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Ward 5- Sawa Kamara

1) Do you agree with us that more housing, both market rate and subsidized, should be created in Takoma Park? If so, what steps will you take to facilitate creation of new housing?

YES! I agree that more housing, both market rate and subsidized, should be created in Takoma Park.

Affordable quality housing is one of the biggest concerns for Ward 5, and I support stronger policies that lead to more housing opportunities for low- and low-to-middle income residents.  Ward 5 already has a number of affordable housing units but this is not enough. Any plan to build new housing in Takoma Park must include apartments, condos, and single-family homes that attract people from a variety of incomes. Whenever city leaders enact plans to develop land for additional housing, our goal should always be to offer residents a balanced mix of homes in the same geographic area. City data show that amenities like parks, safe roads and sidewalks are not equitably distributed among the wards, with more racially diverse and lower income areas not having these amenities.  Data show that building low-income housing complexes separated from more prosperous neighborhoods is an ineffective means of addressing economic and racial inequalities. To build a more vibrant and a more equitable community, people from all socioeconomic backgrounds must be able to interact on a daily basis.

For low and low-to-middle income residents, there needs to be expansion of housing subsidies and measures to address rent stabilization.

As your Ward 5 city council member, I’ll review existing urban studies and data (including new Census data) as well as try to leverage  experience with City.  If indicated, I may advocate for new study to determine the ideal location for developing intermixed housing in Takoma Park. Once we have decided on a location, I’ll work with other city leaders to determine the best way to finance the project. I’ll also push for increased housing subsidies and rent stabilization measures.

2) Takoma Park has several potential development and revitalization opportunities. Please describe your vision for the following sites. In your opinion, how should they be further developed?

  • Takoma-Langley Crossroads (Purple Line station)

The Purple Line will significantly benefit the Ward 5 community once completed.  In immediate future, the biggest concern is disruption to residents and local businesses. Along the Purple Line Corridor including Ward 5, properties have already increased in value without noticeable benefit to residents or businesses.  City Council can magnify community feedback and work with community groups engaged in Purple Line impact like CASA and Long Branch Business League.  In order to preserve and expand existing affordable housing and diversity of local businesses, the City needs to be more engaged in these ongoing community discussions that have been occurring for last few years with Purple Line partners and County.  I worry about the low-income folks who will be priced out of housing in the neighborhoods near the stations. It seems sensible to me to mitigate some of that harm by increasing the number of housing units along the Corridor; rent stabilization measures; and offering increased subsidies to ensure that low-income residents can share in the benefits of increased property values, in particular low-income people of color.

The diverse local businesses along the Corridor have weathered disruptions from Purple Line and now COVID-19.  Communities thrive when businesses thrive, and I’m in favor of developments that attract people and businesses into Takoma Park.  We must engage and advocate for these businesses with as much dedication as other parts of the City.  We can do more toprotect the small mom-and-pop stores and restaurants that enrich our city. That’s especially true of small immigrant businesses. We’ll lose our uniqueness unless we protect those businesses that help us promote and celebrate diversity.

  • Takoma Park Recreation Center (New Hampshire Ave.)

The Recreation Center re-development is a prime example of how we can have a measurable impact on residents of color and low-income residents.  This is an important step forward in translating racial-equity policy into action.  Because the Takoma Park Recreation Center (New Hampshire Avenue) primarily serves African Americans and low-income residents, it’s important to focus on this and revitalize the center. That area of the city needs a place where children can study, exercise, and socialize. Children need places to go after school where they can funnel their energy into positive activities that promote lifelong learning, physical and mental health, and social cohesion.

The center should include three primary areas: a quiet area for individual and small-group study sessions, an athletic area for sports and other activities that promote physical fitness (e.g., yoga), and a computer lab/game area for socializing. I want Takoma Park children to have healthy minds and bodies, and it’s essential for city leaders to provide all children in all wards with opportunities that will help them flourish.

If we develop a reputation as a city that cares for its children and that promotes racial equality by providing excellent services to all residents in all wards, we will also become a destination for families seeking an uplifting place to raise their children, which will increase our tax base and allow us to provide even more services. We can start a virtuous circle by revitalizing the Takoma Park Recreation Center (New Hampshire Avenue).

  • Washington Adventist Hospital campus

The hospital campus is currently owned privately. The City is in no position to purchase the property but can use influence to advocate for options more needed by residents and local businesses.  A large number of jobs and associated commerce left the City with the hospital move.  The city should vet with residents various options that have been discussed over the years.  These include affordable housing, mixed commercial/residential uses, green space, recreation areas, and schools.  The City should be ready to coherently advocate for preferred options if the opportunity arises.  If Takoma Park master planning or other visioning exercises occur, this should contribute to those processes.  .This site is sufficiently large to consider a healthy mix of activities serving different socio-economic and diverse ethnic backgrounds of our City.

3) On the long-debated Takoma Junction development process, do you support continuing the existing County and City review process or do you propose restarting the development process, including a new Request for Proposals? If so, how would the City fund this work?

Other developments impact Ward 5 and racial-equity than the Junction. The city has given residents five years to voice their concerns, and it’s time for process to move out of limbo. We should certainly reconsider the size of the building and address density, safety, and environmental concerns, including the storm water management infrastructure, but we should ultimately move forward with the process. It would be a mistake to restart the development process and ask for another round of proposals. It would cost the city money that could be spent elsewhere, and if the new process takes as long as the current process, it could be another five years before residents can enjoy the benefits of the Takoma Junction project.  Because of COVID-19, the City needs to stay the course.  Additional costs will be incurred without benefit if there is further delays in deliberations.

Because interest rates are lower than the average annual rate of inflation in the US, the city should issue a municipal bond to pay for the project. Investors who purchase municipal bonds benefit from tax incentives, which means that we could fund the project without raising taxes on families who are already struggling due to the pandemic while also offering a stable investment vehicle for investors looking to avoid the volatility of stock markets.

Would you promote multifamily construction by offering additional relief from rent stabilization for new buildings, as the District and many other jurisdictions do?

YES! I will advocate for multifamily construction and want to offer additional relief from rent stabilization for new buildings.

It’s essential to develop land for new housing only when a developer/builder proposes intermixed housing that includes apartments, condos, and single-family homes. I understand that some developers/builders may be disinclined to build multi-family housing for fear that they will not make a substantial enough profit by building apartments in a city with rent stabilization measures in place, but even with those measures, developers/builders would still have sufficient economic incentive to build multi-family housing if they were also permitted to build condos and single-family homes at the same time and in the same area that they are permitted to build multi-family homes.

Rather than granting permits to two or three separate developers/builders to build apartments, condos, and single-family homes, the city should give a permit to a single developer/builder to build all three types of housing concurrently. While the profit from building a multi-family housing unit might be less than the profit from building a condo complex or a single-family neighborhood, if the profits of all three types of housing are averaged out, they would still be sufficient economic incentive to entice developers/builders to build housing that would help low- and low-to-middle-income residents.

There are several ways to both incentivize building and to maintain rent stabilization measures. Our decisions should balance the needs of developers/builders and residents who are struggling to pay their housing costs. For too long city decisions have been biased in favor of developers/builders.

City public engagement currently over-represents the views of older, white, and home-owning residents. How would you change the process to better engage renters, minorities, immigrants, and young families?

As a community health worker in the field of public health and as a volunteer organizer trying to help my neighbors deal with food insecurity, I work with residents who are often under-represented in typical public engagement structures like committees or City Council meetings but have their own ways of communicating within their communities and social networks.  They are often too busy to engage in City processes that they do not see relevant to their lives. My personal experiences in Takoma Park have demonstrated clearly that that the existing channels don’t reach the most vulnerable people in our community, particularly low-income residents, limited English proficient residents, and people of color.

First, are we tracking the problem adequately to hold City accountable? The preferred channels may be committees, public hearings, City Council meetings but we need to document and discuss on ongoing basis shortcomings with these channels.The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses and proven that immigrants and people of color have not tapped into available relief.

Regular City-funded surveys should be conducted to solicit feedback with special emphasis to get feedback from residents who are underrepresented in public engagement channels. This may require translation, oversampling and more targeted outreach but the costs of being biased by a subset of residents is an equal concern. We should minimally translate all information into Spanish and Amharic because there’s great strength in inclusion, and if you want people to know and to care, we have to speak their language.

Second, we need to modify the structure of committees, to change the way that the city council interacts with the community and to bring these discussions more to the Ward 5 community in an open regular and consistent way.  With COVID-19, we have learned how to better use information technology to do that but we have realized its shortcomings.  We may need to continue to learn and adapt in this environment but in order to gain trust it needs to be done openly, consistently, inclusive of all Ward 5 residents.  It may require changing established committee criteria to increase representation of people of color and immigrants in all wards (for example, specific minimum criteria for people of color, limited English proficient, or Wards). We should also be advocating for a broadening of access to information technology to ensure that it’s accessible to all residents, whether in our schools, libraries, or other places where our residents naturally come together.

As an elected member of the city council, I will do everything in my power to bring services and information to the people because otherwise the efforts of those offering the services are wasted. My public service mantra is this: “If the people can’t come to you, then go to the people.” That principle would guide my every action as a member of the city council.

6) Takoma Park, Piney Branch, Rolling Terrace ES, and Montgomery Blair HS are at or over capacity.  Do you support advocating the Montgomery County Public Schools system for a new local school? How else would you work with MCPS to provide sufficient capacity and quality for our growing community?

City Council will be better able to serve Ward 5 residents if it uses new data available to understand these problems.  Solving overcrowding in our schools must begin with a thorough analysis of new MCPS boundary analysis and census data, including the racial, income, and linguistic composition of our wards. That data will help us determine actual needs and ways to make more equitable decisions about the overall needs of individual schools and Takoma Park students. Another part of the solution involves performing needs assessments among the parents whose children would be affected by the expansion of the MCPS and among the staff, teachers, and administrators of the schools governed by MCPS.

We also need to examine the school development and renovation plans already in the works. Besides building one or more additional schools to relieve overcrowding, we also need to renovate Takoma Park Middle School and Silver Spring Internationals so that we can alleviate some of the overcrowding within the classrooms of those schools. We also need to determine ways to improve school infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink staffing, spacing, safety, and information technology resources in our schools, and we must consider these features carefully for all of our schools going forward.

Overcrowded schools represent one of the most serious harms perpetrated against our children, especially children of color. Our leaders have allowed our young minds to be crammed into schools like Rolling Terrace ES and Montgomery Blair HS. They have set the students up for failure, and then they have the gall to shake their heads in disappointment at the low high school and college graduation rates in those communities, which are often communities of color. There’s a direct and immediate connection between overcrowded schools and low educational achievement, and it’s impossible to address the latter without first addressing the former.

The problem with overcrowding at schools isn’t just that students have less one-on-one time with teachers in their classrooms. It’s also that the school doesn’t have enough computers, books, or supplies to go around, which is a serious problem in schools whose student body population is largely comprised of children from low-income, food-insecure families. As a result, our children are failing to achieve proficiency in reading and math. We can’t expect our students to achieve proficiency if we can’t give them what they need to succeed, and in many cases that includes food so they don’t go to class hungry.

I currently help Ward 5 find food for distribution, primarily among Latino, Ethiopian, African, and African-American residents, although there are certainly many white residents who receive food through our program. I never allow a person’s background or language to stand as a barrier to receiving the support they need. That program has a direct impact on a child’s ability to learn in school, and I hope to expand it so that all students in our community have enough to eat.

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