Monday, July 6, 2015

Appointments By Other Means

Relations between the County Executive and County Council took a bizarre turn late last week.  On Friday, July 3 (an unusual time to be doing anything other than wondering why hot dog buns are sold in packs of 10 while hot dogs are sold in packs of 8), the County Executive published a petition on his campaign page prompting supporters to "sign" (which in actuality sends the Council an email) in support of an "up or down vote" on Susan Garber's appointment to the Planning Board this evening.

There is a reason why the title of this "petition" calls for an "up or down vote" and not "confirmation".  The County Executive wants a do-over.  If his nominee is tabled, Josh Tzuker will continue to serve on the Planning Board and, more importantly, the County Executive will be unable to nominate anyone else.  This situation is comparable to handing someone your phone to show them a picture and then watching them continue to flip through all of your pictures without your consent.  "I really just wanted to show you that one picture.  If you would just...yep...just...Can I please have my phone back?"

The County Executive's nominations for various boards and commissions have left the Council puzzled, concerned, and frustrated (in that order), not only due to the people nominated, but also the ones being replaced.  In three short months, the Council has been contacted by Howard County Educators, women's rights groups, housing advocates, minority groups, individual constituents, and even members of the Executive's own transition team asking them not to approve the Executive's nominees.  In response, the Council asked the Executive to explain his justification for certain nominees so that they may understand why these individuals were chosen for positions of public trust.  The Executive refused, stating that no other County Executive had been asked to provide such justification and neither would he.

This puts the Council in a political jam:  Ignore their constituents and give the Executive the benefit of the doubt when he is not willing to extend them a similar courtesy or table these nominees until there is an approval process in place that makes them comfortable.  Most nominees would be approved without second thought, but for those who have raised concerns from interested members of the community - pause.

And then the "petition" happened.

Who thought this was a good idea?  This is certainly not the tactic of someone looking to have their nominee approved.  It is a panic move.  It is the move of someone without other options.  This is particularly surprising considering that one of the County Executive's first decisions was to hire a Democratic staffer as Deputy Chief-of-Staff for the purposes of negotiating with the County Council.  "If negotiating doesn't work, turn to Plan B - throwing emails at the County Council."  I think I saw the same thing on Scandal.

The thought behind the effort is "I am more popular than you.  Watch me use my hammer."  It is an unusual use of political capital, but one this Executive was inevitably going to try.  But it prompts the question - What is a win here?  Is the Council going to be cowered into a vote by the Executive's vast social media skills?  Or has he just shattered a mirage that helped pass a budget and win votes on contested bills?  Ultimately, did the Executive think calling the Council out on his campaign web-page over 4th of July weekend was going to result in a good outcome?

If not, I'm sure the Executive could try a "Make the County Council Not Mad At Me Anymore" petition.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

RENEW Columbia

Local news-watchers may experience a slight unsteadiness at the words "RENEW Howard" after the program was introduced last summer, defunded this winter, reintroduced two weeks ago, and rescinded last Friday.  Amanda Yeager did a great job explaining the complicated program in her coverage last week:
RENEW HOWARD – an acronym for Revitalizing Neighborhoods EveryWhere in Howard County – would leverage Howard County Housing Commission bonds to provide some $20 million in loans for Howard County homebuyers who want to renovate or expand an aging house or townhouse.
The council created a similar program last summer as part of a multi-pronged housing bill that prohibited new affordable housing development in areas of the county where the poverty rate is greater than 10 percent. Part of that legislation broadened the guidelines for an existing loan program, the Housing and Community Development Rehabilitation Loan Fund, to allow loans for home expansions and renovations in addition to essential infrastructure repairs.
To oversimplify this further, the program helps families already living in Howard County (mostly Columbia) improve the existing housing stock, build equity in their homes, and do so with (presumably) more favorable loans than may otherwise be available.

Under the proposal, the Housing Commission would have sold $2 million in bonds to leverage an additional $20 million in bank loans, which would then be available to program participants for qualified improvements.  The controversy arises when it comes to the annual $250,000 in debt service, which would be paid with 50% of the revenue collected from MIHU (Moderate Income Housing Unit) fee in lieu payments.  Based on Amanda's coverage, certain housing advocates expressed concern regarding this use of MIHU fees as opposed to the construction of actual housing units with the money.

I hope the County gives this program another chance.  In fact, I hope the County comes back with an even better program that would offer grants in place of loans.  Howard Hughes is in the process of making one of the largest investments in Howard County we've seen in my lifetime.  A $20 million grant fund to help low to moderate income families already living in Howard County share that investment would do wonders for our five decade old neighborhoods.

As currently proposed (or whatever you would describe the current posture of the RENEW Program -pro-pergatorated?), I am concerned that we would see a large portion of the $20 million sit unused.  If the families targeted by this program are anything like me, they are hesitant to take on addition debt on top of student loans and existing mortgages.  That's not to say it isn't a "smart investment" or that a program like this couldn't be marketed in such a way that would see it fully utilized, but I think even its strongest advocates would admit it is a half-measure.

But whether the RENEW Program is brought back as is, or with an additional grant component, this is a good program for Howard County, particularly at this point in our development.  We should want, and encourage, families to invest here and we shouldn't stop wanting that once they move in.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

First Human Governor

Governor Larry Hogan announced yesterday that he has cancer.  The full extent of his cancer is not known.  Governor Hogan stated that while the cancer was "very advanced and very aggressive" it was ultimately treatable. 

We spend so much time talking about "humanity in the Internet Age", yet it still is surprising when the subject thrusts itself on the public conversation.  In an instant, Governor Hogan went from a man of policy, slogans, budgets, and vetoes, to a husband, father, grandfather, and man.  And I believe that is true for both his supporters and detractors alike.  I can say from personal experience that candidates are often treated as something other than human.  Tired?  Frustrated?  Elated?  Hurt?  Keep it to yourself and stay on message. Larry Hogan was as much a symbol as he was a man.  Until yesterday.

I don't know how this changes the political conversation, but I know it does.  You can't have an entire state wishing you well, as we all do, and also face the same criticism and scrutiny that preexisted diagnosis.  The two things just don't mend.  Governor Hogan will have the fellowship of hundreds of thousands of people who follow his journey with compassion and hope.  And in that experience, Marylanders and people from around the country will benefit from increased awareness and understanding of what it is to fight cancer.

Governor Hogan should not have had to experience cancer to be seen as a human being, but such is our relationship with political leaders.  And on the whole that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Scrutiny and criticism are essential to a well-functioning democracy.  Those in elected office most certainly do not like that, but they ultimately agree (at least if their being intellectually honest).  Criticism and scrutiny will return to Governor Hogan just as we hope his life of relative normalcy returns post-treatment.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Understand Me Here

Social media has changed the way we experience tragedy.  While my memory may have been rewritten with time, I seem to recall past national tragedies, whether they be a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or space shuttle explosion, being met with collective sorrow that was one part personal mourning and three parts social grief.  The tragedy stood mostly undefined, like a portrait on a wall, while we all stood around it - looking.  We gathered for candle-light vigils.  We called our loved ones.  The news media told us what we were to "make of all of this".

Things have changed.  Admittedly, so too have the tragedies and the frequency with which we meet them.  Now, they are all left to personal interpretation.  And, sadly, left/right spin. 

It is apparent to me that the only way we will solve the underlying social ills that caused this horror will be to talk to one another where we are.  Not where we should be.  And that is paralyzingly difficult.  Inherent in our own position is the belief that those with alternative views are not only wrong, but are acting to encourage events like this.  Unfortunately, it is not enough to direct our scorn at the shooter.  We are disappointed and frustrated in a permissive/encouraging/fertile/unregulated culture/society/community and our collective inability to do anything about it.  Or we don't care at all and dismiss those who do as grandstanding/politicizing/dramatizing tragedy.

A friend and I were recently talking about getting a group together to talk local politics like we used to do when Dennis was around.  The Wine Summits and Pub Politics groups have either been lost or bastardized with false imitation.  We talked about pulling together our own group, but I just couldn't think of any Republican friends with whom I wanted to spend two hours discussing politics.  I say that with embarrassment and disappointment.

In case you haven't noticed, I've been going through a bit of writer's block recently.  This has happened before, but previously I would just "write through it", meaning "this is not good writing, but it's my version of a 'juice cleanse' so either leave me be for a few days or pinch your nose".  I just didn't think I was adding anything of merit to the conversation.  In that paralysis, I thought back on my six and a half years of writing, what made it fun, what made it not-so-fun, and why I still wanted to do it.  It boiled down to the basic premise of all writing - to understand and be understood.

We spend so much time telling each other we're wrong and not enough time thanking each other for the expression of honestly held beliefs.  We also assert things as "true" that are merely opinions we are unwilling to scrutinize.  My Facebook "news" feed is filled with long form essays that use words like "must", "should", and "cannot".  How is anyone comfortable saying anything in such an environment?  Why spend time "understanding and being understood" when you can just echo a mandate?

So here's my promise to you, dear reader: I'm going to try to be better about all of this.  Pretty weak promise, right?  But in all seriousness, the reason you are even here is because at some point in time I wrote something that surprised you or made you think differently about something.  The reason I am here is because you did the same for me.

And if you are a Republican interested in getting a beer, the first one is on me.

Have a great Friday doing what you love.  It is impossible not to.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Affordable Housing Builds Community

Yesterday, for reasons unknown, I decided to address the subject of Affordable Housing.  This is a controversial, emotional, and polemic issue, yet also fundamental to how we order ourselves, how we live, and how we exist as a community.  Unsurprisingly, the discussion became somewhat heated (over the on the Facebook page), but I ended up learning much more than I had offered to begin with.  I believe that what I originally wrote may have been misinterpreted (in some cases intentionally), but the author is ultimately responsible for any confusion.

First, a point of clarification.  I have not transformed into some suburban NIMBY overnight.  I want full-spectrum housing.  I want a diverse community.  The questions I've raised relate to the means of doing so and whether there is a "better way" than a housing system that puts anchors on those it seeks to assist. 

With that, I thought I would share some new, in some cases contrary, insights many of you have offered in response to yesterday's post.

Wealth Creation

Affordable Housing is not for wealth creation.  While I understand this as argument, I think it is unfortunate as fact.  And most of you do too.  Whenever this argument was raised, it was done so "regrettably" as an acknowledgement of a fault in an otherwise important program.   The "Emperor Has No Clothes" of housing policy.  "Well, when someone says the Emperor has no clothes, you say 'The Emperor is not supposed to have clothes!'"

My friend Roy asked in the comments what I would propose we do with the in lieu payments instead of door-knobs, and I think this issue in particular lends itself to financial amelioration.  As many would acknowledge, Columbia has vacant housing stock, it just needs to be rehabilitated.  If there were a program that focused on this housing stock and allowed homeowners to keep the value of subsidized improvements, we would have a constructive solution that addressed a central flaw of affordable housing.

Diverse Communities

This is the most important consideration that I myopically omitted from my previous post.  We want Affordable Housing, with all of its warts, so that we avoid pockets of privilege and poverty.  We want the janitor to live next to the CEO, not because the janitor would benefit, but because "what is the alternative?"  There is an unstated presumption that success should come with its own zip code and Affordable Housing exists to rebut that presumption.  I get that and I'm disappointed I didn't get that before.

And this is a central point.  Affordable Housing is not necessarily intended as a poverty cure or any other social good other than "community building".  We can and should examine its flaws and I reject any contention that this is some sacred cow that avoids scrutiny.  Because as I showed yesterday, you can been pretty well entrenched in community affairs and still not understand one of its most basic concepts.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Affordable Housing A False Panacea

Affordable Housing has found a prominent place in the public discussion over the last few weeks after housing advocates staged a rally near the lakefront to raise awareness.  Supporters argue that Jim Rouse wanted janitors to live next to CEO's and that Columbia is boxing out the former.  They further contend that their children can't afford to live in Columbia.  Housing advocates want "full spectrum" housing that general describes a diversity of housing prices and access points for various levels of income.

The real question is what do lower income families want?  And does affordable housing help them build wealth?

I have significant concerns related to Affordable Housing as we all know it, particularly what may crudely be referred to as "door-knobs" over "in lieu" payment.  For the uninitiated, when advocates use the term "doorknobs", they are saying an affordable housing unit needs to be actually built and sold as MIHU as opposed to some payment being made by the developer into an Affordable Housing Trust.

We all love the idea of affordable housing, little a, little h.  But homeowners who buy into Affordable Housing units, big A, big H, are trapped in financial purgatory. "Deed restrictions" on the resale of the property, that may run for as long as 99 years, prevent them from building wealth from the asset.  That means one of the core reasons for purchasing a home, and not renting, is absent.  Meanwhile, all of the burdens of home-ownership remain.

For that reason, and many others, I would never want my child to purchase an affordable housing unit.  I would also feel paternalistic in wanting that "janitor" to live next to a CEO knowing that they are there under very different financial circumstances with very few benefits for the experience.  Moreover, the conclusion that poor families transposed to rich or middle class neighborhoods help lift their station has had mixed results under academic scrutiny.  A recent study by Duke showed that young boys actually do worse under these circumstances.

Probably the best circumstance for affordable housing would be for a certain percentage of Columbians to agree to sell their houses at below market rate.  I say that with no sarcasm slight sarcasm intended.  That, in effect, is what we are asking of land developers except we could do our part without the deed restrictions that destroy the purpose of affordable housing.  Yet, I doubt passion for this cause runs that deep.

Have a great Monday doing what you love.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Task Force Majeure

Last week, County Executive Allan Kittleman announced the creation of an Advisory Group "to prioritize projects to control flooding in Historic Ellicott City."  Based on what I've been able to gather, this 10-member group will advise the Administration on flood mitigation projects for future budgets, solicit public input related to the same, and seek out secondary sources of revenue (i.e., grants) for such projects.

As someone who has spent a great deal of time studying and discussing this issue, I can tell you that Ellicott City flooding is one of the most misunderstood issues in Howard County, particularly as it relates to flooding at the bottom of the hill.  This is most plainly shown by the photographs used to convey the devastation of Ellicott City flooding, such as the one used by the Flier in their coverage of this group.  There is not much, if anything, anyone can do to prevent flooding from the Patapsco River.  So showing pictures of flooding near the bridge is like leaving the stock photo in the frame you bought at Michael's.  It shows something, but probably not what you intended to display.

The real issue with flooding is further uphill, along the "West End" of Main Street.  There are approximately 5-7 residences and 2-3 businesses (mostly heavy commercial) that are threatened by insufficient natural infrastructure, deteriorating flood walls, and small streams that over-flow quickly in heavy storms.  This represents the area with greatest opportunity for mitigation, with the store-fronts in between West End and the Patapsco hanging in the balance of "what can be saved".

And, as may be expected, there is not a tremendous amount of political will to save "5-7 residences and 2-3 businesses (mostly heavy commercial)."  I have attended numerous meetings between (Ulman) Administration staff and these residents to look at how the flooding models answered two questions: how much would these flood projects cost? And what effect would they have on flooding?  The repeated answers were "very expensive" and "not much".  Ken Ulman recognized this when he purchased the Bickley property and offered to buy the homes of many of their neighbors.  It was cheaper to buy people out of the flood zone than make it not flood.

In this respect, the County Executive Kittleman's mission statement for the Advisory Group is interesting: "to prioritize projects to control flooding in Historic Ellicott City."  Is the intent of this group to scrutinize and critique future budgets as they relate to the prioritization of flood projects? Is this a watchdog group?  Because otherwise what is the purpose?  If Ellicott City flooding is a priority, the County Executive holds all the cards for making flood solutions a reality.

Looking at the names of those put on the Advisory Group, I think the County Executive has the tiger by the tail.  It was the full intent and purpose of the County Executive to include Ellicott City residents and business owners, which can be contrasted to a group made up of surveyors, architects, flood experts, and policy-makers.  Please understand, this is not a critique as much as it is an observation that the Executive may have hitched his saddle to an unfriendly steed.  I know the members selected for this group and I would fairly say I know them better than the County Executive does.  I am confident that he will know them just as well soon enough.

Referring to those meetings noted above, the Ulman Administration went to great efforts to work with West End community members and the "Ellicott City Flood Solutions" group to identify common ground between projects that would have a meaningful impact on flooding and those that would be expensive, but have little effect.  Despite all this effort, there were "Ulman Turned His Back on Ellicott City Flooding" signs on Main Street by April 2014.  This Advisory Group is going to be pushing the accelerator on projects and will be very unlikely to carry the company line.  You can be sure that the County Executive is correct when he says "this is not another study group."  Maybe more correct than he knows.

Have a great Tuesday doing what you love!