars wasting by the curb, allow only chain link fences, and encourage the feeding of rats. It should ditch the plan to install that expensive new upscale city signage and kiosks, put off all road improvements for five years, and stop enforcing city codes such as rules against broken window panes, ill-fitting garbage can lids, and unkempt, trashy yards — those charming-but-human elements that contribute to our dear community’s scruffy ambiance.

These are all low-cost or money-saving measures that would blunt, or hopefully even depress, the rise of property values here, which would be the best, no-cost way to preserve affordable housing.



About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.