Most community activists and elected officials get their start in politics at any level of government to address an issue about which they are deeply passionate. Only a work of passion would warrant spending an inordinate amount of time tackling intractable issues such as school funding, public transportation, or perhaps bringing attention to the lack of pedestrian paths, traffic signals etc… on top of taking care of family and their day jobs.
Of course some get involved out of ambition and for power too.
In local politics, solving problems and making a difference are the prevalent reason people get involved. It is not an easy job. The workload is enormous, it is time consuming, it does not compensate for the opportunity cost of the time that could be used to generate income, and the pace of progress is painfully incremental. In some cases, it almost can feel like taking one step forward and two steps backward.
The frustration is further compounded when this incremental progress is contrasted to the ridiculous ease with which powerful special interest groups push their agenda through the process.
In Howard County multiple players participate in this process: community activists and groups, political parties, the media, elected officials, non-profit entities and their volunteers, county government, the electorate, and wealthy developers.
These groups fall roughly into three categories.
Entrenched interests: these are the wealthy developers who control the political parties, the media, elected officials, many of the non-profits, and the county government, as they accomplish goals in direct conflict to the public interest and despite the objection of the community activists and groups.
Community activists: who make up civic groups and certain non-profits. Sometimes these activists are successful at making the jump to elected officials. In many cases they are successful because they are willing to go along with the entrenched interests. In rare occasions they are successful outside that circle of influence because they can directly reach the electorate.
The electorate: has very little access to useful information. The entrenched interests control the media and as a result makes this group susceptible to relying on political party identification or the endorsement of powerful local organizations (mostly entrenched too) to make their choices.
A community activist’s success relies heavily on a demonstration of visible support from the electorate more powerful and sustained than the entrenched interests. This is rare and explains the painfully slow progress. A good example of this is the passage of CB1-2018 - amending the Adequate Public Facilities Act, where the electorate was paying attention due to the Howard County Public School System’s 2017 Feasibility Study.
In the overwhelming number of occasions where garnering visible public support is nonexistent, mainly due to lack of information, the community activist can chose to partner with the entrenched interests to make a deal or be ignored. Over time, the work of a community activist can feel like climbing a never ending escalator moving in the opposite direction.
Making a deal with the special interest typically requires advocating for an agenda, that to a certain degree, is diametrically opposite to the community activist’s cause. To make it more palatable, this is described as a “compromise” and is marked as a form of pragmatism. For the greater-good. It is also the reason it may feel like taking one step forward and two steps backward.
There is no clearer illustration of the state of activism in Howard County than the cause of affordable housing. It is the cause of many community activists and non-profit volunteers. Unfortunately, it is also a cause developers have hijacked to protect their profits and do so by partnering with or forming nonprofit organizations to build credibility and good faith while championing policies that would hurt the people they purport to help.
During the September 18 public hearing on CB42-2019 (a bill to raise the schools surcharge fees to $6.80 per square foot) several testimonies were made in support or opposition of the legislation, representing groups or as individual voters.
It is safe to say that hundreds of testimonies were submitted. Some used boilerplate testimony - perhaps from the teacher’s union or through petition drives - while other submitted testimonies were not boilerplate.
One group of testimonies particularly stood out, not in the concern they raised, but how they raised it.
The affordable housing nonprofit community came out against the legislation and almost all the written testimony of this group quantified the percentage increase in school surcharge fees as “500%”.
To be sure the exact increase in impact fees is from $1.32 to $6.80 per square foot - a 415.15% increase. Generously, rounding it up to the nearest 50 would give 450%.
Yet, almost all the organizations used 500%, including the Maryland Building Industry Association.
Developers, find that building goodwill through contributions to nonprofit groups is an effective way of effectuating profitable policy outcomes. It is a worthwhile investment that would pay 100X or even 1000X in dividends.
Remember the building industry’s impact fee playbook on what to do if an impact fee seems inevitable?
“Provide economic data to demonstrate the influence that impact fees have on housing affordability in an effort to lower the impact fee…”
As stated, partnering or forming nonprofit organizations to build credibility and good faith is one way Howard County developers advance their interests.
Take for example the event Center Maryland hosted on September 10th on behalf of the Maryland Building Industry Association.
Howard County developers are able to influence favorable outcomes in their profitable enterprise by intertwining their business with these nonprofits.
They wrap them up in the circle of the entrenched interests through funding and sponsorship to the organizations or by serving on the Boards of the nonprofits or both.
Here are two examples of sponsorship: the sponsors to the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition include wealthy developers and builders.
Similarly, Bridges to Housing Stability sponsors include Howard Hughes Corporation, which to date has not provided any affordable housing in Downtown Columbia.
This model of advocacy works because it allows the development industry to occasionally propose “wins” to the community advocates who participate in the organization while it reaps a windfall in profits on the back-end.
When a legislation or proposal could potentially hurt profits, the advocates are enlisted to argue it will hurt affordable housing. Alternatively, if a proposal will help developer profits, the same advocates are enlisted to argue it will help affordable housing.
This is not exposing some wild conspiracy theory. The developers are doing this in the open. They are board members to these organizations, they fund them, and they recruit community leaders to be the face when necessary.
In fact, in the minds of many the intertwining of these businesses and the conflicts of interest are just normalized behavior, because they have been taking place for many years, perhaps incrementally getting more conflicted.
Local politicians and special interest groups rely on the difficulty the voter faces in piecing together diffuse information to continue this practice. For the community activists and affordable housing advocates it makes progress without the support of entrenched interests infinitely more difficult.
Many hard-working community members participate in these groups hoping to make a difference. Unfortunately, all their hard work continues to be undermined when developers give a little on one hand and use the goodwill and their volunteers’ credibility to take a lot.