The contentious, months-long political fight ended in applause as Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) signed into law a bill limiting rent increases, surrounded by cheering officials and housing activists.
It was a hard-fought victory for renter protections that tenant rights advocates had sought for years, including Elrich, who twice tried and failed to force the issue as a county council member.
“I spent a long time trying to get this done,” Elrich said, before striking pen to paper on Bill 15-23, which limits increases to 3 percent over inflation with a maximum of 6 percent.
The idea had landed with a thud for decades on previous councils, even in a deep-blue county with an affordable housing shortage that prides itself as a haven for progressive ideas and policymaking. But the historic slate of council members elected in November has shifted the body further left — and it is now positioned to tackle issues like public safety, affordable child care, minimum wages for tipped workers and other controversial housing proposals.
“That says a lot about what elections can do and why elections matter,” Elrich said at the bill signing this week. “That election changed the debate in Montgomery County.”
While crediting community organizers like CASA, the teacher’s union and the Montgomery County Renters Alliance that put pressure on the seven council members who voted to pass renter protections last week, Elrich singled out four freshman women on the council who championed the rent stabilization bill.
Those four new councilwomen are Kristin Mink (D-District 5), who co-authored the HOME Act that would have capped rent increases at a maximum of 3 percent; Natali Fani-González (D-District 6), who introduced a competing bill that would have set the cap at 8 percent — plus inflation with no upper limit — and ultimately co-sponsored the compromise bill that passed; and Kate Stewart (D-District 4) and Laurie-Anne Sayles (D-At Large) who both threw their support behind the compromise bill.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Sayles said on Monday, noting that she will continue pursuing ways to empower residents economically in a county of stark wealth disparities. Although the median household income in Montgomery is $117,345, about 8.5 percent of the county’s residents live in poverty, according to the census.
County leaders who hoped that rent stabilization would gain momentum during this council session saw an opening when the new slate took office, adding Latina, Asian and Black representatives to a body that became majority-female for the first time. Now, Elrich said he hopes the bill’s success will be a harbinger of more progressive policies to come.
Complex and at times controversial issues are likely to come up in the coming months, the council members said in interviews. In particular, county leaders anticipate ongoing debates over how to address the shortage of affordable housing amid a dearth of new development.
The county is already short 24,590 units for residents who make less than 100 percent of the area median income, according to a report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. That report also estimates that Montgomery’s existing stock of naturally occurring affordable housing could shrink by an additional 7,000 to 11,000 units before the close of the decade.
Mink said she believes the council will not shy away from pursuing more housing bills. She said she will support efforts to incentivize developers to increase the supply of available housing, particularly affordable housing. County leaders have also floated proposals to maintain the stock of naturally-occurring affordable housing and to prevent landlords from demolishing older, rent-stabilized buildings.
Rent stabilization “is not going to be a one and done” piece of legislation, Mink added.
Mink said she will also focus on proactively reaching out for input on legislation from historically disenfranchised communities — people who work multiple jobs and have less time to spare for politics, people who primarily speak a language other than English, immigrant communities, people of color and renters, among others.
“We’ll continue to be able to produce better and stronger legislation on behalf of our constituents when we are ensuring that we’re hearing from more and more of them,” Mink said.
Another hot-button issue poised to come before the board is a campaign to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, which activists have been drawing attention to in recent weeks. State Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) and other state lawmakers from the county worked as servers at Sala Thai for an hour this week to promote a campaign to create one minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers. Tipped workers can be paid as little as $3.63 by their employer so long as they make the rest of the state minimum wage up in tips.
A change to the tip credit for employers is sure to be controversial among lawmakers, business owners and servers alike — especially in Montgomery County, which has had heated debates about the minimum wage in the past.
Affordable and accessible child care, which some council members believe should be subsidized by the government, may also come before the council before the year is out, Fani-González said. She said she believes the six women on council have brought new perspectives to the council, which could advance the an issue like child care that primarily affects women.
“In terms of child care and early-childhood education, I think we need to do a refresh,” Fani-González said. “And I’m one of those people who believe that early-childhood education should be offered by the government.”
There is also energy on the council to tackle issues like Vision Zero and pedestrian safety, agriculture-tourism, transparency in school budgets and maintaining public safety amid countywide staffing shortages, the council members said.
“Montgomery County will continue to be a place where we innovate,” Sayles said at the bill signing on Monday, “and I continue to work with my colleagues to make good trouble, because this is just the beginning.”