Thought Piece: Does MoCo really need Amazon?

Last year, all three County Executive candidates pretty much swooned over the idea of Jeff Bezos possibly picking White Flint as the new site for the coveted Amazon HQ2 and its “50,000 high-paying jobs.” Ultimately, nobody got the full prize, as the behemoth opted to split the new headquarters between New York and Northern Virginia. Eventually, Amazon backed out of its New York location due to opposition credited to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Crystal City still wound up with there promise of 25,000 six-figure jobs, and already accelerating housing costs. As the finalized Amazon decision coincided with the 2018 midterm elections, MoCo’s centrist punditry circles speculated that Marc Elrich’s victory might have played a role in Amazon’s decision not to locate in Montgomery County.  (A more cogent hypothesis would be that NoVa had two things built in with which Montgomery could not compete; an existing educational IT feeder program and access to an airport, but I digress.)

Elrich, meanwhile, much to the dismay of his left-leaning base, was emphatically pro-Amazon. He told me once that he figured the new tax revenue could help pay for his Bus Rapid Transit program. In fact, one of the things Nancy Floreen attempted to use to deride Elrich was his apparent need to write a letter to Bezos explaining that Amazon was still welcome and that he would not govern the county as a Chavista.

Fast forward to roughly a year later, and Amazon is back in the picture. This time, Elrich is on the record inquiring to Amazon about bringing its warehouse to Montgomery County.

I will say right off the bat that this is not a good idea.

First, in honor of Labor Day, I’ll point out the obvious: Amazon is known for having some of the worst labor practices in Corporate America. Sure, they  may pay their sweatshop Fulfillment Center employees $15/hour (which Montgomery County will require by 2021 anyway), but at what physical cost?

Numerous documentaries and exposés have uncovered the Amazon Fulfillment Center’s production quota policies and their labor practice’s lack of, well, fulfillment. This type of exploitation is not anything a member nor ally of the DSA should endorse, and some key supporters have already called the executive out for it.

Second, as Elrich is practically tripping over himself to be seen as more business friendly, the Chamber of Commerce-type fiscal conservatives who opposed his candidacy aren’t really budging. Sure, these are jobs but they are not the high-paying jobs that really grow the tax base. Moreover, Amazon Unfulfillment Center employees making $15/hour will be in the income bracket still needing the social services that the existing tax base must provide. Not to mention the fact that there is virtually no housing available for people in this income bracket.

Giving Marc the benefit of the doubt, which I am always inclined to do, it is possible that he would seek to impose more fair labor policy requirements with which Amazon would comply, although the regulations generally are passed in Annapolis. If MoCo could manage to bring in an ethical Amazon warehouse, then that would be a noteworthy victory…but color me skeptical.

Ultimately, attempting to lure in an Amazon warehouse is not a wise political decision for Marc Elrich. It further alienates Elrich from his left-wing base, which is hanging by a thread as it is. To the business establishment, it just looks like we’re going after Amazon’s sloppy seconds and letting Virginia take away the big prize. It would look even worse if the county attempted to lure Amazon and still failed.

The County Executive should instead refocus on job growth in the sectors more near and dear to him and the rest of us: small business incubators, biotech, and light industrial. As an ideological socialist living in a capitalist world, I am more inclined to welcome growth from ethical employers, locally grown small businesses, and jobs with opportunities for MoCo’s existing youth to earn livable salaries. This doesn’t have to come from big names or from fighting with neighboring jurisdictions over shiny objects.

Urbanists and Elrich. They despise each other. Here’s why we need them both.

In my latest attempt to flesh out, and hopefully dispel, the intense NIMBY vs YIMBY dichotomy in land use politics, I want to articulate how my personal opinions have evolved on the issue. Ultimately, I have come to the conclusions that neither the urbanist community (Coalition for Smarter Growth, Greater Greater Washington, etc) nor County Executive Elrich have all the right answers, but that doesn’t make all of their respective views wrong. Rather, they need to learn from each other and synthesize their views. Despite all the vitriol (which I myself have contributed to. What can I say, tribalism is addictive.) I don’t think this is impossible.

Either side of the land use debate can cite studies and articles to back up their point, so in lieu of going back and finding all the links that everyone has tossed back and forth, I will cite the data that persuaded me to think more critically about this issue:

DC Urban Turf published an interactive map from UC Berkeley’s Cool Climate Network that displayed energy consumption at a micro level. Here is a snapshot at the DC metro area:

The map tracks housing- and data-related carbon emissions, and the results are pretty damning for affluent suburbia.

While the data can be further broken down into itemized uses of energy, plus factors such as neighborhoods’ respective commitments to renewables, I would hypothesize that correlation will equal causation in this case. Which is to say, affluence and low density of neighborhoods are direct indicators of high carbon use (the latter being a stronger indicator).

The “greenest” neighborhoods are in DC proper, especially downtown, central northwest, and southeast. These are dense, urban neighborhoods where people are more likely to live in apartments and less likely to drive cars. The “reddest” DC neighborhood is upper northwest, near Chevy Chase, where there are more large, single family homes and vehicles parked in driveways. Far and away the most emission-producing areas are western Montgomery, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties. What do these areas have in common? Sprawling, single family, car-dependent neighborhoods, and affluence (meaning larger homes and more car use).

Inside-the-Beltway Prince George’s County, while a relatively affluent (by national standards), a suburb, and with many single family homes, is more “green” than other suburbs. I would guess that, being comparatively less affluent than the other suburban counties, its lower carbon emissions would be a result of more public transit use and smaller homes. By stating this, I am less trying to say that “public transit is for poor people,” but more pointing my finger at the wealthy with their large homes and cars as exacerbating the environmental problems with suburban sprawl.

So, I agree that sprawl is bad, and density is better (usually). Does this mean I “side” with the urbanists?

No, not necessarily. But I do agree with them on this major point, which is the ultimate point of those who make good faith arguments for their paths toward sustainable growth. I do, however, think that some are too naively trusting private developers and those with professional or financial ties to the real estate development industry to always have the whole community’s best interests at stake.

The following points are my OPINION only.

A. Where urbanists are right.

I agree with the fundamental vision of the progressive wing of the “smart growth,” pro-urbanism movement: That dense, walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible and mixed income neighborhoods are more equitable and environmentally sustainable. I agree that single-family exclusive neighborhoods do have some roots in redlining, a racist practice that deliberately segregated lower income people of color and affluent white people. I also agree that we need to build more homes.* (Asterisk intended). I fundamentally agree that measures should be taken to limit suburban sprawl, especially the type of 1950s-style cul-de-sac, car-dependent neighborhoods with McMansions. The so-called American Dream has become an environmental nightmare.

B. Where Marc Elrich is right.

The County Executive is a policy wonk, detail-oriented to a fault. He often brings up logistical, nuts-and-bolts criticisms of adding density to single family neighborhoods. He sheds light on unintended consequences of possibly well-intended density-increasing proposals: that when a neighborhood is engineered and structured to be single family, it doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to support more density and residents. All residents, new and current, need things. They need space in school for children (unless you are going to try and prevent families with children from moving in), they need a bolstered stormwater management system if there will be more asphalt, they should maintain a tree canopy to prevent urban heat islands, and, unless there is a way to *force* new residents to take transit and not bring cars, available parking needs to be considered. These are all rather unsexy arguments that can be kind of a buzzkill to make when presented with a hip, new-and-improved urban design plan. Having developers pay more in impact fees to help build this needed infrastructure seems like a reasonable and logical solution.

I also agree with the County Executive’s concerns about displacement and reliance on the private market to solve the affordable housing crisis. While the Planning Board might make the argument that new developments have only displaced existing residents in naturally occurring affordable housing six times, this does not take into consideration when a landlord takes a unit off the market after the existing tenant’s lease is up, and sells the place to a developer to make more money.

The real estate development industry, like any private industry, exists functionally to maximize profit. It isn’t even the fault of developer executives. The system in place is built so that they must profit at a certain margin in order to receive capital from investors. At a certain point, it remains mathematically impossible for the private market to meet demands of lower income home seekers. Elrich stated that there are, in fact, enough developments in the pipeline to meet projected growth, but that the developers were not building them because they couldn’t get high enough rents. This would merit a place for public housing and social housing and nonprofit developers, with whom Elrich said he was holding talks. I agree with this approach.

Lastly, Elrich is also right about the need for multi bedroom units. Shareable apartments for families and roommates are absolutely compatible with density; people living together are density in its purest form, and building appropriately-sized homes with accompanying infrastructure is more sustainable than cramming more people into a single unit under the radar.

C. Where urbanists are wrong.

First, it’s worth noting that the majority of my disagreements are with market urbanists. Urbanism, like socialism or liberalism or libertarianism or what have you, is a big-tent movement. There are market urbanists and libertarian-leaning YIMBYs as well as socialist urbanists and YIMBYs.

My main criticism is with the concept of “filtering,” which, roughly speaking, means that when you build newer, high-end units, they will be more attractive to wealthier residents and the older units will free up for lower-income residents. The problem is that this process doesn’t happen overnight, and it may take as long as 30 years for the older units to become within reach of someone making 50-80% AMI.  We can’t rely on the filtering process to justify the over-building of luxury apartments in the long term aim of increasing net affordable housing.

I also disagree with deregulating development in the form of tax breaks for developers. While some urbanists argue that impact fees make it too expensive to build, especially housing that’s affordable, it makes the most sense to have the entity that profits off of private development to play the main role in funding the infrastructure that new residents will require. I will admit that it is complicated – and that there is indeed a progressive case for raising property taxes to cover this cost instead. As much as I would love to just soak the owners of the battleship-sized mansions in Potomac, property tax increases might actually be crippling for a long-time owner of a modest bungalow in ward 6 of Takoma Park, for example. Also, property tax increases are immensely politically unpopular, and we do need to win elections. Big Development and their executives don’t appear to be too financially strained. A careful calculation could be made to optimize the amount of infrastructure funding from developer impact fees and property taxes so that neither reaches a tipping point. The bottom line is that we need funding for infrastructure, and if there is no way to get the math to add up, perhaps this means that we are building too much too fast.

As for my asterisk* in the above section, I am referring to the type of homes we need to build. We need more workforce, “missing middle,” and millennial/GenZ (by which I mean NOT glitzy yuppie homes, but shareable units for roommates, young families, and singles making under 50% AMI) housing. The demand for this kind of housing exceeds MPDU set-asides.  If the market can’t produce it, this is where we need more of a role of nonprofit or public sector development.

D. Where Marc Elrich is wrong.

Unlike most urbanists or YIMBYs, I do not doubt the County Executive’s intentions. I would not describe Elrich as “secretly a country-club Republican” or “representing the interests of exclusionary white homeowners” (both direct quotes tweeted at me from self-described urbanists). His nuts-and-bolts arguments about infrastructure and commitments to leftist ideas like rent control, union housing, and nonprofit housing demonstrates that he does indeed have a vision for equitable and sustainable growth. I do, however, disagree with where he sees costs outweighing the benefits.

For example, Elrich opposed the Zoning Text Amendment making it easier to build accessory dwelling units. Having read the bill, I don’t think it was perfect, and if it did result in a dramatic increase in ADUs (which many say it won’t, because of costs still being prohibitive for most people), it might have some of the unintended consequences Elrich often refers to in his critiques of density. That being said, I think ADUs are a case where the benefits probably outweigh the costs. Making them somewhat easier to build will probably encourage people to build them (or renovate, in the case of basements, etc), but these people will probably be the same people who intended to build them anyway. Having them legal will result in better code enforcement and adhering to the rules that are still in place.

I would say something similar about “missing middle” housing. Elrich was recently slammed for a quote, taken slightly out of context, that he “doesn’t believe in the missing middle.” It is unclear what Elrich or his detractors were referring to – whether it was housing for people making the area’s median income, which is over $100K, or for the type of housing defined as “missing middle,” which would be duplexes, triplexes, small apartments and townhomes. I do think there are merits to missing middle housing, though I see both sides of the issue. I don’t see all that much of a benefit to, say, tearing down a $1 million single family home to build two new $700,000 townhouses. It doesn’t do anything for middle income renters, but it does make a developer a huge profit. I do see a benefit for building modest multiplexes like the ones we have in Takoma Park.

As a side note, Takoma Park is often the pariah for urbanists who like to cast Elrich and his supporters as hypocrites. The image they like to portray is a gray-haired, white millionaire who lives in one of the big old Victorians in Ward 1, who calls himself progressive but opposes new housing. In fact, pretty much every other Takoma Park ward has multifamily housing mixed in with single family homes.

My ward, for example, has small apartment complexes, duplexes, triplexes, single family homes, and single family homes with basement ADUs. We have both adequate parking and access to bus lines, and a lovely tree canopy. Anyways, I think my Takoma Park ward shows the merits of missing middle housing.

Although I trust Marc’s intentions, I do think his, once again, nuts-and-bolts arguments are being taken advantage of by actual NIMBYs. By “actual NIMBYs,” I don’t mean honest treehuggers (I’m a tree-hugger myself) who worry about more urban runoff polluting the creek, but of people who are truly resistant to change and don’t want to see low income, young people, or people of color in their neighborhoods. It may be too easy for less-benevolent neighborhood voices to present their NIMBY arguments as nuts-and-bolts arguments, essentially creating a game of whack-a-mole with “problems” associated with a housing proposal. The County Executive’s detail-oriented nature and unwillingness to cut corners leads him to be characterized as letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, which can be problematic if “perfect” is not possible. A way to prevent this is to have a data-driven approach to find out, mathematically, when costs out weigh benefits when adding density – and when they don’t.

My newly informed, but non-expert recommendations:

1. Elrich should be careful not to miss the forest for the trees, literally.

I agree with many left-leaning urbanists and I do think we ultimately all want the same thing. Unlike some, however, I want the County Executive to succeed, and to deliver on other progressive promises like affordable childcare, community policing, racial equity training in government, and (eventually, no thanks to the previous administration) closing the Dickerson incinerator. I’d like the Elrich administration to be able to move forward on the issues that drove many of us to sway last year’s election rather than fight an overzealous, prematurely-campaigning primary challenger on the decades-old arguments over land use. This means consulting new data rather than old arguments that miss the literal forest for the trees when opposing specific developments in cases where concentrating density is holistically beneficial (and no, this won’t be every case).

2. Urbanists should build (homes and) bridges, not strawmen. 

I think urbanists – in general, not every single person who shares these views – should be more engaging with those who disagree with them on certain developments. While I understand their passion and sense of urgency for advocating for more housing, they should avoid making broad generalizations and labeling all development critics NIMBYs. They should continue to use data and make good faith arguments while avoiding sarcasm, misleading claims, and distortions and be more open to compromise. They should also get to know their opponents more – they might find that opponents to development proposals are not always old, white, and wealthy, and they have other concerns beyond homeowner property values and what’s in their backyards.

3. Housing advocates calling for zoning reform, rent control, and public investment. Why not all of the above? 

The Millennial Politics podcast interviewed Henry Kraemer, housing fellow at Data for Progress in a segment titled, “Housing as a Human Right.” Kraemer called for a multi-pronged approach to the housing crisis: zoning reform that gets rid of apartment bans in “exclusive” neighborhoods, implement rent stabilization, and pursue non-market based alternatives such as social housing, cooperatives, and nonprofit development. I would support this approach, provided that enough of the infrastructure kinks could be worked out to equip neighborhoods for future density. I think if we were to up zone single family neighborhoods – especially neighborhoods with naturally occurring affordable housing – then the policy must go hand-in-hand with rent stabilization and non-market alternatives. In short, I think all three prongs of this approach should be implemented together. This way, upzoning and density would not be a red carpet for private developers and to profit off  unchecked and unsustainable growth.

I don’t think many of us on the left oppose walkable communities, access to transit, or manageable rents. We may disagree about the validity of neighborhood infrastructure concerns or about whether or not private developers operate in our interests. But we need to listen to each other and consider each other’s points in good faith, and we haven’t been doing that. Until we do, the left will splinter even further, and land use issues will become a rift that renders us all but incapable of maintaining local electoral power.


Why Joe Biden is not the right candidate for President


It is no surprise that among progressive circles, the candidate ranked furthest down our lists of who we might consider voting for in the 2020 Democratic Primary is Joe Biden. After all, he’s an Old White Man (not named Bernie), he’s the Establishment, and he’s less progressive on some of the headliner issues such as Medicare for All.

I’ll admit, a part of me feels a twinge of remorse, joining the other younger progressive hordes in so quickly turning on Biden – once the affable, bumbling Uncle Joe who served as our No. 2 to the nation’s first African American president. We all enjoyed watching ol’ Joe demolish Sarah Palin in the 2008 Vice Presidential debate, and we watched Leslie Knope fawn over him in Parks and Rec. His love of ice cream and (assumed) penchant for practical jokes inspired hundreds of memes. His speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention gave us a taste of good-guy patriotism that countered then-Republican nominee Donald Trump’s bigoted nationalism. And, alas, three years later… he’s being MeToo’ed, he’s being called out for his previous stances on racially sensitive issues such as bussing, and he’s become a Pariah on the left for being an older white male with comparatively centrist policies.

The reason for my opposition to Joe Biden in the primary are not the usual reasons trending on left wing Twitter. It’s not because he’s an old, white man. It’s not because of his tactile nature with younger women. It’s not even necessarily because of political positions he has held in the past, and – most importantly – it isn’t because of any doubts of his electability. I will not dispute the numerous polls that show Biden having the widest lead over Trump among other top Democratic candidates.

My concern with a Biden presidency is that it would alleviate the symptoms, but not the cause, of what led to the Trump presidency in the first place – or what led to the Democrats losing over 1,000 seats through the course of Obama’s presidency. For the sake of focusing on Biden specifically, I will expand on the general dissatisfaction and civic unrest that fomented right-wing populism at a later date and instead focus on dissatisfaction with the Democratic party. While some argue that the Democrats have moved too far to the left, and others argue that the party has become “too corporate,” the most common refrain I have heard  among the “Obama-Trump” voters was that the Democrats in Washington “don’t care about us.”

Think about the catch phrase, “Drain the Swamp.” Republicans would like to think that the phrase resonates because it means simply shrinking the size of government. And yet, you don’t hear most of the people (which includes a fair amount on the left) who wish to Drain the Swamp calling for eliminating Medicare and Social Security. For most, Draining the Swamp refers to distrust of people who spend too much time in Washington.

Trump’s rise in the Republican Party, for all of its horrific implications, has demonstrated how an outsider can break through the ranks of the Party establishment and the Washington punditry circles. You didn’t hear the Heritage Foundation or the CATO institute rallying behind Trump in the 2016 primary. The Koch Brothers initially backed Marco Rubio. The Democrats, in contrast, have tightened their grip around “next-in-line” politics. Clinton was the natural successor to Obama. Biden would be the natural successor now that Clinton is out of the picture (for the most part). Harris would be the natural successor to Biden. The DNC is simply hostile to outsiders, especially from the left. As seemingly hand-picked, “next-in-line” candidates continue to float to the top in the crowded waters of Democratic primaries, Democratic voters feel less empowerment at the ballot box.

One could certainly make a similar argument about Kamala Harris, another likely establishment pick. Were Biden to become the nominee and lose to Trump, or to step down after one term as President, Harris would be an all-but-certain successor, according to the DNC powers-that-be in 2024. To her credit, though, Harris has at least entertained, though wavered, on some of the more progressive positions that non-establishment candidates have championed. Biden, meanwhile, has openly campaigned on return to “normalcy.” A Biden president would attempt to return us to a pre-Trump, and sure, more or less anti-Trump America, but he would do little in terms of getting us to a post-Trump America. The “normalcy” Biden would return us to would be the same normalcy exemplified by Chuck and Nancy’s response to Trump’s government shutdown address: Scolding, dull, and dare I say, low-energy. It’s a normalcy of Washington in which members of congress spend cumulative decades of their lives fundraising, on the phone trying to maintain their donor base. It’s a normalcy where Democrats funnel resources into protecting incumbents, effectively constructing their own walls to keep out new ideas.

To clarify, my argument isn’t about age or left-right ideology. After all, Bernie Sanders would be the oldest President ever elected, and arguably the most progressive in modern history. My argument is more about entrenchment in the way Washington works; the thought process in which fresh ideas deemed too out-of-the-box will be easily dismissed because of “conventional wisdom” that they would upset the donor base. Joe Biden, with his safe and centrist approach to a rather limited policy platform, coupled with his next-in-line candidacy status, is the natural successor according to this Washington process.

Like her or not, AOC’s upset victory against Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th district should be the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party. Crowley, once again, was a next-in-line candidate, this time for Speaker of the House. Even if one disagrees with AOC’s policies, Democrats from the center to the far left (the dubious concept of a “far left” Democrat notwithstanding) should be encouraged to know that upset victories are still possible. Just imagine the impact – and the increases in turnout – if Democrats could cast their votes in a primary knowing that the field was wide open and that anything can happen.

If a next-in-line candidate like Biden remains the established frontrunner, however, the whole electoral process remains less than inspiring.

So, why is this important? When we have Trump in the White House, do we really have the luxury to complain whether or not his opponent is “inspiring enough”?

Yes and no.

As I said, I do not doubt Biden’s electability. He very well might beat Trump by the largest margin. But…then what? What would Biden do to prevent Republicans from taking an iron hold on the Senate and retaking the House, not to mention in downballot elections? If he defeats Trump, that’s all fine and dandy, but what, then, would rally the electorate to keep voting Blue once the Orange bogeyman is gone? Biden, at best, would be a short term fix for a long term problem.

The Democratic Party needs to rebrand. This doesn’t mean shifting toward the center or imposing a purity test from the left. It means becoming more open to change – in the policies themselves, and in the process of developing and implementing them.

Voters who maintain a distaste for Democrats don’t necessarily feel this way because of ideology, but because of frustration with “Washington,” with “the Swamp.” The best thing the Democratic Party can do is empower the electorate, listen to their constituents, and make us feel like our votes, our phone calls, our critiques, our petitions, and our protests actually matter – that new ideas from the grassroots won’t be dismissed by those who “know better” and dissolved into the thick, murky Washington swamp.

The Case for Andrew Yang

As we gear up for the first Democratic presidential debates tomorrow, here is my final endorsement-potential among the candidates: the wild card of the bunch, Andrew Yang.

It could be argued that the case for a President Yang is equivalent to the case for universal basic income (UBI). In this instance, it more or less is, but it is also a case for a something different, considering the range of views of the other candidates. While the other 23 candidates face off, placing themselves somewhere along the spectrum  of centrist to progressive, using litmus tests like medicare for all, student loan debt forgiveness, reparations, and voting rights for prisoners, Yang is writing his own rules. For those who firmly believe that a change candidate is needed to banish Trump from the White House next year, Andrew Yang would be a solid choice.

At first glance, UBI might seem like a leftist policy, but it really is not. There is a well documented libertarian case for UBI, based off the premise that the fixed amount – in Yang’s case, the $1000 per month Freedom Dividend – would effectively replace the welfare state. Essentially, we’d all be on our own, only with an extra $12,000 per year in cash.

As a leftist more inclined to be a social democrat, this leaves me with a number of questions.

If everyone is just given a $12,000 per year raise, how would we ensure that the cost of everything wouldn’t just go up alongside it? How much would we be better off in the end?

If the welfare system were to be pulled out from under us, how can we be sure that those who most need the Freedom Dividend would not be tricked or defrauded into paying too much for a basic service that would have otherwise been provided? Would there be a comprehensive financial education program instituted in schools, for example? (I think this should happen anyway).

Would that money be enough to cover everything it is intended to replace? For example, if Section 8 housing were no longer to exist, would this money be necessarily enough to find a home in a very expensive city?

While it would serve Yang to clarify more as to what counts as a welfare program to be withdrawn in favor of UBI, he does make sound arguments to satisfy other common questions about the initiative. For example, one common question suggests that it would be regressive to include the ultra-wealthy in the program. After all, why does Jeff Bezos need an extra $12,000 per year? Yang’s argument is simple: Everyone receives the UBI, and no one will be incentivized to earn less – or to under-report their income – in order to receive it. Another common reaction is the apprehension for withdrawing all welfare programs in favor of UBI. Yang offers the solution of providing each citizen a choice: the government assistance status quo, or the UBI, and Yang is confident enough in the appeal and effectiveness of UBI that it will be phased in by popular will.

The debate over the welfare state versus the Yang Dollars is also intriguing because it has the potential to upend the thinking that the progressive left looks more favorably on the state than on the individual. As a social democrat,  I find myself frequently faced with the task of navigating valid arguments about government bloat and inefficiency of certain  public assistance programs and whether or not the inconsistent patchwork of each state’s social services adequately serves their purpose. In a similar vein, we on the left do not like to find ourselves boxed into a corner defending the proverbial lucrative compensation of a bureaucrat at the expense of the middle class taxpayer (you know, the economic class that actually has to pay their taxes as opposed to weaseling their way out of it). The progressive left fundamentally stands for a more equitable distribution of resources, a guaranteed basic standard of living, and a balance of power – not a transfer of power and resources from the higher-ups of one sector to another.  Libertarians are not always wrong when they point to poorly allocated funds or poorly executed social services. The UBI system empowers the individual to make his or her own choices and priorities while maintaining a cushion funded by a Value Added Tax (VAT) that can fill the gap while unemployed or underemployed.

Lastly, Yang’s proponent of UBI in place of the welfare state is not equivalent to saying, “privatize everything.” In fact, Yang is on the record for supporting Medicare for All and forgiving most student loan debt. In other words, you get the extra thousand bucks every month, and you don’t have to use it on student loans or medical bills or insurance premiums. That’s a pretty good deal.

It is true that Andrew Yang is a capitalist; an entrepreneur no less and one of the dreaded “tech bros” that I have railed against in other discussions. Nevertheless, Yang offers a different kind of capitalism worth giving a chance as we make our way further into the 21st century with rapidly transforming industries and unclear job security forecasts. His outside-the-box candidacy is one worth considering.

The Case for Kamala Harris

As I round up my cases for potential “endorsements” among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates – of which there are not quite as many as the 2018 Montgomery County Council At-Large race, but almost – I’d like to make a case for a more-or-less “establishment” pick: Kamala Harris.

Let’s face it. Maryland voters generally vote to protect the Democratic establishment. We house federal government employees here, as well as lobbyists, corporate lawyers, and socially progressive business executives – many of whom may have their hearts in the right place on many issues but at the end of the day err on the side of not disrupting the status quo. Hillary Clinton beat Bernie by over 30 points here, after all. This all being said, some “establishment” candidates are less bad than others – and some make rather compelling cases for being the DNC-friendly candidate that progressives could actually get excited about.

Enter Kamala Harris.

Known for being a tough-as-nails prosecutor, she’s done nothing but shine in the Senate hearings, grilling both Brett Kavanaugh and AG William Barr. She’s been relentless and passionate and knows where to jab where it really hurts, and this will make Trump crumble – or better yet, throw a meltdown – during general election debates. As a woman Attorney General of color in California, I will give her the benefit of the doubt when coming down on the more authoritarian side of issues such as the state’s truancy program. As a progressive, I would disagree with this more hardline position, but knowing the barriers that women of color face in this field, her commitment to being a no-nonsense prosecutor has enabled her to overcome systemic career obstacles.

I’d also give her the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the bold, progressive ideas that Bernie Sanders has made central to the Democratic primary discussion, such as medicare for all and voting rights for those serving time in prison. Harris appears to be still feeling out her position on these issues, which indicates that she has the most potential of the establishment-friendly candidates to be pulled leftward. In her interview this winter on Pod Save America, she wavered on Medicare for All, initially jumping on the progressive bandwagon but somewhat stumbling when pressed on whether or not she would favor eliminating private health insurance. This response isn’t perfect, but it is superior to Biden’s, Klobuchar’s, and Buttigieg’s flat-out NO. In a similar vein, Kamala’s CNN townhall featured a much-repeated response when pressed on the boldest progressive positions (prisoners’ voting rights come to mind): “I’m open to having that conversation.”

Again, these responses aren’t perfect. In fact, they could be among the weakest, most waffling-politician-y responses you could get to the real probing questions – and Kamala knows a thing or two about relentless, probing questions. Still, it shows her as a potential ally.

Harris speaks in a way that shows she is relatable and likeable. She cracks jokes, she laughs, she speaks very matter-of-factly, and she isn’t boring. She wants to be liked. This could be a “politician thing,” but it could be used to our advantage. If she wants to be liked, then she wants to be liked by progressives. She knows that she needs us and she is willing to listen and take our ideas seriously.  For these reasons, if you are voting in a state whose delegates are more than certain to go to a comparatively DNC-approved, Rachel Maddow-MSNBC-friendly candidate, Kamala Harris might be a wise choice.

The Case for Bernie Sanders

A few weeks ago, I made my case for Elizabeth Warren for President in 2020. While I remain officially undecided, the “endorsement cases” I make in this blog are coming more or less in the order I would rank them were we to have an advanced rank choice voting system in place. In my case for Warren, one of the primary drawbacks I articulated was whether or not she could win – whether she was simply too wonky and too ivory tower for the typical American voter. This may or may not cause progressive voters to second guess her candidacy.

Another leading candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, potentially closes this gap in the electability question. Sen. Sanders is undoubtedly a movement builder – he has riled up a passionate, unwavering base of younger and otherwise disillusioned voters. As a populist, he taps into the swath of the electorate that wants to “drain the swamp” while offering an option other than filling it in with even uglier swamp creatures (like Trump). This is why Clinton supporters were eager to point out (disparagingly) that 12% of Sanders voters ended up voting for Trump in the 2016 general elections. The “Bernie Bro” vote, in many cases, was less about sexism or being a sore loser than it was about voting against entrenched Washington insiders. We see the same reaction on social media among Sanders supporters today with regards to Joe Biden’s candidacy.

This brings me to another criticism – that Sen. Sanders has been an ineffective legislator. Critics often like to note that Sanders has only gotten seven bills passed during his time in Congress (both in the Senate and the House) since 1991. In contrast, unabashed centrist Amy Klobuchar has passed 33 bills. To those most disillusioned with Washington, however, Bernie’s legislative is not the bug; it’s the feature. Remaining a maverick and an outsider throughout his decades in office demonstrates an immunity to the Swamp Fever that corrupts politicians on both sides of the aisle. Sanders, after all, racked up primary victories in surprise Trump-voting states like Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as rural and western states. He also walked into the proverbial lion’s den, giving a town hall on Fox News, which generated resounding applause from the audience and set the trend for other Democratic candidates to follow suit. (My other preferred candidate, Elizabeth Warren, would have done well to do so in my opinion).

It is noteworthy that my case for Bernie Sanders is based around the politics of his nomination rather than his individual policies. I maintain that Senator Warren has more (painstakingly) clearly articulated policy plans – and ways to pay for them – though Sanders deserves credit for taking leadership on the very popular Medicare for All proposal in the Senate. Both Sanders and Warren have articulated a proposal to induce more employee stake in large companies. For better or for worse, however, the 2020 elections may come down to not who has the most clearly articulated policies, but to who can mobilize a loyal base and tap into populist unrest that has not subsided since 2016. For this reason above all, Bernie Sanders is the clear choice for the movement-builder’s candidate.


Larry Hogan: My Way or the Highway (Literally)

Your author just got back from her backcountry, off-the-grid vacation and missed the massive town hall held in Silver Spring on Sunday.

A Very Wrongheaded Idea from Mr. “Popular.”

Imagine a world where the NIMBYs and YIMBYs unite in opposition to a wrongheaded, regressive proposal from a “popular” Republican governor. Stranger things indeed happen.

On Sunday, a crowd of over 700 came to the Silver Spring Civic Building to voice opposition to Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to add lanes to 495 (the Beltway) and I-270 by widening both highways. Hogan had initially claimed that the highway widening would not take homes and businesses, but later fleshing out of the proposal proved otherwise. According to the Hogan administration’s report released in April, over 1,500 properties would be “directly affected,” with 34 homes and four businesses destroyed.  Moreover, the Maryland Park and Planning Commission determined that over 3000 acres of Rock Creek Park, the DC area’s central oasis, would be taken.  This makes sense, and, it could possibly be worse. After all, the space needed will be not for just new lanes, but completely new constructed on-ramps, exits, and barriers.

Not only did Hogan’s highway plan generate opposition from the expected groups of environmentalists and NIMBYs (of both the tree-hugging and the get-off-my-lawn varieties), it also generated opposition from urbanists. Action Committee for Transit, a transit advocacy organization generally aligned with the views of Greater Greater Washington, tweeted in favor of County Executive Marc Elrich’s assessment of the plan. Elrich, who is normally the elected official the urbanists love to hate, cited the LBJ Highway in Houston as an example of the undesired and (presumably) unintended consequences of adding lanes to highways: displaced families, destroyed businesses, and induced traffic demand.

If You Build It, They Will Come.

Induced demand means what you think it means. Citylab explains the phenomenon in its piece about the Houston highway widening:

Just as with the Katy Freeway expansion, adding new roadway capacity also creates new demand for those lanes or roads, maintaining a similar rate of congestion, if not worsening it. Economists call this phenomenon induced demand: When you provide more of something, or provide it for a cheaper price, people are more likely to use it. Rather than thinking of traffic as a liquid, which requires a certain volume of space to pass through at a given rate, induced demand demonstrates that traffic is more like a gas, expanding to fill up all the space it is allowed.

The CityLab article refers to “induced demand” as a key point for urbanists:

  • In urbanism, “induced demand” refers to the idea that increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive, thus failing to improve congestion.

  • Since the concept was introduced in the 1960s, numerous academic studies have demonstrated the existence of ID.

  • But some economists argue that the effects of ID are overstated, or outweighed by the benefits of greater automobility.

  • Few federal, state, and local departments of transportation are thought to adequately account for ID in their long-term planning.

If there’s any issue that will get the urbanist crowd and the Elrich gang to agree with each other, it’s this one.

The Guv Gets Ratioed on Twitter.

FiveThirtyEight ranks Larry Hogan as the second most popular governor in the nation, and as a remarkably popular Republican governor in a deep blue state. Hogan’s second term was greatly assisted by a coalition of Democrats for Hogan, which brought the Republican within ten points of winning solid blue Montgomery County.

On Sunday, however, the popular, never-Trumper Republican engaged in Trumpian namecalling, which got him ratioed on Twitter:

In case you didn’t know, to be “ratioed” on Twitter means that your tweet gets more negative comments than likes or retweets.

So You Think You Want To Be President

Hogan has frequently billed himself as a “bipartisan moderate” and an anti-Trump Republican, and has denounced Trump and his overly simplistic thinking and inane tweets such as this one above. He’s even gone so far to cast himself as a Republican primary alternative to Trump, should Trump be impeached or forced to resign or (hopefully) imprisoned.

And yet, Hogan is finding out that the GOP has no appetite for bipartisan moderation or centrism. The GOP is entirely the Party of Trump, so I guess it’s just as well that Hogan would start acting like it.

I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, knowing full well that a tweet about highways does not a Trumpkin make. Even so, sometimes we realize that if it walks like a Republican and quacks like a Republican, it’s a Republican, and it’s probably going to behave like one sooner or later.

Anyways, I only wish Hogan would take a holiday in China and then reconsider his proposal.

Vehicles are seen stuck in a traffic jam near a toll station as people return home at the end of a week-long national day holiday, in Beijing, China, October 6, 2015. Picture taken October 6, 2015. REUTERS/China Daily.

2020: The Case for Elizabeth Warren

In my first post in the series of potential endorsements for 2020, I’d like to focus on the candidate who I place at the top in terms of policy alone. That candidate is Elizabeth Warren. While other candidates have demonstrated policymaking capabilities far above their Republican competitors, Senator Warren has been the most thorough and consistent in her proposals to address income inequality and keep a check on predatory, corrupt financial institutions. The potential first woman president has repeatedly presented sound cases for reining in the institutions responsible for the unstable employment (and underemployment) situations and precarious standard of living of the nation’s most economically distressed.

Our lifeline in the financial service sector

Warren proposed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2007, upon the financial crisis and recession, and finally established the institution in 2011. The CFPB, which is being gutted by the Trump administration appointees, is our lifeline in protecting consumers from predatory practices of financial institutions, bank fraud, and ensuring transparency. As Republicans conspire to dissolve our safety net, the CFPB is one of our last lines of defense. Re-enforcers for the faux leather in our bootstraps, if you will. We need someone in office who is on our side as we scramble to pay student loans, or for the lucky few of us who are handling our first mortgages.

A wealth tax that makes sense

Senator Warren’s wealth tax aims to curb spiraling inequality while helping to answer the “How do you pay for it?” barrage of questioning facing every new government initiative. What separates Warren’s wealth tax from others, which have failed, is its comprehensiveness – it closes loopholes which its targets would otherwise exploit to evade and avoid the tax. When simplified, Warren’s wealth tax is levied on stocks, bonds, and private equity, as opposed to income or property, which are the largest assets of the middle class. The wealth tax by definition targets the most wealthy and serves as an alternative to raising income taxes – which, arguably, is in many cases rendered a regressive tax in practice when it disproportionately burdens the middle class and lower middle class (those of us who do not have personal lawyers to find tax loopholes for us to exploit). This two-percent tax, instead, would affect fewer than 80,000 Americans worth more than $50 million.

A Chance to Climb Out of the Hole

So where would this new tax revenue from the ultra-rich go? Elizabeth Warren’s most recent proposal is to help out students who face crushing student debt – by forgiving $50,000 of student loan debt to households earning less than $100,000. This would prove an economic stimulus more justifiable than Obama’s Wall Street bailout. More millennials could afford to buy homes and new cars and start families. Low-income young adults could get themselves on their feet, while middle-income earners could start to build some modest wealth.

Standing up to Big Tech

Warren’s plan to break up some of the big tech companies harkens back to the Antitrust Act of 1890 that targeted Standard Oil, only with a 21st century twist. Big Tech – Facebook, Amazon, and so forth – not only begets untold concentrations of wealth, but also transcends government protection of privacy and civil liberties. In effect, tech companies have Facebook have formed a surveillance state of their own, for surpassing government institutions in terms of Big Brotherdom. Senator Warren is a force to halt the trajectory of dominance of Big Tech and its merging with authoritarian government interests, before it is too late.

But can she win? 

Unfortunately, among my potential endorsees, Elizabeth Warren probably fares worst against Trump. She’s wonky, she’s smart, she’s accomplished, and she’s a woman. All things that threaten a fragile male ego, and we are already seeing the most fragile of egos launching their attacks. In American horserace election coverage and meme culture, a one liner from Trump will resonate farther, wider, and longer than Warren’s thorough explanation of how her policies would realize.

The other challenge for Warren’s campaign in a general election is something that hits home hard for me, as someone who has experienced the downward spiral of responding to bullies only to get bullied even more. Take the “Native American” issue. When Warren ran for Senate in Massachusetts against former model Scott Brown, the “issue” was brought up and actually backfired on Brown, making him look petty. Warren said something along the lines of, “Look, my parents told me that I had Cherokee and Delaware ancestry somewhere down the line, and I believed family lore. Now, onto financial protection…” She hasn’t reacted this way with Trump. Instead, she released a cringeworthy video of herself consulting a DNA test analysis, which only produced more memes and derision from Trump supporters and collective facepalms from Native American tribal representatives. In a similar vein, Warren’s Instagram post of her looking like a “real American” having a beer kind of look like she’s trying too hard. Warren, when she’s at her best, focuses on policy and its implementation. The problem is, much of the American electorate does not have the attention span for that.

Endorsement Category: The Policy Candidate

Elizabeth Warren is the clear choice for voters looking for thorough policy proposals and implementation roadmaps. She has the answers to the “but how do you PAY for it”  naysayer questions, and will calmly explain how the wealth transfer from the highest high earners is no more radical than it was fifty years ago. Her delivery is poised, her arguments sound, and her candidacy depends on the preparedness of the American electorate for a mature discussion of real and necessary solutions.

Why Montgomery County Needs More Jordan Peele

Would MoCo Liberals join Hands Across America before Untethering the Sunken Place?

If you haven’t seen both Jordan Peele films – “Get Out” and “Us” – stop reading this and go watch both of them. If you have, or if you are disinclined to watch psychological horror, read on.

While “Get Out” is set in what appears to be exurban New York State, and “Us” in Santa Cruz, California,  both films could easily be set in Montgomery County (our lack of beach notwithstanding.)

Jordan Peele grasps the concept of racism, class consciousness and being complicit in structural inequities in a way that would make a nonprofit executive in Takoma Park uncomfortable. In fact, I hope Peele sets his next film in Takoma Park (disclosure: I live in Takoma Park), though Bethesda would work well in an ever-so-slightly different vein.

The Armitage family might live in Bethesda. They voted for Obama twice. They have a Love Trumps Have sticker on their Prius. They have a yard sight that says “All Are Welcome Here.” They’ve checked the right boxes and repeated the right slogans and donated to the right causes. They see themselves as far removed from the MAGA hat-wearing, Confederate flag-waving denizens of our state’s eastern and western extremities.

How far removed are they, though, from the racial biases of our law enforcement? How welcoming are they to immigrants, people of color, and children of low-income families in our public schools? More insidiously, to what extent does the Bethesda Armitage family use the county’s diversity as window dressing, or a prop to fill a suitable role, and not embrace immigrants and people of color as individuals with a diverse range of ideas, professions, and goals of their own?

I would not accuse your average white liberal Obama-voting family in Bethesda of a sinister underground brain-swapping practice. I would, however, caution against a latent tendency to comfortably pick and choose the ways to embrace diversity where convenient, and of the assumption that engaging in liberal punditry and fundraising absolves oneself of any responsibilities for structural inequality one might willfully ignore.

Which brings me to Peele’s second film, “Us.” Even if “Get Out” was the more critically acclaimed of the two, “Us” could apply even more directly to Montgomery County.

“Us” may as well feature an upper middle class family of color in Takoma Park. While the Wilsons don’t display the iconic progressivism of TKPK (they seem to be a fairly standard, American Dream-living suburban family fixated on their model homes and boats) the city’s embrace of feel-good progressive action (To be fair, some Takoma Park-style progressive endeavors do make real changes. But let’s not kid ourselves. Virtue signaling is a reality in MoCo, love it or hate it) speaks to some of the points the film addresses.


“Us” turns feel-good charity on its side with its sinister take on the 1986 anti-poverty campaign “Hands Across America.” “Hands” raised $35 million, but less than half of that went to the charity after overhead costs, and as we can see, it made no dent in to the homeless problem.

Let’s examine the harsh truth. Montgomery County may be as a whole, progressive and well-intentioned, but we are sitting above the tunnels of the Tethered, and our wealthiest residents, who provide the tax base we acknowledge that we need, benefit from the structural inequalities that did the tethering.

The main difference between the film and reality is that the Tethered are not as hidden. We know they exist. They are children in cages at the border, drugged and force-fed. They are the urban working poor, who, rather than being paid a living wage, are told to learn a new skill to get a higher paying job, while balancing three jobs, moving from eviction to eviction and racking up medical bills. They are in rural West Virginia, addicted to opioids, and yes – some of them voted for Trump. After all, the Tethered are presented to us as villains, right?

They are Americans.

Perhaps the most poignant revelation at the end of the film was not the Adelaide/Red switcheroo twist itself, but what it really means about human nature at play with structural inequities.
Why has Red, who we found has been impersonating Adelaide for thirty years, solidly fought for Team Wilson, team Above Ground? Why is the real Adelaide fighting for the side of her captors? It is certainly not a story of Stockholm Syndrome. At all. It is the truth about human nature that throws a wrench in the proletarian revolution.

A prisoner of the underground tunnels, or a member of society’s underclasses gets a taste of freedom, prosperity, and privilege – and chooses not to look back.

It’s Adelaide, fallen from privilege, to the world of the Tethered that leads the revolution. She has full knowledge of both worlds.

Do Montgomery County residents have this knowledge, when our Tethered live visibly among us?

What should be the leftist position on development and housing?

Traditionally, socialists and environmentalists have shared a position with staunch development opponents, even when their reasoning has come from opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of class consciousness. It isn’t hard to see why. Both groups (and we are combining socialists and environmentalists for the purpose of argument) want to shield affordable, green, sustainable communities from rapid urbanization and transformation into a corporate, fast-paced, high-stress and exhaust-fumed asphalt jungle. And yet, each of these groups has different things they want to preserve. Some want to preserve the affordability of a given neighborhood and the ability of its residents to stay. Some want to preserve forest and green space and prevent them from being cut down and paved over. And some want to preserve “the character of their neighborhoods.”

The case against overdevelopment

There is a legitimate case against overdevelopment that is not exclusively made by older homeowners who want us kids to get off their lawns. In fact, emotional appeals to overdevelopment resonate with the very young:  Who remembers Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and Bill Peet’s The Wump World – two books that were read to me in kindergarten that elicited a fear of a sad, dystopian asphalt planet? Or the Disney Channel movie Rip Girls, that came out when I was in the fifth grade, where the surfer chicks convinced the wannabe-surfer chick in town not to sell their home beach to developers who would make it into a luxury resort? Even a comparatively insulated and admittedly privileged child like myself in the 90s can be conditioned to resent the social costs of overdevelopment. This is how opposition to development can come from a class-conscious and environmentalist perspective, and not just among ex-hippie seniors in Takoma Park.

Many of the arguments against specifically high-end development are intuitive. Opponents to gentrification rightfully argue that existing residents will be displaced, regardless of what promise of new employment opportunities new commercial development might bring. Likewise, the arguments for infrastructure to satisfy the needs of additional development do often consider that the burden of subpar infrastructure falls disproportionately on lower income residents. If school capacity and transit do not keep pace with development, lower income residents have fewer alternatives to turn to than wealthy residents. A fair case can be made that truly “smart growth” considers quality of life for all residents alongside the quantity of new homes. Similarly, environmental concerns play a role in opposition to or criticism of rapid development. While urbanists argue that denser developed areas prevent outward sprawl into rural areas and leave more untouched land available for agriculture and nature reserves, suburban residents make the case for maintaining minimums of green space, park space, and breathable air for the people who live there, especially for young lungs at play. Additionally, infrastructural strain such as increased impermeable surfaces have been featured in testimonies against increased density.

Lastly, there is a benign appeal to the conservative, “character of the neighborhood” objection to development. When coming from those who we consider less powerful – say, an elderly resident who purchased her modest home in a quiet suburb fifty years ago – appeals to preservation may resonate. I personally grew up with this strain of benign NIMBYism from my parents, who bought a 200-year old house in a small town’s historic district back in 1990, before neighboring streets faced an onslaught of tightly-packed McMansions to house wealthy commuters who sent their children to school with classrooms in excess of thirty students. With this upbringing in context, who could help but empathize with the true story behind the Pixar movie “Up,”  the stubborn elderly occupant of a cottage amid urbanized (and probably gentrified) development?

Source: Pixar/Buzzfeed
Source: Buzzfeed

The case for more housing

All this being said, we need more affordable housing – with the emphasis on affordable. Urbanists and home-seekers alike will argue that there is simply a shortage of housing. Market urbanists make the argument that by increasing the supply across the board, housing costs will go down by the law of supply and demand. Likewise, by restricting zoning, limits on housing supply will cause the costs to go up. The debate lies in what kind of housing faces a shortage. Some argue that the supply in general remains too restricted, though I do not see families making multiples of six figures struggling to find homes. The tricky issue is the strain on low-income housing as well as homes for the “missing middle.” MPDU requirements, even when increased from 12.5% to 15%, still come with a very restricted income bracket, limited choices in size (most of them end up being single-bedroom and studio-style apartments, with few options for families), and a lengthy wait list.

According to County Executive Marc Elrich, the most severe shortage of housing is for the lowest income bracket. The consequences of this shortage are threefold: low-income families face homelessness, those that keep their homes pay over half of their income on rent and face eviction when they cannot keep up with their payments, and lower-middle  income residents (early-career millennials, for example) are squeezed out of housing appropriate for their incomes because it is being occupied by residents who make below their income bracket. In other words, millennial roommates are competing with low-income families for the same housing supply, and nobody wins. Meanwhile, developers find luxury housing with minimal MPDU requirements to be most profitable. This housing ends up being occupied by the new, high-earning residents attracted to the amenities, or by lower-middle-income millennials who also like the shiny objects but, once again, end up paying half their income on rent (and never save up for homeownership, or end up killing industries due to their lack of discretionary spending).

The fact remains, however, that the shortage of affordable housing largely applies to multifamily housing. Criticism of single-family zoning requirements is not limited to pro-development blogs like Greater Greater Washington, but also concerned citizens on the left, exemplified by a recent Commonwealth MoCo blog post. Exclusionary single-family zoning, according to their argument, results in segregation by income (and often by race) and insulates wealthy (white) homeowners from “encroachment” by “keeping the rifraff out,” as one activist puts it.

While requiring basic accompanying infrastructure alongside development is a sound concept, progressive affordable housing advocates should be wary of these criticisms when coming from the testimonies of wealthy homeowners and thorough in their analysis of what constitutes adequate infrastructure. Are there established metrics of investment into transit, school capacity, and other social services necessary to accompany the arrival of a given number of new residents in their new homes? Or is a particular subset of well-established homeowners, resistant to change, combing through the regulations in order to find one loose thread in their aim to unravel the entire development proposal, under the guise of “infrastructure”? There is an apparent divide between progressives and leftists who resist development that is inequitable and unsustainable and those who resist development for less altruistic reasons. This divide may become increasingly pronounced.

Are Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) the wedge issue? 

County Executive Marc Elrich won the Democratic primary by a mere 77 votes. Were it not for every single branch of the coalition that supported him, Montgomery County would be head by the multimillionaire, capitalist and pro-business choice of the Washington Post. If Elrich is historically seen as the leading opponent to (excessive?) development in the County, it would make sense to assume that some of the decisive Elrich voters were of the more conservative, exclusionary wealthy homeowner class of anti-development voters.  It would also make sense that, for political purposes, Elrich might refrain from publicly denouncing those voters for their reasons for supporting him. One activist described how some wealthy homeowners oppose development for reasons that are “simply racist” and seek to keep certain residents outside of their communities, and yet, that “these people love Marc” for zoning purposes alone.

But does Elrich really need this particular subset of voters? The breakdown from the County Executive suggests otherwise:

Source: Jordan Tessler via Twitter

Precinct data showed that, outside of the Ag Reserve, Elrich performed best in urbanized, mixed-income areas with high diversity, such as downtown Silver Spring and East County.  The precincts that consist of mainly wealthy, single family neighborhoods – Potomac, West Bethesda, Chevy Chase – leaned toward David Blair. This suggests that, regardless of these residents’ stances on development, they opted for the more fiscally conservative, center-right (by our standards) County Executive candidate.

Pro-development and YIMBY activists are trying to make Hans Riemer’s Zoning Text Amendment a wedge issue on the progressive stance on development. Framed in a way that would enable residents to choose to have accessory dwelling units on their own lots, the ADU bill attempts to deregulate development in a sense without having “greedy developers” as the opponents’ easy target. The idea is to increase affordable housing options by lifting some burdensome restrictions. Proponents of this bill argue that its opponents are prioritizing the convenience of single family homeowners. Opponents, on the other hand – such as Elrich himself – argue that the issue isn’t increasing the number of ADUs per se, but glossing over some of the regulations that might still be necessary. At the end of the day, what we have once again is both sides digging their heels into an all-or-nothing narrative. You either support Riemer’s bill as-is, or you are against affordable housing.  Critics of Riemer’s ZTA should focus their arguments on which regulations should remain intact and what infrastructure demands new ADU residents would bring, rather than “character of the neighborhood” aesthetic complaints from (wealthy) single family neighborhood residents.

“Compromise” is not a word we really like to toss around all that much. At the risk of sounding like a mealy-mouthed centrist appeaser, it would serve DSA members and Elrich supporters alike to come to a consensus on development policy and proposals like the ADU amendment. Instead of supporting or opposing the idea outright, or deriding those who don’t support it as reflexively anti-housing, perhaps we should comb through the text of the bill and decide which regulations are necessary and which are redundant or archaic. More importantly, those who are known to oppose new housing plans should prove to others that they are not categorically anti-housing. Executive Elrich, whose criticism of development has (deservedly or not) earned him the NIMBY label, should present a counter-proposal to the housing plans he has rejected in order to  affirm his commitment to providing new affordable housing. While it is in our interests to oppose development done wrong, it is also in our interests to propose development done right.

If I were to propose a leftist consensus on housing, it would be one that is moderately pro-density and soundly pro-infrastructure. While I generally avoid slippery slope arguments, I do fear that maximal density as a housing policy would diminish quality of life for all residents in the vicinity. We wouldn’t want to go to such extremes in urbanization that would reach unsustainable – and even unsanitary levels. I do agree with the pro-density premise that increased development in the urban, transit-accessible cores would limit outward sprawl and encroachment into areas designated to be more rural (for example, upcounty). Extreme density, however, would overlook certain environmental factors, such as drainage and runoff from increased impermeable surfaces, and the urban heat island effect. At the same time, we must make sure that “infrastructure” is not a stand-in excuse for wealthy homeowners to preserve their own giant yards and parking spaces for SUVs.

Market Urbanists are not your friends.

One of the pitfalls of the NIMBY vs. YIMBY dichotomy among the left is getting away from the root of the problem, which is that housing, a social good, is almost entirely dictated by the market. In this case, I am defining a social good as something you can’t opt out of if you can’t afford it, similarly to healthcare. Everyone needs a home, and if you don’t have enough money for a home, in most cases, you will pay a disproportionate amount of your income towards rent and sacrifice everywhere else (and in turn, hurting the consumer goods market because you have no discretionary spending).

The author of the aforementioned Commonwealth article conceded in a series of tweets that the capitalist process of “filtering” justifies a deregulated housing policy. By this process, developers should be encouraged to build more housing across the board, including luxury housing, because the wealthier buyers would choose the newest and most expensive homes while the others would “filter” down to those with lower incomes. This “trickle-down” logic posits that increasing the supply is the fundamental answer to the affordable housing crisis, and the way to do so is to lift regulations on development (therefore encouraging developers to simply develop more).

The problem is, however, that housing does not “trickle down” in cost like new iPhone models. When home values and prices go down, it’s because of an external market crisis, such as the recession and housing bust of 2008. If a developer builds a new luxury high-rise with single-bedroom units going for $2,000/month, that’s not going to make the previous high-rise’s single bedrooms budge from their $1800/month. The reason being is that the supply and demand model is imperfect in this case, as I described above. Rents don’t go down so that the market can bear them; tenants instead become more rent-burdened. 

Also, who is to say that comparatively wealthier people will necessarily choose the more expensive units? The incentive structure of the capitalist economy demonstrates otherwise. For example, I currently pay about 27% of my gross monthly income on rent. When I get raises, or if I get a new job, I’m not going to move to a bigger apartment; I’m going to put money away for a future downpayment. This could be considered a selfish decision, since someone with a lower income might want my apartment, but the capitalist system, after all,  incentivizes homeownership and building equity.

It matters what kind of housing is being built, and our priorities should not be to pave the way (bad pun intended) for developers to increase their profits. Removing necessary regulations such as infrastructure requirements (or the taxes that pay for them) in order to encourage developers to build more by making it more profitable will not result in more affordable housing. When housing advocates on the left use the supply argument, they are no longer aligning themselves with YIMBYs, but with market urbanists.

Greater Greater Washington published this graph a while back:

Source: Greater Greater Washington

Were I to guess, I would place my stance on Montgomery County-specific development moderately in the YIMBY square, with about 10% towards the pro-development side and 70% towards the pro-redistribution side. Marc Elrich might be a mirror image of that in the NIMBY square, or maybe 70% redistribution and 10% anti-development, but that would be for him to determine, given the metrics. Greater Greater Washington would be 80 to 100% on the pro-development side, but vary from moderately pro-redistribution to moderately anti-redistribution. The way things have played out, unfortunately, is that the developers who backed Nancy Floreen for County Executive would be solidly on the Market Urbanist pro-development/anti-redistribution side, which is the loudest voice of increasing the housing supply across the board as the way to solve everything. The wealthy white homeowners that Elrich is wrongly being accused of protecting (and who didn’t even vote for Elrich) are solidly on the anti-development and anti-redistribution side, or BANANA (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). Based on the precinct results, BANANA territory voted for David Blair and then for Larry Hogan in the gubernatorial election.

Source: Jordan Tessler via Twitter

Conversation Starter for Elrich: Vaughn Stewart’s Social Housing Bill

D19 delegate and DSA member Vaughn Stewart recently introduced a social housing bill, which gained coverage in Jacobin. While Executive Elrich has voiced support for the bill in casual conversation, the recent Commonwealth article stated that Elrich has not voiced public support or endorsement of the bill. Elrich faces a budget shortfall for the County and further reduction for the FY20 budgets (thanks to Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts & Jobs Act), so lack of funding might be a valid argument. The resources to implement this social housing proposal may be a long way coming, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the initial stages of appropriating funds. Marc has a big job of creating a multi-pronged approach to increasing revenue and funding necessary (and hopefully transformative) services. As Elrich works within the existing capitalist system to increase revenue through new businesses (and hopefully taxing country clubs, one of these days, we hope he can allocate funds toward a truly progressive housing plan.

Especially if the social housing ends up near single family neighborhoods in Chevy Chase.