Nagender Madavaram discussed with Councilmember Hans Riemer about his candidacy for the County Executive. Hans successfully ran for an at-large seat in 2010 and won re-election in 2014 and 2018. Currently, he is the Chair of the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development (PHED) Committee and also serves on the Transportation & Environment (T&E) Committee. In June 2021, he declared his candidacy for the position of the County Executive, Montgomery County. The interview covered the topics of education, affordable housing, problems of renters, jobs and economy, 5G internet and investment.
Nagender Madavaram: Hi Hans, thanks for giving me time and joining the meeting.
Hans Riemer: Thank you Nagender, I’m glad to be here. Glad you’re doing this series of interviews.
Nagender Madavaram: Education is an important issue in the county. MCPS is paying huge salaries to administrators but not good pay to the school teachers. MCPS is not providing equal opportunities to all the students as the most of the students of color are not in advanced programs. The county government has limited control over the MCPS as they have their own Board of Education to oversee the functioning. How do you influence the MCPS for better education to all?
Hans Riemer: Well, I think that we have a major crisis now in education. We’re still in the midst of COVID and we’ve got students now, who did not have normal year of education. They’ve been completely disrupted and their academic progress is just nowhere near what it would be. We have got to get focused on education because people move here and stay here. It’s really, education in Montgomery County just go hand in hand. Very concerned that the County Executive is not focused on supporting the schools. I think the return to school in the fall was not poorly executed. We’re now in the midst of the COVID surge and the county support to the school is very flawed and has been very problematic. We’ve got students that are just slipping behind farther and farther. You’ve talked about students of color. The academic outcomes for disadvantaged students today are appalling because of COVID they have not been able to make progress. Certainly, there are students for whom virtual learning is just fine. They’re self-motivated, but that’s not the case of every student. Of course, that’s just a fraction, and we know that very broadly, virtual education has been devastating for many students, especially those who are more disadvantaged. So, we’ve got to have this whole county working together on education in the next coming years to make this really to get back on track. I think, it starts with effective partnership with the schools and very clear policy guidelines. You know, we’re right now as I said, we had a poorly executed return in the fall. We have a very problematic situation right now with the Omicron. Many schools are being told that they’re going virtual.
You know, not having N95 masks for kids in time and not having enough air filtration are big problems. I know the school system is getting a lot of criticism for this and that’s deserved, but the County Executive deserves a lot of criticism for this too. It is the County Executive who would have put those resources in place earlier. People are saying why masks aren’t there in the past? Why aren’t there enough masks? We’ve got to have leadership that’s working closely with schools. We’ve got to make bigger investments to help kids recover. I think tutoring is a proven successful strategy to help kids to accelerate. What we have to do is think about not only how our kids going to succeed in the classroom but how can we supplement the existing resources both in and out of the classroom because just what we were doing before is not enough. A lot of kids need kind of a turbocharge in their progress and that can be brought with supplemental resources like additional intense tutoring. Providing multiple sessions in a week where the same tutor consistently supporting that student. I know, that works. I’ve seen it with my own children. It’s proven with academic research to be very effective. We have to get hundreds, maybe even thousands of tutors signed up with the school system and then we have to apply them for any kids who really need that support. The families needed to have a safe and productive place after school but we don’t have. In this county, a lot of schools and families are on their own to provide after school programming. It’s expensive and kids don’t get it. I would like the county to fund after school programming so that it’s affordable for all families. I am working hard on that issue as County Council member. There should also be just fun and play focus programs after school for low-income families through their Excel Beyond the Bell program. I’ve been championing to expand the program every single year through our county budget process. So, I think tutoring and after school programs are two important policies that we’ve got to expand upon in the next couple of years. We ultimately just need it. We need a multiyear recovery plan. We’ve got to work with the school community. We are going to put that plan into motion so that our kids once again are back on track and the community can be confident. I think we have lost a lot of confidence in schools here over the last couple of years since parents are frustrated and I think we’ve got to restore that confidence. That’s going to be one of my top goals.
Nagender Madavaram: MCPS is getting more than 46 percent of the county budget. There is a concern that the Board is not supervising the funds properly and the Superintendent is running the show. We do not expect funds from the MCPS for tutoring. Do you propose more funds in budget for the tutoring?
Hans Riemer: Well, I think tutoring has to be a major part of our academic recovery. I think in person tutoring is absolutely the best. We all know that virtual education only works for a certain type of educational program. There could be some settings where virtual tutoring is effective. I think our first priority should be in person tutoring. We will bring nonprofits together to support the tutoring strategy and fund them to do that. We’ve got to figure out how can we reach into the community to find effective tutors. I think a lot of seniors in the county can be very effective tutors. You know, just everybody doesn’t have to be necessarily with higher education. We don’t need a master’s degree holder in education for tutoring. We need a kind of regular parent to work with a child to get on track or accelerate through their programming. The academic studies demonstrate that a consistent tutor is very effective, so I would work really closely with the school system. I think it’s a school program. I would figure out how we can support. I’m sure that nonprofits are going to be a big part of it.
Nagender Madavaram: I spoke with the teachers and they said that housing is unaffordable to them in the county. Most of the teachers are living out of the County. Fire fighters, police officers and other essential service sector workers also facing same problem. You may need to either increase the pay or provide more affordable housing units to live them in the county. What do you suggest?
Hans Riemer: Yes. Absolutely, it’s not just the problem of public essential services but also private essential services too. It’s people who work in our grocery stores and work in our dentist offices. The people who drive cabs and work in restaurants are finding it harder to live in Montgomery County because the cost of housing. The county is very expensive place to live. Housing is the largest monthly expense for most people whether they rent or pay mortgage. It’s the biggest single expense. Perhaps with the exception people with young children, if you have several kids then that’s probably going to be more expensive to raise kids. About teachers, you know I live in Takoma Park. One of our favorite teachers for my older son lived in Clarksburg and worked at Takoma Park Elementary School for a number of years. She transferred to a school that was close to her home in upper county because it was very difficult to commute for her. She would sometimes have as long as an hour and a half to commute from Clarksburg to Takoma Park. Investing in building more housing for the workforce is the best solution. I really have strong differences with our County Executive over housing. He really opposes new housing. He generally has a very negative view over the creating more housing and I just couldn’t disagree more. I feel strongly that we are a community with a housing shortage. When you have a housing shortage that just squeezes out all the affordable housing in the community and you start to see terrible things like rising homelessness. Our kids are finding it harder and harder to live in the county. There’s just nothing for them to be able to afford to live. When I’m at the dentist office at chitchat with the hygienist and found out that person lives in Frederick County. If you look at the amount of new housing units are being built every year in the county is really low. It’s like half of what it used to be. You know, those are the kind of problems we’re creating and our County Executive is really a big part of the problem. These are the housing policies he favors that create these kinds of problems. We’ve been battling with him. We’ve got to have county leadership that is willing to make some change.
Nagender Madavaram: It is nice intention to increase the new housing units. The problem is not meeting the demand of essential workers. When I see the numbers, 15% of units in the development community are reserved for low-income groups. It will be 150 in 1,000 new houses and 1,500 units in 10,000 new houses. That number is not enough to meet the requirement. European and international experiences proved that government should take initiative of building more affordable units with the support of financial institutions. The current policies are not solving the problem. Do you have any solutions?
Hans Riemer: Well, essential workers are generally looking for housing in the marketplace. You know, they’re generally not looking for housing that is set aside for low income. So, first of all you have to have a growing marketplace for them. You have to have a healthy housing market where there’s a lot of supply so that you know your average worker can find a place that they can afford. That’s a combination of market priced housing and then dedicated affordable housing provided by nonprofits. I’m a strong advocate for more funding for nonprofits to be able to buy housing and redevelop. I would love to see the amount of housing that our nonprofits provide really growing in the county. In order to do that, we have to provide a lot more financing for them. We have to increase the funds available for affordable housing, provide land as you mentioned, that’s a critical piece of the puzzle. Those units are going to be set aside for the very low income, folks who have just left homelessness and a single parent with multiple children. So, you’ve got to have a growing supply of housing in the market generally otherwise your renters are really disadvantaged. You know they can’t find housing that they can afford. I think that’s the problem here. We’ve got to generate more housing and reserved affordable housing. You have to have both. It’s not just one you got to do. You have a crisis and you’ve got to really provide every solution that you can.
Problems of Renters:
Nagender Madavaram: Renters are facing several problems. Some landlords are increasing the rent unreasonably and not providing basic utilities. How can you address problems of renters?
Hans Riemer: Well, I think the county government has to be on the side of renters and we’ve got to have effective inspections. Renters should have access to functional heat and air conditioning. When a tenant makes a complaint, there’s got to be accountability. The county government has a big role to play so you know we have to fund adequate personnel to do the inspections. We have to always protect tenants’ rights. I’ve been very supportive of tenants’ rights laws. We’ve enacted a number of really important reforms over the past five years to improve tenant rights. We are going to keep working on those issues.
Jobs and Economy:
Nagender Madavaram: What do you think of jobs and economy in the county?
Hans Riemer: Well, you know I just wanted to say even before COVID that the county was struggling to create new jobs, and today we actually have fewer jobs in the county than what we had 10 years ago. We got a lot more people but we got fewer jobs. So, that is a big problem for us. What we’re seeing is that this county has been heavily impacted by a regional changes and Virginia now is the biggest economic engine in the region. A lot of companies are deciding to locate there instead of in Montgomery County. Over the long term, this is going to change not in a positive way for the county. You know it’s already having an impact, but that impact is going to just keep growing and getting worse. I think about our kids. Do we want our kids to be able to live here if they want to? If we don’t create jobs in this county then our kids are going to move away. We have to be more aggressive on economic development, transportation and housing. We’ve got to have leadership that’s willing to make strong decisions to position the county for success. Marc Elrich is doing a terrible job on economic development. I mean, he’s just terrible. We’re going to be growing, thriving and succeeding. We’ve talked a little bit about housing, but Marc Elrich always opposes new housing, it is awful. He proposed to single track the purple line to downgrade the service on the purple lines, he is awful and horrible. He’s been really obstructionist on trying to fix the American Legion bridge. We’ve got to resolve horrible traffic situation. Education has not been focused to ensure a successful educational program in the county. What we’re seeing now is a result of these kinds of policies. Real decline in new jobs in the county to the point where before COVID. I think 90% of new jobs are being created in Virginia. Now, that’s going to be a huge problem for everybody in this county. Marc Elrich is fighting against 5G. He doesn’t want to allow for your wireless coverage to get better. How are you going to attract Microsoft or Apple to hire employees in Montgomery County when you can’t even accept growing wireless service as a kind of core economic strategy? It’s just very backwards thinking. It’s very destructive policy. I just think this county has to look to the future and we have to embrace the future. Whether you have low income or high income you need a wireless service for your phone. How do you stay connected when you have a County Executive who opposes the expansion of wireless service?
Nagender Madavaram: Technology is changing rapidly. We may move to 6G in future. Why Marc is opposing 5G?
Hans Riemer: It’s 5G, essentially the internet. I mean, it’s how all devices will access internet in the future. It’s the technology by which they will be connected. So, opposing 5G is sort of like opposing connecting to the Internet.
Nagender Madavaram: I had discussion with the county officials and I understood that the county got huge investment of 18 billion and 800 million of venture capital recently. Are the new investments generating employment in the county?
Hans Riemer: Well, the good news is we are seeing some growth in biotech and life sciences, partly because of COVID. We have growth in that area and that’s great. What we need to do is double down on that and figure out how to make that the locomotive for this whole county’s economic engine. Unfortunately, on the downside, the growth in life sciences is not enough. We have been losing jobs in technology, construction and all other sectors. They’ve been shrinking in the county and the growth of life sciences hasn’t really made up for the difference. I am optimistic that we can leverage our life sciences and progress into a bigger economic development renaissance. Marc Elrich is terrible in all of these areas. The right kind of vision and the life sciences investments hopefully will lead to other broader economic gains. I can be confident if I do business where my taxes will be stable and my employees can find a place to live. We may have a whole lot of elements working together in a positive way so that we can thrive and be successful to have the resources to invest in our schools. Our kids who don’t have every advantage will get great education. They get great jobs, like working in biomanufacturing industry. Montgomery County’s vision is to have a prosperous economy that invests in children and the children to have opportunities that their parents didn’t have them. We’ve got to do a better job if we’re going to make that possible in the future.