By Eneshal Miller
The writer lives in Burtonsville and is a 25-year resident of Montgomery County.
I am writing to support the significance of engaging poor residents for low-income housing accessibility.
Fully 77,000 households — more than 20% of households — in Montgomery County, earn less than $50,000 per year; many are living in crowded and unsafe conditions in order to afford rent. All Montgomery residents, including low-wealth citizens and non-citizens as newcomers who are poor, deserve to live in beautiful, safe, healthy dwellings and neighborhoods, but we face many barriers, including language barriers.
Montgomery County’s decisions about housing and land use policy affect poor people profoundly.
Though our communities are deeply affected by the county’s decisions, including master plans, poor people and communities of color have not been partners in the crafting of Thrive Montgomery 2050, the proposed renewal and revision of the countywide General Plan.
We need the county to start projecting how we will survive because Thrive is Coming. Many people have testified that it’s likely to result in rent hikes. “It’s already here,” we’re told by councilmembers, “it’s a go, we’ve already had surveys done,” but the meetings took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, when poor people were under tremendous pressures and lacked the resources to participate in public decisions including Thrive Montgomery 2050.
Council and planning board members tell residents, “Thrive in itself isn’t really that impactful, it’s only a policy vision, it doesn’t change zoning.” This claim is misleading.
Thrive, as the renewed General Plan, sets land use policy, so it sets the stage for zoning changes to implement the policy. If Thrive is to live up to its name for all residents, then poor people must participate as full partners in shaping it. We need a different public engagement process.
This past winter, when the Montgomery County Council requested the Office of Legislative Oversight to perform a racial equity and social justice analysis of the Thrive proposed draft, the legislative oversight’s Elaine Bonner-Tomkins recommended in her response that the council elicit the meaningful input of residents of color from communities of color and low-income residents to co-create and update Thrive so that it reflects a consensus of land use policies and practices aimed at advancing racial equity and social justice.
When the Office of Legislative Oversight reviews a proposed bill or other legislation, one of their standard tasks is to “discern the potential impact of proposed legislation based on a review of who is mostly likely to benefit from the bill, who is most likely to be harmed, and what are the demographics (race, ethnicity, income) of the bill’s ‘winners and losers.’”
Connecting our community to decision makers and planners helps the county to successfully address racial equity and social justice concerns. We need more access to parks and nearby nature, accessible housing and affordable housing in places close to transit. Ensuring that all residents’ needs are met requires an inclusive process where low-wealth people are at the table.
We offer to help the council to locate impacted persons who live here as low-wealth residents to be invited to serve as stakeholders in the council’s Thrive racial equity and social justice review process. Our communities require adequate time to thoroughly review the existing draft and co-create the land use policies that we need.
So, we ask the council to provide an additional 18 months in the Thrive process.
This inclusive, respectful process can serve as a pilot demonstration, which educates and engages residents about the health disparities, hardships and high costs related to living in a thriving community.
What is at stake for residents when engagement is low? What does displacement look like and who may become displaced? How can we protect low-wealth communities from displacement?
Answering these questions requires analysis of Thrive’s recommended changes.
As poor people, we have the most at stake. The low-income, low-wealth and unhoused will pay greatly for Thrive as it is now written. We suffer from historical and current discriminatory practices. We feel that we are having to negotiate for our existence.
The council has arrived at a conclusion that Thrive must pass. But it has only acted as representative for residents who are comfortable, who will not lose anything, for corporations that are not sustainable and whose actions cause displacement.
As now written, Thrive would in fact create more poverty.
To subject Thrive to a thorough racial equity and social justice process, the council must now seek out and work with the low-wealth community which has never been approached. To respectfully exchange information with low-wealth residents, one way the county could provide this is by creating local information hubs for residents working toward accessible, affordable housing and all of the other proposals of Thrive.