All three seats on Montgomery County's Board of Commissioners are up for grabs on November 7.
Last month, the Montco 30% Project emailed all four candidates seven questions about their policy views on affordable housing and homelessness for the state's second wealthiest county. The two Democrats in the race are current Commissioner Jamila Winder and Neil Makhija. On the Republican side, it's Tom DiBello and Liz Ferry.
Ferry and DiBello's unedited answers are below. What about the Democratic contenders, you ask? We are wondering the same thing, since Winder, and Makhija did not respond (despite texts/emails to all candidates' campaigns). Ferry sent her responses in on Saturday, Oct. 14. There's still time ....
DiBello, a businessman and former Spring-Ford Area school board president, is seeking to replace outgoing Commissioner Joe Gale (the top three candidates will win seats). Ferry, an Upper Dublin Township Commissioner, has been a Republican committee person for 20 years, according to her website.
1.) CHOC in Norristown closed in June 2022, leaving Montgomery
County government without a full-time shelter for homeless
individuals. What is your vision and plan for addressing rising
homelessness and encampments?
DiBello: The Homeless issue in Montgomery County like most areas is a very complex issue that isn’t going to be solved by passing out tents and blankets once a year. First off, I want to point out that it was poor leadership by the Montco Commissioner to close the facility without having a strong remediation plan in place.
My vision is to understand why people are homeless and categorize them so that independent solutions can be developed by category. We need to understand that people end up on the street for different reasons. Some reasons include addictions, loss of job, mental health issues, and change in life circumstances. Based on each of these reasons different solutions need to be developed. For instance, when someone ends up Homeless because of loss of employment we need to have a structure in place to either help them find employment or possibly train them for a different skill set. No matter what, when I am elected, we won’t be having this conversation again in 4 years.
Ferry: The county must partner with local municipalities, behavioral health professionals, and residents to ensure that those who need housing are helped. Unfortunately, the county did not prepare for the closing of CHOC. Currently, the county has 162 emergency shelter beds, which is insufficient. Homelessness requires a multi-pronged approach. Providing emergency shelters and temporary housing must also include mental health counseling, drug and alcohol counseling, financial counseling, and job placement assistance, if appropriate. In January 2023, the county’s Point in Time count was roughly 350 individuals. I believe the work that PECO did in Norristown with the homeless encampment could be replicated to meet people where they are and offer one on one assistance. I will work to ensure we have additional beds and services for those who need them.
2.) Land development in Pennsylvania is largely regulated at the
municipal level. Exclusionary zoning has limited the amount of
multi-family, affordable housing that has been built over recent
decades. If elected Commissioner, what actions would you take to
incentivize municipal leaders to address this problem?
DiBello: Municipalities are responsible for land development, it's not for the County to supersede their authority. From my perspective I would meet with Municipal Leaders and Business Leaders to see what strategies can be implemented to have housing affordability options so that workers don’t have to be bused in from outside areas to full-time jobs. I would also look for ways to work with Municipalities that are in need of revitalization and see if empty malls and warehouses can be reclaimed for affordable housing options.
Ferry: In my travels throughout the county, I've found that people do want more affordable housing options but not changes to local zoning laws. As a township commissioner, I believe we should offer municipalities incentives to promote more affordable housing options, not mandates.
Increasing the state Property Tax and Rent Rebate Program will help additional families stay in their homes and programs that help homeowners make repairs can also be helpful in allowing families, particularly the elderly stay in their homes. I believe we should also expand benefits for our veterans to assist first-time home buyers.
In addition, public officials should work with state representatives to examine expanding the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund to assist homeowners and those seeking housing.
I also believe the county should conduct a thorough examination of the Your Way Home program to determine if its programs have helped individuals with housing. Unfortunately, there is very little oversight of the program’s impact.
3.) At an optimal level, what does the partnership look like between
municipal and county governments? What can be improved? Where
do you see breakdowns or inefficiencies, particularly as they relate to housing and community development?
DiBello: An optimal partnership is the County and Municipalities working closely together to regionally plan out all our communities. Political agendas need to be thrown to the curb and the only thing we should all care about is building strong communities that allow everyone to be successful and realize the American dream. There are always areas for improvement which I look forward to working on once elected. I’m not comfortable pointing out deficiencies within groups of people that are mostly volunteering their time. However, I will look forward to working with everyone for a better tomorrow.
Ferry: As a township commissioner, I worked with the county to renovate and improve affordable housing in Oreland. The township and county worked well together, but the county needs to build relationships with the 62 municipalities to determine where there are needs. Our municipalities are very different from one another. Upper Salford has very different interests than Upper Merion. I understand the county and its towns and boroughs. I have lived here 30 years and raised my family here and worked here. I will be able to work with our municipal officials and community leaders to help address housing needs.
4.) Should there be penalties imposed on landlords and property
managers who systematically fail to maintain their rental properties
in safe and habitable conditions?
Ferry: Local municipalities do have ordinances in place to address owners who do not maintain their properties. There are also state laws that can assist renters. Additional outreach and education could be helpful to raise awareness about property maintenance requirements.
5.) Should residential properties in default be transferred to community land trusts – to later be rented or sold as permanent affordable housing?
DiBello: Not sure that is even legal but what I would like to see if possible are options when a residential property goes to Auction the County has the ability to work with certain groups to purchase those properties which then can be used as affordable housing.
Ferry: The local municipality should determine the best use. Municipalities could certainly be made aware of programs that can assist such as community land trusts.
6.) The American Dream of a single-family home is out-of-reach for some families, especially many young people. Should affordable housing options be made available to include unit sizes beyond studio and 1-bedroom apartments, thus creating spaces for larger families?
DiBello: I don’t believe this can be regulated by the county but there are already federal programs in place for developers to participate in that would provide larger family units throughout.
Ferry: Incentives could be made available through the state to developers to encourage larger units. Helping young families with repairs to older or historic homes could also assist in revitalizing housing stock.
7.) Is there anything you wish to add about your background or vision, as it relates to housing and community development?
DiBello and Ferry: (no response)