Elrich was a panelist at a forum held by the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers on affordable housing on March 9. In response to a question from the moderator about the difficult economics of affordable housing, Elrich said this:
Part of me wonders whether we ought to be looking at not partnering with developers but just partnering with construction companies, where basically, here’s the – I want to build a building. What’s the price? I modified my own house, I have lots of experience in this. But I also did three tenant conversions in Takoma Park while I was a council member in Takoma Park and, you know, we took – there was no developer involved. We just looked at what’s the cost of the building, the units, what’s the cost of bringing in repair, and we dealt with it as a straight up transaction and we took anybody out of it who was going to take money out of the project in addition to the costs of just doing the physical work. And you know, it may be that we look more toward builders on a contract basis rather than developers. Because then I don’t have to deal with their rate of return.
You can see this at 1:25:37 of the video below.
Let’s remember that this was said not on a street corner or in a restaurant but during a forum for developers. One can reasonably assume that many of them heard the county executive loud and clear.
These remarks are problematic for two reasons. First, they fail to recognize what developers actually do. They don’t just oversee construction contractors. They analyze market economics; hire architects and engineers; design the project; obtain financing; go through land use, transportation and environmental reviews; negotiate with the community; market the property and/or hire agents to market it; manage the property or hire a property manager (if they continue to own it) and more. Construction contractors tend not to do those things, because if they did, they would be… developers. Eliminate developers from project development and who is going to do all of the above? County bureaucrats? Good luck in saving any money that way.
Second, it is totally banana cakes to publicly say that the county is looking to partner with a developer in White Flint and then to wonder out loud – in front of developers – whether the county should be partnering with developers at all. That’s right, developers, you are invited to partner with an elected official who believes that maybe you should not be on the project. Who is going to take that deal?
Anyone want to place any bets on when White Flint gets done?
Adam Pagnucco wrote a lengthy post about how Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D-1) is upset that the County Executive is proposing single-tracking the Purple Line to accommodate the Capital Crescent Trail in the other tunnel. It is indeed less ideal.
Except that Friedson is now reaping the results of his own actions. Earlier this year, Friedson vehemently supported legislation sponsored by Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-AL) to provide corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks for developments on Metro properties.
As County Executive Marc Elrich explained in his veto message, the property tax subsidies proposed for Grosvenor-Strathmore alone cost the county over $100 million in revenue. And that’s just one project and the start of the giveaway bonanza the Council insisted upon when it overrode Elrich’s veto.
Moreover, this is likely the first step, as ideas for providing similar subsidies on private property around Metro have been bandied about by both councilmembers and the Planning Board. Yet the Council seems much happier contemplating additions than subtractions to the budget.
The Council has also been busy reducing impact tax fees that go directly into the capital budget as part of its “no developer left behind during a pandemic” program. They may call it social justice but it sure looks like a giveaway to connected, wealthy interests known for generous campaign contributions.
It’s too bad that Friedson wasn’t around during the days of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Post Office. Its members had two core beliefs: (1) stamp prices should never rise, and (2) the wages of postal workers should always go up.
I sympathize with Friedson’s desire for a two-track Purple Line and a separate tunnel for the Capital Crescent Trail. I just wish someone touted so often as a financial wizard would pay greater attention to the budgetary impact of his desire to engage in tax giveaways to developers on the Council’s other priorities.
The year 2020 was hugely eventful for the entire world and MoCo was no exception. In our county, 2020 saw a public health crisis, a resulting economic crash and huge challenges to our quality of life. In political terms, it also saw unusually contentious elections for school board and circuit court judge, four historic ballot questions and numerous fights inside county government. We wrote about it all on Seventh State. Here are the top twenty posts measured by page views from the people who count the most – YOU, our readers.
This was a poorly organized public event gone wrong, culminating with an unmasked protestor getting within spitting distance of the county executive. For those who question the need for the executive to have a security detail, this is Exhibit A for why it can be necessary.
County Executive Marc Elrich’s first veto, this one targeting a council-passed bill giving Metro station developers 15-year property tax breaks, set off a fight on corporate welfare that has not ended by a long shot. That will prove especially true if a proposal by the planning staff to grant tax abatements to other properties near Metro stations advances.
In early November, MCPS told the public that it was planning a phased-in reopening of schools for some in-person instruction. But the winter surge of COVID quickly overtook that plan and cast the timing of reopening in doubt. The issue is still unsettled.
Back in the summer, MCPS’s original reopening plan was drenched in controversy, ultimately resulting in a pitched battle with the county teachers’ union (MCEA). MCPS wound up going with virtual learning for the fall, like most other large school systems in the region, but the mechanics and safety of reopening are still subjects of debate.
Jobs, jobs, JOBS. According to White Flint developers, MoCo’s slow rate of job growth was one reason that they could not get financing to proceed on the county’s preeminent development plan. The chart below says it all. And when the COVID pandemic finally ends, county leaders must dedicate themselves to creating jobs, Jobs, JOBS or MoCo’s stagnation will continue.
Back in June, incumbent Baltimore City Council Member Zeke Cohen, who had a big lead in money and endorsements over his challenger, appeared on election night to be getting just 2% of the vote. That was the first sign of a primary gone wrong, which led to many misgivings about the state’s processes with mail ballots and the performance of its long-time election administrator Linda Lamone.
2020 was a year of surprises, and one of the bigger surprises was the emergence from political retirement of former County Executive Ike Leggett. Question B (Robin Ficker’s latest anti-tax charter amendment) and Question D (nine council districts) disturbed Leggett enough that he started a ballot issue committee to defeat them. This post was Leggett’s guest column on why they were bad ideas and it got a big reaction from our readers.
After school board candidate Lynne Harris blamed MCEA for allegedly resisting school reopening (a post that also appears on our top 20 list), a group of rank-and-file teachers pushed back in this guest post. It achieved wide readership that was probably concentrated among teachers as the general election approached.
In non-COVID news, 2020 was the year that the county’s police department (along with departments around the country) became a political football. This post describes how the executive, the county council and Annapolis all jumped into the issue of policing with little coordination. Lost in the debate was the central fact that crime in MoCo is at its lowest level in decades. Policing will continue to be a hot topic in 2021.
Tomorrow we will list the top ten Seventh State posts for the year!
The top three stories fit together and have meaning for the new year and beyond. The Day of Reckoning is Near summarizes the county’s dire fiscal picture as it heads into a challenging FY22 budget discussion in the spring. Jawando Calls for a Tax Hike kicks off an inevitable dialogue about taxes, one which will only get hotter before the executive makes his budget recommendation on March 15. And What Happened to White Flint? – December’s runaway winner – lays out the story of how the county’s premier development plan has been held back by our slow rate of job growth. Budget headaches, taxes and economic problems are about to collide.
First, let’s revisit what White Flint was envisioned to become in its 2010 master plan: a smart growth, walkable mecca around a transformed Rockville Pike which would be transit-heavy and pedestrian friendly. The plan required substantial infrastructure investment including streetscaping, a new road network and a bus rapid transit route. Unlike many county master plans, this one had a mechanism for financing infrastructure: a new special taxing district. Properties inside the taxing district would pay into a fund used to pay for the new infrastructure needed to bring the plan to life. In return, impact taxes were set to zero. The council set an infrastructure project list through a resolution and projects in the district were exemptedfrom county traffic reviews. This combination of high density, infrastructure investment and regulatory exemptions was revolutionary for MoCo at the time and still has not been fully replicated. MoCo politicians love to throw around the word “bold” like peanut shells, but White Flint (now marketed as the Pike District) truly deserved the adjective.
So what happened?
In simple terms, the planning staff describes a negative, self-reinforcing feedback loop that has no identifiable end. The loop functions like this. Low levels of development led to low proceeds for the tax district. It was supposed to raise $45 million in its first 10 years but only generated $12-15 million. Low tax district revenues held back the construction of some of the transportation improvements and other infrastructure necessary to make the area more attractive to investment. Developers seeking financing for projects were hindered by the inadequate infrastructure along with the “prominence of underutilized properties.” One of those properties, the mammoth White Flint Mall site, was tied up by years of litigation. The lack of financing, along with construction costs and market conditions, has held back development. And of course the lack of development holds back tax district revenues necessary to pay for infrastructure, so the cycle continues.
This map from the report shows the vast majority of land in White Flint is underutilized (areas marked in red and orange) relative to its zoning.
The most interesting part of the report summarizes comments from White Flint property owners, who comprise a who’s who list of prominent MoCo developers. First, let’s identify what they don’t complain about. They don’t complain about the plan itself; indeed, they think the area still has potential. They don’t complain about market demographics; they find the wealth and education levels in the area attractive. They don’t intend to sell their existing properties, which generate enough cash to cover operating costs and taxes, but they’re not in a hurry to redevelop them. And not a single one of them complained about taxes or requested a tax abatement.
Here are a few excerpts from the report on their take on White Flint’s problems.
All developers interviewed cited Montgomery County’s limited job growth as a fundamental challenge to continued construction in the Pike District. Low levels of new jobs limit the number of new families seeking to occupy units in the county (household formation), decreasing demand for new development. In addition to limited employment growth, construction costs increased dramatically since 2010, office users occupied less space per employee, and retail demand declined with the rise of online shopping, all factors that continue to reduce demand for or limit the financial feasibility of new development.
Multiple developers noted without providing details that their firm managed to solve issues of high construction costs in other submarkets where there is a higher pace of job growth and household formation, which in turn supports rent growth.
Developers interviewed affirmed that the Pike District is accessible to fewer jobs within a reasonable commute than its peer non-downtown submarkets, and that this reduced access to job centers limits demand for additional multifamily units.
All developers interviewed cited Montgomery County’s limited job growth as a fundamental challenge to continued construction in the Pike District. Low levels of new jobs limit the number of new families seeking to occupy units in the county (household formation), decreasing demand for new development. Developers cited the reduced pace of household formation as a key contributor to stagnant rents, a major concern for the feasibility of future projects.
Several developers independently stated that the attraction of a major employer to the Pike District, such as a life science campus, would significantly increase the feasibility of new multifamily projects.
Developers are not currently willing to build speculative office projects in Montgomery County due to the lack of underlying job growth and the uncertainty about the future of the office sector. Several developers mentioned that they would still consider speculative office construction in Tysons and along the Silver Line corridor, highlighting the continued job growth in Northern Virginia and the contrast with suburban Maryland.
Several interviewees contrasted recent Northern Virginia economic development wins, such as the expansion of Microsoft in Reston, with news that a large distribution center project in Gaithersburg for Amazon is in jeopardy due to delays in the entitlement process. These interviewees stressed that while the number of jobs in these deals is modest, there is a constant drumbeat of positive economic news from Northern Virginia that is unmatched from suburban Maryland.
Let’s boil this down to three words: jobs, Jobs, JOBS. Employment growth was the dominant theme for these developers, but they had a few things to say about business climate and regulations too.
Interviewees related that development projects ultimately deliver equivalent profits as similar projects in neighboring jurisdictions, but that Montgomery County’s reputation as generally “a difficult place to do business” limits developer interest.
Developers agreed that the difficulty of the business environment issue is primarily about perception rather than the ultimate profitability. Interviewees cited as examples a range of policy issues such as a minor energy efficiency tax that Montgomery County leadership presented and implemented as a temporary measure but that never expired.
Multiple interviewees stated that in competitor counties they feel that the entitlement review process is oriented to enabling and facilitating a project, whereas in Montgomery County it feels like an oppositional relationship. Related to this, developers feel the County continually creates new policies and initiatives that adversely affect development, and which ultimately encourages them to focus on assets elsewhere in the region.
The county council and the planning staff are focused on tax abatements as a way to stimulate development, especially housing. But developers in White Flint weren’t complaining about taxes. In fact, tax revenues are NECESSARY to finance infrastructure required to make development happen and function well. It is the absence of tax revenues that resulted in under-financing of infrastructure in White Flint, a key part of the area’s negative feedback loop.
The county’s terrible record on job growth and business formation must be reversed.
All of this points to the need for a strategic decision. MoCo can focus like a laser on job creation, doing everything possible to help entrepreneurs grow their organizations and create employment for residents. If the county does that, the vision of White Flint and other smart growth plans can be realized. Or MoCo can keep handing out tens of millions of dollars in corporate welfare as it has done for decades, thereby depleting its ability to construct infrastructure that facilitates economic growth. Or it can do nothing.
On October 27, the county council overrode County Executive Marc Elrich’s veto of Bill 29-20, which mandates 15-year property tax breaks for developers at Metro stations. This seemingly ended – for now – the debate over whether huge tax abatements should be written into law for transit-accessible development projects. But in fact, the debate may just be getting started. That’s because a little-noticed discussion eight days before offered a prelude of many more tax expenditures than just the amount contained in that one bill.
On October 19, the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee held a work session on the upcoming Thrive Montgomery 2050 Plan. The plan, still in its early stages, is conceptualized in a mammoth 167-page public hearing draft authored by planning department staff. Among the MANY recommendations in the draft is this goal:
Goal 5.2: Ensure that the majority of new housing is located near rail and BRT stations, employment centers and within Complete Communities that provide needed services and amenities for residents.
And one of the action steps recommended for this goal is this one:
Action 5.2.1.a: Provide appropriate financial incentives, such as tax abatements, Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs), and Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) to increase housing production in targeted locations near high-capacity transit.
The adjective “near” is not defined.
At the PHED Committee’s work session, county planning director Gwen Wright commented on before and after sketches of development on Georgia Avenue and said:
One of the items, and I put this specifically because I know we’ve had a very challenging conversation just recently, about the idea of PILOTs to try to target development near high capacity transit. To do, to change what you see on the left into what you see on the right is going to take more than just zoning. It is going to take financial incentives. It is going to take different kinds of public investment.
Wright’s comments on incentives start at 38:27 of the video below.
It’s worth remembering one of the rationales for the Metro property tax break bill. Supporters of the bill said that its tax abatement was necessitated by the unique costs of building on top of Metro stations. They stressed over and over that the bill would not apply to other sites. It’s clear now that much broader tax abatements for all kinds of sites – not just Metro stations – have been under consideration by at least the planning staff and maybe other actors too for some time. Back on September 24, I wrote, “Developers of sites near but not on Metro stations might demand concessions too. As with the county’s Economic Development Fund, which began by handing out small grants to companies twenty years ago and eventually distributed 7-digit and 8-digit grants, the subsidies in the current bill may only be the beginning.” It didn’t take long for that prophecy to amass evidence of its accuracy.
Another rationale for the WMATA tax break bill is that it applied to largely empty Metro-owned sites that were not generating tax revenues. Supporters of the bill said that waiving taxes on new development did not cost the county real money if the new development would not have occurred without the tax break. But that argument does not apply to areas around Metro stations, which tend to have low-rise, mid-rise and – in Downtown Bethesda – high-rise buildings in existence now. These properties pay property taxes. Offering tax abatements to them to redevelop converts them from revenue generators into non-payers. It would actually SHRINK the tax base. This contradicts one of the primary reasons why economic development is good for the county: it is supposed to ADD to the tax base. That wouldn’t happen under the planners’ proposal.
Sure, this is just a staff draft. And sure, the draft has not been approved by the planning board much less the county council. But this is how policy is formed – it starts as a proposal, it turns into a recommendation, it is incorporated into official planning and then it becomes law. Unless something changes, these are the first baby steps towards what could ultimately become billions and billions of dollars in subsidies that the rest of us will pay for.
In MoCo politics, the number one attack made against smart growth organizations and activists is that they are supposedly tools of developers. It’s a line of argument used to shut down – and shut up – anyone who wants to see more commercial development or more housing here. It took smart growthers many years to get beyond the epithets, to present their agenda of community building, walkability, environmental preservation and sound transportation management and to truly break through into the county’s mainstream. It helped that transit-oriented projects were supposed to make money for the county’s budget. Ten years ago, redevelopment in White Flint was predicted to generate $6-7 billion of revenue over the next 20-30 years.
If smart growth indeed becomes married to corporate welfare, some of that political progress will be lost. The smart growth movement will be cast by its opponents as anti-progressive and in thrall to corporate masters whose primary goal is tax avoidance. It will face increasing impediments to its political growth and hence its ability to affect policy and influence votes. That is exactly what opponents of transit-oriented development want. The push towards corporate welfare plays right into their hands.
All of this will be a huge political gift to County Executive Marc Elrich, the man who built his career on voting against transit-oriented development and whom many smart growthers desperately want to see out of office. Elrich relishes vetoing tax abatements and tax cuts for developers because it reminds a large part of his base why they voted for him. The only thing that could be better for Elrich is if the next round of huge tax breaks is proposed in legislation a couple months before the next primary.
The Montgomery County Council unanimously overrode County Executive Marc Elrich’s veto of their bill to lower impact taxes on development in wide areas around public transit.
The press releases title sets the tone with the strange claim that the override reaffirms the Council’s “commitment to investing in Montgomery County’s future.” Except that by reducing the impact taxes collected, the county will now have less money to invest in school buildings and other capital projects.
It’s a commitment to disinvesting in public infrastructure. The language is especially telling because Democrats normally tout public spending as investment, but they’ve adopted Republican-style talking points on cutting taxes. Knowing this is the case, the press release is at pains to hide just how much they’ve reduced taxes on developers. It just says that the new tax rate will “more accurately” reflect the actual cost of school facilities.
The individual comments are little better. Sponsor Hans Riemer attacks Elrich because that is what he does. He also lauds the policy as “balanc[ing] the competing needs to address school enrollment” and “make our transportation system safer.” Except lowering impact taxes that help build new school buildings hurts rather than helps schools. I imagine this also reflects Hans’s magical thinking that everyone wants to live near transit but that they won’t have many kids—somehow families with kids don’t need housing too.
Councilmember Nancy Navarro refers to this legislation as “bold” which is the same word she used previously for lauding her support for the last tax cut on devleopers.
Overclaiming that this will lead to more “affordable housing” and “environmental sustainability,” Councilmember Andrew Friedson says the bill makes the county “more attractive to new businesses.” Once again, he conflates development with business as the Council continues to do nothing to attract the non-development related business it needs.
There is no requirement for more affordable housing as a share of new development. Impact taxes have little impact on the overall cost relative to demand and land prices, so the major impact will not be a blossoming of housing or a reduction in its price, but further losses to the county treasury to build schools.
All of Hans Riemer’s many other like-minded bills have similarly failed to do much to bring affordable housing to the county. This one won’t either. It might, however, result in more campaign contributions from developers to the incumbent councilmembers and their allies.
Evan Glass touts how hard the Council worked on the new policy—they did spend a lot of time on it—and that it reflects the Council’s commitment to “inclusivity and diversity.” No doubt the Council believes that to be true. But progressive verbiage doesn’t alter the hard fact that, directly at odds with this claim, the county will deepen the already acute shortfall in funds for public school buildings to serve its diverse student population.
“Council Assures More Portables in MCPS’s Future” would have been a good alternative title for the press release.
County Executive Marc Elrich has vetoed a bill passed by the council that would effectively cut impact tax collections. While the bill passed the council on a 9-0 vote, making it unlikely that Elrich’s veto will be upheld, the policy debate lays out stark differences between the executive and the council.
Impact taxes are charged to development projects in order to pay for the additional demands for infrastructure that they create. MoCo levies two: a school impact tax and a transportation impact tax. Both are used to finance the capital budget and are dedicated to schools and transportation projects respectively. The county council periodically adjusts impact tax rates, credits and discounts, and various structural aspects of how they are administered.
This year, the planning board proposed as part of a new subdivision staging policy (which sets the county’s policies on infrastructure) a package of tax changes. Bill 38-20 instituted a range of changes to impact tax collections that would effectively reduce the county’s receipts. Among the planning board’s proposals were to cut the school impact tax rate to 100% of the cost of a student seat from the current 120% of the cost of a student seat and to apply discounts to single-family detached and multifamily units in desired growth areas to incentivize growth, both of which would cut receipts. These cuts would be partially reduced by a new utilization premium payment applied to development projects in areas with crowded schools.
To offset the impact tax losses in Bill 38-20, the planning board proposed Bill 39-20E, which would raise recordation taxes. Currently, recordation tax receipts are split between the operating budget’s general fund, the capital budget (especially schools) and rental assistance programs. And so the planning board’s vision was to cut impact taxes and raise recordation taxes to spread the cost of financing infrastructure across both new and existing development.
Lots of changes were made to the planning board’s proposals but the bottom line is that the council passed Bill 38-20, which cut impact tax receipts, and has not yet passed Bill 39-20E, which would raise recordation tax receipts to help pay for lower impact taxes. (The latter had significant opposition from the real estate community.) The recordation tax increase is not dead, however; the council will return to that issue eventually if for no either reason than to examine the capital budget next year.
That leaves the county executive, who repeatedly expressed concerns about the changes to impact taxes and other growth policies throughout the fall. Elrich believes that Bill 38-20 will cost the county $12.5-20 million a year in lost impact tax revenues, all of which go to paying for school construction and transportation projects. (That number is subject to dispute.) Elrich also never bought in to the trade of lower impact taxes for higher recordation taxes. He would rather use higher recordation taxes to cover operating budget shortfalls or more school expenditures than to offset lower revenues from impact taxes. Accordingly, Elrich vetoed the cut in impact taxes even though it passed the council on a 9-0 vote. The council will win the policy debate for now, but the politics (and the budget maneuvers) will go on.
Elrich’s veto message is printed below.
November 30, 2020
TO: Sidney Katz, President, County Council
FROM: Marc Elrich, County Executive
RE: Veto explanation: Bill 38-20 Taxation – Development Impact Taxes for Transportation and Public-School Improvements – Amendments
With new development comes increased infrastructure needs; the newly renamed “Growth and Infrastructure Policy” (Growth Policy) reduces the funding available to provide the necessary infrastructure while the need to provide infrastructure is more critical to our success than ever. While I have long been concerned with how impact taxes work and I believe that there are alternatives that should be implemented, I cannot support simply reducing the necessary revenues without an appropriate replacement. Therefore, I am vetoing Bill 38-20.
The primary purpose of the Growth Policy is to put forth policies for adequate infrastructure – schools, transportation and more – that accompany new development. While I have other concerns about the bill, my primary concern is the projected revenue loss, which is estimated to be between $12.5 million and $20 million per year based on an analysis of projects in the development pipeline.
These reduced revenues are occurring at a time when we know we don’t have enough funding to address current needs or other infrastructure investments needed to grow our economy and maintain our status as a desirable place to live. For example, legislation to increase state aid for school construction will require the county to provide local matching funds; traditional state aid costs the County $3 for every $1 from the State or an average of $200 million annually. It is important to ensure the County will be able to continue to match traditional state aid for school construction as well as the approximately $400 million in additional state aid expected from the Built to Learn Act. (This Act will take effect immediately upon the legislature’s expected override of the Governor’s veto of the “Kirwan” bill.) School overcrowding and a $1.5 billion-dollar backlog in new construction, renovation and modernization needs burden our school system – one of our prime assets.
In addition, regional business leaders have said that improved transportation is central to economic development, pointing out the importance of efforts like Bus Rapid Transit.
Yet at a time when we know that (post-Covid19) we need improved transportation and relief for overcrowded schools and delayed modernizations, this Growth Policy reduces our ability to finance those needs.
These and other increased needs are coming while we are lowering our General Obligation bond borrowing to slow the growth of debt service costs, which lowers the amount of infrastructure we can fund with bonds. Less bonding and fewer impact tax revenues will not allow us to address our education and transportation needs. Even as the Growth Policy reduces revenues, the need for the infrastructure will not disappear. Either the funds will have to come from somewhere else, largely from county residents, or we will have to forgo important infrastructure improvements which will make righting our economic ship even more difficult.
I laid out my concerns in a letter I sent to the Council on September 10 (attached) and I highlighted my concerns again in another letter on November 10 (attached). My staff also raised several issues throughout the process. While I appreciate some of the improvements to the Growth Policy, including the improved annual school test and the clarification for agricultural storage facilities, I cannot sign this bill as it is currently written.
The Council has stated that it will consider an increase in the recordation tax to fill the gap from the reduced revenue, but that discussion is not currently scheduled. Furthermore, using an increase in the recordation tax shifts the costs from the developers of the projects to people refinancing or buying homes as well as to purchasers of commercial properties. Additionally, in these uncertain budgetary times, any potential revenue source may have to be reserved for other needs.
If competitiveness is the issue vis-a-vis our neighbors, then we should consider how our neighbors raised the money to meet their infrastructure needs. I think we will find that their focus was not on ways to reduce the revenues coming from development – rather, the opposite – they looked for ways to ensure the resources needed to provide the infrastructure for a growing community.
I regret that in the middle of this pandemic we have not had the opportunity for a more fundamental discussion of other methods to achieve adequate public facilities under the Growth Policy. While I recognize that one of the driving forces behind the recommended changes is to generate more housing, we know this will generate more residents in need of services, more students in our schools, and more people traveling to their jobs. This strongly suggests the need to increase revenue sources, not reduce them. I would welcome an opportunity to work with the Council to identify fair, alternative methods to fund the necessary infrastructure. For example, our office is working on how we could structure development districts, which have been successfully implemented in Northern Virginia and which were recently recommended by the Economic Advisory Group. Without such a replacement, I cannot support a loss of revenue. That’s not providing adequate public facilities by any measure. We can do better.
In the wake of his veto message, County Executive Marc Elrich has once again blasted a bill passed by the county council granting developers at Metro stations 15-year property tax breaks. The council is set to override Elrich’s veto on Tuesday. Elrich’s mass email, which reiterates his reasons for vetoing the bill, is reprinted below.
Last week I issued my first veto of legislation, Bill 29-20 Taxation – Payment in Lieu of Taxes – WMATA Property. I sent a memorandum with the veto explaining in detail the reasons for the veto; you can read the entire memo here, but I wanted to explain some of the reasons in my letter.
Like the Council, I am focused on expanding transit and transit-oriented development, broadening our tax base and preserving and increasing the supply of affordable housing. Unfortunately, Bill 29-20 does not achieve any important goals, is too costly and does not produce sufficient public benefit to justify the cost.
This legislation would require 100 percent exemption of the real property tax for 15 years. This exemption is known as a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT [see NOTE 1]. A few requirements are included in the bill. However, it would not increase the number of affordable housing units than otherwise would have been provided. While it was amended to make some of the units more affordable, we could have negotiated that with the developer at a fraction of the cost to the County.
[NOTE 1: The requirement applies to development that is higher than eight stories on property owned by WMATA at a Metro station. The development must include at least 50 percent residential rental housing, and one-quarter of the moderately priced dwelling units (MPDUs) must be affordable for residents at 50 percent of area median income (AMI). The PILOT would begin no later than the second year after the property tax is levied. The law would sunset in 2032, but any existing PILOT would continue until the end of its 15-year period. To be eligible for a PILOT, a developer would be required to use contractors and subcontractors who have no more than two final penalties of $5,000 or more in the three prior years for violations of applicable wage and hour laws. At least 25 percent of the workers constructing the project must be County residents. Special taxing district taxes are exempt from the PILOT.]
It is an expensive, and unnecessary, approach, particularly at this moment when the County is struggling to fund critical services (the need for which is increasing and will likely continue to increase for a while), where the outlook for revenues over the next couple of years is not good and where full economic recovery from this pandemic may take as much as 10 years. It is certainly not prudent to reduce revenues coming into the County coffers at this time.
During the Council’s deliberations on the bill, supporters could only cite one potential development as being eligible for this 15-year, 100 percent tax break – the proposed Strathmore Square at the Grosvenor/Strathmore Station. Under the provisions of this legislation, Strathmore Square’s owners would receive a tax break of approximately $100 million. As a member of the County Council, I supported the zoning changes that made this proposed development possible, but I simply do not believe it is a responsible use of County resources to supplement a market-rate housing complex at this level of expense.
The developer of that project saw an increase in the allowed units that went from a little over 500 to more than 2,200—density that was based on being atop a Metro station. Now, the developer is arguing that it is too expensive to develop on the Metro, yet WMATA records show that the price the developer paid was based on an appraisal that was done AFTER the property was rezoned. The developer accepted the appraisal and agreed to proceed. If the developer thought the price was unreasonable and would make development unprofitable, it could have rejected the appraisal and the deal. Instead, it came to the County three years later and asked that all its taxes be forgiven because the deal does not work for it.
Should similar developments occur at the other potential WMATA sites across the County, lost revenue would likely exceed $400 million. To be clear, I want more housing constructed in our County, and I see the significant benefit of housing that makes transit usage extremely convenient. However, I do not believe providing developers with as much as $400 million in incentives is necessary to get 8,000 new housing units that are projected to come here anyway. Put another way, this bill would provide a developer with a $50,000 per unit gift regardless of cost of rent, without producing additional affordable housing units beyond the amount required for all developments. This is not a good use of public funds.
Nor do we need this law—the authority already exists for the County to negotiate individual agreements.
It makes sense to continue to allow them on a project-by-project basis—not all projects need the same PILOT term or value. Flexibility should be maintained to enable negotiation of the best possible agreement that is in the public interest.
Additionally, it does not make sense to focus the market rate housing (along with the public subsidy) at Metro stations, which pushes affordable housing elsewhere. As the recent Housing Preservation study points out, affordable housing units near transit are at greatest risk of being lost and are being lost. Seventy-five percent of projected need for housing over the next decade is for affordable housing—why would the focus of a housing bill be on subsidizing market rate housing? Furthermore, given the projected number of market units needed over the next 20 years, there is sufficient zoning near Metro Stations to accommodate the needed units. While they might not be built on top of Metro property, they may be built nearby within easy walking distance of the Metro.
In White Flint, there are properties adjacent to, and across the street from, the Metro entrance where housing could be built that would actually be closer to the Metro entrance than some buildings on WMATA property. In other words, the housing does not have to be built directly on WMATA property; it can be nearby. And this bill creates a difficult precedent. It is likely that other properties near Metro will ask for the same PILOT. Those properties offer similar value in providing transit proximate development. It is simply not good policy to have a general approach to subsidize market rate housing.
Ironically, this bill may be counterproductive by raising the value of WMATA’s land. Under Federal law, WMATA must seek the highest and best price for its land. Land that is exempted from all property taxes for 15 years is more valuable because the calculation of its value includes the costs to acquire and develop, including taxes, weighed against market rents. If two properties are side by side, one exempt from taxes and the other not, and they were producing the same value of unit, the land value of the exempt property would be greater because its cost of development would be less than the cost to develop the tax-paying property. This would, in turn, likely raise the parcel’s appraised value. Supporters of the bill have said they are trying to reduce the cost to developers, but if the value of the land increases, the bill has had the opposite effect.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that this is needed. In fact, if you look around the region, many of our neighboring jurisdictions have their highest taxes on property nearest Metro sites and the tax rates are substantially greater than in Montgomery County. If property taxes were the key to development, we would have won the development battle a long time ago because we are lower than most surrounding jurisdictions. (See chart below)
And I would note that if one of the goals of this bill is to provide tax incentives to attract new businesses, those incentives should go to the occupant of the building, not to the developer of the building. This legislation gives public funds to help build buildings, not to incentivize businesses to become tenants in those buildings.
And workers deserve a prevailing wage. A majority of the Council voted against requiring the prevailing wage at these projects. The provision would have required that all contractors and subcontractors pay prevailing wages and be licensed, bonded, insured and abide by wage and hour laws. Legislation that dedicates public funds to market-rate housing should, at least, also support the workers who build the housing. If WMATA was building a structure on the same property, current law would require it to abide by the prevailing wage. I believe the developments contemplated by this bill should as well. The lack of such a provision to treat workers equitably and to share in the subsidy is another major deficiency in this legislation.
Finally, to risk of stating the obvious, using our limited funds for market-rate (non-affordable) housing development means fewer funds for other services including affordable housing, recreation and education, which has a racial equity/social justice impact. This bill allows housing to be built for those who can afford it, not for lower-income populations who are disproportionately Black and Latino.
I hope this gives you a better understanding why I could not support this bill.
County Executive Marc Elrich has a soft and raspy voice. Close your eyes and imagine that voice saying:
I just think that developers should pay their fair share.
Last week was a terrible one for Elrich. His chief administrative officer and emergency management director were blown to smithereens by the county council over the pace of the executive branch’s distribution of federal assistance funds. The story dominated the local press for days. Elrich responded to the council with this saucy comeback: “I used to be a legislator, and it’s the best job in the world because you can just say, ‘I want to spend this money,’ and tell someone to go spend it. And you don’t actually figure out how to do it.” There is more than a bit of truth to this, but the observation won’t improve Elrich’s relations with an irate council.
I just think that developers should pay their fair share.
Supporters of the vetoed bill argue that it was necessary to enable development of high rises at the pending Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station project. They feared that failure to act would doom or shrink the project. That urgency prevented them from examining other, more time-consuming, paths to a deal including an appropriation from the economic development fund (in which Elrich would get to play) or providing financing through the county’s economic development corporation or the Housing Opportunities Commission. But unlike those mechanisms, legislation is a highly public thing. By giving Elrich an opportunity to veto the bill, his critics on the council gave him an opportunity to go on offense.
But wait a minute, you say. The bill passed on a 7-2 vote, one more than necessary to override a veto. When the council overrides Elrich, doesn’t that make him a loser?
Those who think that do not understand how Elrich got elected executive. During his twelve years on the county council, Elrich was the sole no vote on a host of master plans, all increasing density. Yes, he “lost” those votes again and again. But he also picked up support in those communities from skeptics of the plans who came to see Elrich as their only champion. Those folks became a critical and expanding part of Elrich’s base. Few if any politicians in the county have ever won more from “losing” than Marc Elrich.
Elrich’s opposition to many new development policies have prompted his critics to brand him as a NIMBY. But there is more to his political success than pure NIMBYism. When you listen to him discuss development closely, he is making an equity argument as much as a land use argument. Here is what he said about development in 2002:
Our beleaguered middle-class is told that the County can no longer afford to provide the quality of life that made this place so attractive at the same time it throws millions in subsidies into the pockets of millionaires. We make great claims about ending welfare, but we’re really only changing the beneficiaries. What we’ve done is to recast developers as the new poster children of the Nineties. This blind devotion to growth is great – if you’re a developer or a tumor – but it doesn’t work so well for the rest of us who are better served by priorities that strengthen our communities and our schools.
In other words, throwing public money at developers reduces the money available for schools, public safety, health and human services, libraries, parks and more. Here is a more refined version of this argument from his 2018 campaign kickoff.
Elrich’s quarrels with developers resonated more when the economy was better, such as in 2006, when he was first elected to the council. As executive, such arguments come up less often, first because his office does not often deal directly with land use and second because the economy is in such wretched shape. MoCo has much bigger problems at the moment than “predatory” developers. But in a dark blue county in which Democratic primaries are the real elections for office, Elrich’s equity argument still has purchase when occasion calls for it.
Supporters of the bill that Elrich vetoed have good arguments on their behalf. It’s true that Metro sites have extra development costs. It’s true that, for the most part, high-rises are not being built on these sites. It’s true that transit-oriented development is superior to sprawl or no growth. So it’s not a crazy position that public investment should be used to make these projects happen.
But the bill’s supporters have two problems. First, they are making complicated arguments and Elrich is making a simple one. In politics, simple arguments usually beat complicated ones. Second, the supporters are making economic arguments while Elrich is making a value judgment. Most MoCo Democratic primary voters are not accountants or economists, but they do have progressive values. Broadly speaking, they agree with the notion that everyone with means – not just developers – should pay towards the cost of funding government.
On top of all that, consider the times we are in. The county’s unemployment rate is the highest it has been in anyone’s memory. Small businesses are shutting down left and right. Tenants are missing rent and will be, eventually, at risk of eviction. So what are we doing? Giving developers 15 year tax breaks. That’s how Team Elrich is going to frame this.
I just think that developers should pay their fair share.
Unless something strange happens, the council will override the executive’s veto. The bill’s supporters will get the policy win. But the political win? Overall, that belongs to Marc Elrich.