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Expanding pre-K for low income children in Montgomery County

Here are Hans Riemer’s prepared remarks from the release of the Office of Legislative Oversight’s Report Pre K in Montgomery County and Other Jurisdictions:

Our recent joint HHS/ED committee meeting on prekindergarten, where we discussed our new OLO report, was incredibly informative. From that conversation and others, it seems to me that we now have key people across County government – my fellow Councilmembers, Superintendent Smith, our early childhood leaders at HHS – that are committed to champion an expansion of quality pre-k.

While middle class families struggle to pay for quality early care and education, their children generally do receive it. The story for low income families is different. According to research in our new strategic plan, seven out of ten of our children who qualify for free and reduced meals are not ready for kindergarten. This is because the average cost of one year of quality pre-k in Montgomery County is $13,595. That’s an access issue to our families who just don’t have the resources. The inability of these families to provide quality pre-k for their children is why the research shows such a positive impact of early education investments for low income students.

During our committee conversation, I requested OLO to provide information about how we could expand pre-k programs in an incremental or staged manner. My staff has been researching this topic and, with the benefit of OLO’s response, I believe a path forward is clear: expand existing Head Start and pre-k programs from a half day to a full day. This is the best first step the County Council can take to provide early education for our most disadvantaged children.

Currently we provide half day pre-k to over 2,800 children. There are proven benefits to full-day pre-k for 4 year olds. Taking these programs to full-day is an important step. It could be implemented through a combination of approaches: if the school has room to expand the program, then it will be school based; if the school-based program does not have room to expand, then we can contract with private providers.

There is widespread academic research to support investing in enhanced early education for 4 year olds. The reasoning is simple on its face: children who begin learning one year earlier receive an additional year of education. Without quality early education, many of the lowest income children will enter kindergarten far behind their peers; they will struggle ever to catch up and many will not catch up. Pre-k for low-income 4 year olds helps put these children on a more even footing, which pays enormous dividends over time. The OLO research documents the incredible impact that pre-k can have and how it allows a school system to use its funds more efficiently later by reducing remedial or intervention expenses for these children during their subsequent years of education.

An investment of $20 million would enable us to provide full-day pre-k to ALL children eligible for free and reduced meals. This is achievable by, for example, investing $5 million per year over four years. The payback for our educational goals would be enormous. An investment plan of this nature would not require additional revenue sources or breaking the charter limit.

I urge my colleagues to consider the importance of pre-k for low income families as we begin to formulate our goals for this year’s County budget.

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Advancing Vision Zero in Montgomery County

There were forty traffic deaths in Montgomery County in 2014, the last year for which we have complete data. That includes drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists and hundreds more are injured. While we have come to accept these tragedies as a fact of life, many crashes are preventable. In recent years, we have also seen a spike in pedestrian and bicycle deaths. As more people walk, bike, and use public transit to get around in our County, warning pedestrians and bicyclists to use crosswalks and wear reflective clothing is simply not enough. Education is a key component of any safety initiative, but we need to reengineer our built environment so that mistakes are not deadly – drivers and pedestrians are people, and people will always make mistakes.

To reorient County government around this paradigm, I joined with Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich to introduce a Council resolution to establish a Vision Zero program in Montgomery County, which passed unanimously in February. Vision Zero is a commitment to use data and all available tools to reduce traffic deaths to zero by a specific date. This commitment helps is a very useful tool to focus our conversation and resources, and similar programs have drastically reduced crashes and fatalities in numerous jurisdictions abroad. Over the last few years, Vision Zero has been widely adopted by American cities. When we passed the resolution, we hoped that an Executive Branch Task Force would produce a report and recommendations by October 1, 2016. The County Executive has embraced the initiative and the Task Force’s is proceeding.

While the Task Force completes its work, including setting a date by which our County aims to reach zero deaths, I continue to look for ways to make our streets safer. One of the clearest ways to improve safety is to lower travel speeds. One 2011 study showed that while the risk of serious injury is only 10% when a pedestrian is hit by a car going 16mph, it rises to 25% at 23mph and 50% at 31mph. While investigating a constituent request to improve safety on a neighborhood street, I found that state law does not allow the County to set speed limits on County roads lower than 25mph and that the “default” speed limit on any residential road that does not have a posted speed limit is 30mph. There are limited exceptions that allow lower speeds, for example in school zones. For many residential streets, this is already far too fast. That floor also limits the ability of Montgomery County’s Department of Transportation to design new roads more safely or add traffic calming to existing roads that would reduce speeds lower than 25mph, since DOT’s criteria for whether traffic calming features are warranted (for example speed bumps) are based on the speed limit of the road.

I worked with District 20 Delegate David Moon to develop state legislation to address these issues, and Del. Moon has introduced three bills that would give Montgomery County more flexibility to lower speeds on our neighborhood streets. All of these bills would be authorizing only; the County would still have to act in order for any changes to go into effect. Our hope is that, if the State grants us this flexibility, the Vision Zero task force can consider and recommend appropriate changes to County policy that might result in lower speed limits, in addition to giving DOT the ability to make changes in individual situations.

MC 22-17: Default Unposted Speed Limit in Montgomery County

Introduced by Delegates Moon and Korman

This enabling legislation authorizes Montgomery County to lower the “default” speed limit on residential and business district roads that do not have a posted speed limit. The current default speed limit on these roads is 30mph. This bill would authorize the County to lower that limit as low as 20mph. Passage of this law would not implement a speed limit change; the county would still have to act.

MC 23-17: Lowest Posted Speed Limit Allowable in Montgomery County

Introduced by Delegates Moon and Korman

This enabling legislation authorizes Montgomery County to lower the speed limits on certain County roads to 15mph. The current floor is 25mph, with certain exceptions. Passage of this law would not implement a speed limit change, as the county would still have to take action and in most instances perform a traffic study before making the change. This change may be desirable in urban pedestrian zones or other areas with pedestrian safety issues, especially when engineering changes for pedestrian safety would accompany the lower speed limit.

MC 24-17: Speed Limit on Walk to School Routes

Introduced by Delegates Moon and Luedtke

This bill eliminates the requirement that Montgomery County conduct a traffic study before lowering speed limits on county roads within a walking radius of Montgomery County Public Schools and allows speed limits as low as 15mph. This change would allow MoCo’s “Safe Routes to School” program to more quickly implement engineering changes to improve safe pedestrian and bike access to public schools.

Make your voice heard

The Montgomery County Delegation will be holding Public Hearings for these (and all other) local bills on the evenings of Monday, December 5th and Wednesday, December 7th at the Council Office Building in Rockville. Sign up to testify here.

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FAQ About Proposal to Regulate Airbnb

UPDATE: Council President Floreen and I asked the Planning Department to review Airbnb regulations from across the country, provide additional opportunities for public input, and make a revised recommendation to the Planning Board and Council. The Planning Department has announced a public hearing on July 18. Read more about their effort or contact Planning staff here.

 

I recently introduced a legislative package to regulate Airbnb in Montgomery County. Here are some basic information about the legislation that I hope answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

What does this legislation do?

This legislative package, Zoning Text Amendment 16-03 and Bill 2-16, works together to regulate short term rentals in Montgomery County. The Zoning Text Amendment would allow a Bed and Breakfast in residential and mixed-use zones under certain circumstances.  The Bill would establish a process and standards for licensing all dwellings used as a Bed and Breakfast, modernize the licensing requirements for hotels, and delete code sections pertaining to other forms of short term rentals (hostels, tourist homes, tourist cabin parks, rooming houses, and boarding houses) that have already been disallowed in the zoning code. The legislation would apply to all short term rentals, including those arranged through sites like Airbnb and HomeAway. Renters on Airbnb and similar sites would be required to be a licensed Bed & Breakfast in Montgomery County, and obey several new rules designed to protect visitors, neighbors, and hosts. This legislation follows legislation passed in 2015 that required short-term rentals to pay hotel/motel taxes (the current rate is 7%).

 

Aren’t short-term rentals already legal?

No, rentals for less than 30 days are illegal under current law unless they are licensed as a hotel or a Bed & Breakfast. However, this prohibition is weakly enforced, and there are hundreds of Montgomery County listings on sites like Airbnb and HomeAway.

 

Does the legislation protect existing residential communities?

The legislation includes three major protections to ensure that Airbnb does not change the character of existing residential communities:

  1. All hosts will be required to get a license (through an online process) and to certify that the units they rent meet all safety, parking and other requirements in County Code. This means the County will know where these rentals are occurring, can inspect the rentals as needed, and can close down rentals that are not properly licensed.
  2. All units that are rented must be the primary residence of the host. This means that investors cannot use multiple homes for short-term rentals (unlike long-term rentals, where this is allowed). It means that legal rentals will have an owner who lives at that address and is responsible for the property and relationships with neighbors.
  3. The number of renters allowed in a rental unit is limited to the same number allowed in any residential property – no more than five unrelated persons or a family of any size.  This rule prevents any homeowner from legally turning their basement into a hostel. The parking allowances will not be greater than any other household would be allowed.

These properties also will continue to be subject to county laws that protect neighborhoods: housing and building code rules governing the safety and appearance of homes in the County, the County’s Noise Ordinance restricting noise levels, all parking restrictions, zoning rules governing the allowed uses in different zones, and many other legal protections.

Rather than stretching county enforcement resources thin attempting to shut down all short term rentals, this framework will allow the county to focus on problem actors who may violate quality of life laws, whether they are short term renters, long term renters, or homeowners.

 

Won’t this increase housing prices in the County by diverting housing supply to short-term rentals?

This has certainly been an issue in other areas with very tight housing markets and high levels of tourism like New York and San Francisco. The requirement that the housing unit be the principal residence of the host will prevent investors (or anyone) from being able to legally turn a unit into a full-time Airbnb rental and should therefore minimize the impact on housing supply and prices.

 

Will these units have to pay the same taxes as hotels?

Yes. Last year, the Council approved legislation requiring all short-term rentals to pay the County’s hotel/motel tax. Both the County and the State of Maryland are currently working to develop an arrangement with Airbnb and similar sites to have the listing company collect the tax from the host and remit it directly to the appropriate jurisdiction. Airbnb already does this in other jurisdictions. The County has also begun seeking the tax directly from hosts. This process will be aided by a licensing requirement which will require certification that all taxes have been paid.

 

What is the process for approving these changes? How can I express my views?

There will be a public hearing on the legislation at 7:30pm on March 8 at the Council offices in Rockville. Learn more and sign up to speak here. You can also provide written comments for the record at any time by emailing county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov.  After the March 8th Public Hearing, the legislation will be heard by the Planning, Housing, and Economic Development Committee, which will make a recommendation to the full County Council.

Please feel free to contact my office at any time with questions or comments at Councilmember.Riemer@montgomerycountymd.gov.

 

What about existing Bed & Breakfasts?

There have been six Bed & Breakfasts approved under the old rules in Montgomery County. All but one have had those approvals revoked by the Board of Appeals because the owner abandoned the use. Any other Bed & Breakfasts currently operating in the County are evidently operating without a license and would be required to operate under the same rules as other short-term rentals in the proposed legislation.

 

Are there any additional parking requirements?

The legislation does not impose any additional parking requirements over those that apply to residential property generally, but it does limit the number of occupants allowed at any time to the size of 1 household (5 unrelated individuals or a family of any size) and the unit must meet the existing parking requirements for their zone.

 

What about Homeowners/Condo Association Rules or Rental Agreements?

This legislation does not supersede other legal restrictions on the use of property. Rental agreements, homeowners association covenants, or condominium agreements may preclude a tenant or property owner from using their housing unit for any rental purpose.  If these restrictions on property rental are violated, it is the responsibility of the landlord, homeowner’s association or condominium association to enforce their restrictions.

 

Why is there so much about hotels in the Bill?

On the advice of the Council’s land use attorney, we took the opportunity to do some technical clean up to the hotel section of the County Code. This code had not been amended in decades. These changes are largely stylistic and have no bearing on the Airbnb issue. Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts (i.e. short-term rentals) remain separate legal categories with very different requirements for licensing, inspections, etc.

 

Why not just leave the zoning law in place that makes them illegal?

Although short term rentals are not legal, there are already hundreds of listings on these websites in our county. Our resources are limited, and enforcing a complete prohibition is not realistic. In addition, most or nearly all of these listings are posted by residents who have a reasonable and responsible use in mind. Allowing responsible rentals allows the County to focus our enforcement resources on listings that are truly disruptive to the community. There are also many ways in which responsible short term rentals can augment the County’s stock of hotel rooms to provide benefit to the community, including providing short term stays for business travelers and tourists; family and friends of medical patients at facilities like NIH; families temporarily displaced from their permanent residence by fire, flooding, or renovations; and others looking for a more “homey” experience. Not to mention, the opportunity for homeowners who have extra space to make additional income – including seniors and empty nesters. This application of internet technology is here to stay, and the best course for county government is to adapt to that reality.

 

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Taxis could be a platform for innovation

I previously wrote about the Council’s efforts to overhaul our taxi regulations to adapt to Uber. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation that allows Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft to operate in Maryland and preempts local jurisdictions from regulating them. Over the past year, I have been working with the Council’s Transportation Committee, chaired by Roger Berliner, a group of taxi drivers represented by the AFL-CIO, transportation technology companies, the County’s taxi industry and MCDOT to adapt our taxi regulations to this new environment.

On July 28, the Council passed a landmark taxi reform bill, and I am very pleased that almost all of the reforms I advocated for were included. The key parts of the bill were:

  • Eliminating outdated regulatory burdens
  • Protecting taxi drivers from exploitation
  • Creating a groundbreaking new framework for taxi apps to use our taxi fleet as a platform for innovation (adapted from my Bill 55-14)
  • Providing 100 new taxi licenses, 50 of which will go to a new, driver-owned cooperative operating wheelchair accessible vehicles

I am very hopeful that these reforms will create a more balanced and high-performing taxi system in Montgomery County that works better for customers and drivers. Currently, customers must request a wheelchair accessible taxi days in advance. We hope to cut that down to minutes. Under the old system, taxi drivers were being exploited with high rents, no benefits, and long hours. With these reforms, driving a taxi will still be hard work, but there will be a more balanced relationship between drivers and companies. And with the formation of a driver-owned cooperative, drivers and customers will have more choices.

But of course, none of that matters if taxis cannot compete with Uber. That’s why I am especially excited about the development of a framework for universal taxi dispatch apps in the County. Under my proposal, which the Council adopted, companies can submit taxi dispatch apps to DOT, which will approve them as “universal dispatch apps” if they meet certain requirements. Drivers can choose among approved apps, but will be required to use at least one. The most important requirement is that each approved app must allow all other approved apps to see and dispatch their drivers through an open data feed, and must dispatch the drivers using other approved apps. This means that no matter which app a customer is using they will get sent the closest licensed cab, regardless of which company or app it is affiliated with.

Right now, the push toward universal dispatch apps is about catching up to the user experience and technology pioneered by Uber and Lyft. But over time, if other jurisdictions adopt this approach, taxis themselves could become a platform for fast-moving innovation. Any entrepreneur that can think up an idea and develop an app could have a nationwide fleet of regulated, safe vehicles and drivers at their disposal.

If you’d like to learn more about this idea, here is a White Paper I wrote to explain why I think this development is so important. The White Paper also includes model legislation that other jurisdictions can adapt to implement this approach.

Learn More about Bill 53-14 – Taxicabs:

– Staff Analysis prepared for Council action

Final text of Bill 53-14

White Paper on Universal Digital Dispatch