PHOTO: Ward 3 candidate Rizzy Qureshi, Mayoral candidates Warren Holmes and Kate Stewart, and moderator Bruce Moyers, WACO President, Oct. 7. Photo by Bill Brown.
BY BILL BROWN
Takoma Park’s mayoral candidates clashed at their first candidate forum, held Oct. 7 by Ward 3’s Westmoreland Area Community Organization. The turnout was small – only five, not counting the candidates – because there is only one candidate for that ward’s council seat, newcomer Rizzy Qureshi .
It was, however, the first time the mayoral candidates debated.
Rent control was the leading disagreement between them. But they also clashed on how they see city policies, politics and issues. They also disagreed on staff salaries and what the city’s “unheard” have to say.
Warren Holmes, a landlord and second-generation city resident, said the city’s rent control laws need to be more reasonable. He blamed them for the high taxes that make home-ownership so expensive in Takoma Park.
Kate Stewart, current Ward 3 council member, stood up for rent control. Without it, she said, low-income renters would be driven out.
Holmes made an issue of newcomers and recent changes. “We’re becoming a town of lawyers.” he said. He described Republic, one of the new restaurants in Old Takoma, as “for rich people,” not the populace. It’s part of a trend, he said, that will price-out middle-income, long-term residents.
“We don’t need a Republic on every street corner,” said Stewart. She said Republic and Bus Boys and Poets (another new Old Takoma restaurant) are not the sort of establishments she wants to see in the future Takoma Junction development.
Stewart said the city needs a council who can bring new and established residents together. If not for the long-term residents who fought hard to make Takoma Park what it is today “we’d be a highway,” she said. Their interests must be considered.
But, “new people have a vision” also, she said, “it’s not one or the other.”
Both agree that a large population segment is unheard, but each had a different take.
Stewart said one of her top priorities is making sure the city is an “inclusive community.” Her campaign is focusing on youth, parents of small children and working people, who she hopes to get to city meetings and events.
Holmes says his years in the community and as a landlord have put him in close contact with the sort of people who are not included and not politically active. “I know people you folks probably don’t know,” he said to Stewart and Qureshi. “People in apartments are working too hard to go to city council meetings,” he said.
Holmes – Diversity?
Holmes put Takoma Park in the context of the booming regional real-estate economy.
Washington, DC, he said, is the new epicenter of the east coast. Billions of dollars have been sunk into buying “dirt-cheap, run-down buildings” and renovating them. This is happening, he said, in DC’s upper NW, causing “amazing growth,” and it is moving closer to Takoma Park, displacing long-term, low-to-moderate residents with high-income newcomers. That process is already happening in Takoma Park, and is likely to be more pronounced in the future, he said.
He scoffed at Takoma Park’s oft-touted diversity. “Diversity?” he said, “We have a two-tiered system:” affluent people in homes and poor people in apartments.
Since he grew up in the 1970s in Takoma Park and nearby Silver Spring, he said, he’s seen $50,000 homes become $500,000 homes, pricing out many old-time residents.
Homeowners are paying around $850 a month, 6000 – 7000 a year in property taxes, he said, and, that’s in addition to mortgage payments
Property taxes are so high, said Holmes, because “we’ve propagated a farce of rent control.”
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Rent control keeps rental profits down, so landlords can’t afford to maintain their buildings, he said. There is “no mechanism to upgrading our housing stock,” Holmes said, “It’s rotting.”
This drives down rental buildings’ value, which keeps their property taxes low, he said. If landlords could afford to improve their buildings, the value would go up. So would their tax payments. If landlords paid more taxes, homeowners would pay $400 – 500 a month less, claimed Holmes.
He did not go so far as to say he favored repealing rent control entirely. He said he doesn’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
“It’s not about good versus evil,’ he said, “It’s about a reasonable system.”
Stewart – three priorities
Stewart said, “We need to continue with rent stabilization.” She said it keeps Takoma Park residents from being displaced. She cited recent events at high-rise Hampshire Towers where rent control was waived in a deal to renovate and preserve affordable housing. The owning company reneged on it’s deal. Residents are facing steep rent hikes up to 70%.
We can not let another Hampshire Towers happen, she said.
Stewart listed her three priorities. Her first is to get city government engaged with the community. The people who attend city meetings do not reflect the whole community, she said. Attendance is hard for working people and parents.
She wants to take city council meetings out of the city council chambers, and hold some of them in different parts of the city, on different days and times. She wants to offer child care during council meetings.
He second priority is making sure Takoma Park is an inclusive community. Stewart is concerned about minority youth, especially in their interactions with police. She wants the future Takoma Junction development to cater to minority and lower-income people from outside the immediate neighborhood.
Her third priority is sustainable development. The Purple Line, New Hampshire Avenue and Takoma Metro are three big development projects in the city’s future. Stewart wants to ensure that the city has a voice in it, that it is “not development that just happens to us.”
Stewart said that the council has to consider the impact raising city taxes has individuals. She said she only favored a 1.5¢ increase in the last budget because city staff needed a long-overdue raise. She said the 1.5¢ raise was a compromise she helped broker. The city manager asked for a two-cent raise.
Holmes said he didn’t feel badly about staff salaries since the city manager earns around $140,000 a year. “It’s a little club up there,” he said of the staff. “They all give themselves little raises, they all work together to keep their jobs.”
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He complained bitterly of his interactions with staff. He alleged the city staff is unresponsive. A number of times he said dealing with the city is like “beating my head against the wall.” He said the only times he gets a city response is when charges a tenant “fifty cents too much” – for which he said he is fined $1000 by the city’s housing department.
He also charged that non-profit building owners are allowed to operate under a different set of rules – exempt from rent control.
Stewart countered that this is not the case. She pointed out that non-profits (usually under county affordable-housing programs) do no not automatically get rent-control exemption. They have to apply for it.
Holmes said in his closing statement, “I don’t have all the answrs, I do have some good ideas. I want to be the voice of the unheard.” He admitted that his campaign is partly a protest and partly a token. He said it would have been embarrassing if there was only one mayoral candidate. He would not have run, he said, if someone else had stepped forward.
Stewart said in closing that she agreed with Holmes on some points, and that his views should be considered along with others. As mayor she would bring people together, she said, and seek common solutions.
The one candidate for Ward 3, Rizzy Queshi, lives in Ward 3’s Pinecrest neighborhood with his wife Kelly and their two children, aged 4 years and 18 months. They’ve lived in Takoma Park for over a year, during which Mr. Qureshsi served on the city’s Board of Elections. His experience with the board, he said, reinforced his interest in running for the Ward 3 council seat.
He is an Assistant United States Attorney with the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
Quereshi is a first-generation American. His parents are Pakistani. He’s lived in Philadelphia and New York City. But both he and his wife, who he met in law school prefer “the small town flavor of Takoma Park.”
He likes the city’s “cutting edge elections policies.” The city gives the voting franchise to non-citizens, 16 – 17 year olds and felons.
But, he said, the city council and the people who are engaged in city politics “don’t necessarily encompass what the demographics are.”
Giving a voice to the under-served is one of his priorities. So is crime, one solution of which he sees in youth engagement. He also listed development as a priority – retaining the city’s character but moving forward.