By Andrew Krug, contributions by Cesar Garzon
*This article has been updated to include partial video footage of the Town Hall event. The video footage is unedited but does not capture every comment Del. Barve made at the event regarding taxes, development, and Country Clubs.
Delegate Kumar Barve, chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee and one of the most powerful men in Annapolis, doesn’t believe basic human needs like housing or health care are rights. But he does believe in big tax breaks for country clubs.
This dissonance was on display at a June 10th District 17 community town hall in Rockville, when Barve tried to explain why he killed a bill which would have protected renters from arbitrary eviction, while voting yet again to allow Montgomery County’s country clubs to keep paying reduced taxes.
“Housing Isn’t a Right, It’s a Commodity”
We do have to hand it to Barve: he was not afraid to speak bluntly when asked why he prevented the Just Cause Eviction bill from coming to a vote.
“It’s terrible policy” he said without hesitation, asserting that there is no problem of unjust evictions, and more important, that Just Cause would tie the hands of landlords and discourage anyone from building rental housing in Montgomery County. Apparently, Del. Barve is ignorant of the wave of Just Cause bills being adopted across the world.
The view stems from Barve’s belief, stated just as bluntly, that “housing is not a right, it is a commodity.” For Barve, it is merely “good policy” for the government to encourage housing for all, but taking extra steps to ensure that a family has a roof over its head, even modest steps like Just Cause or rent control, reduces the profits of those who trade in the commodity of basic shelter. To Barve, the profits of the developer class are sacred, lest they take their bulldozers and go home.
Barve singled out Takoma Park to illustrate his point. While the poor families who are able to live there thanks to rent stabilization may see it as a model, Barve says the city’s housing policy is a failure: Takoma Park’s “overregulation,” including rent stabilization, means “there hasn’t been an apartment building built there in 30 years.”
There is no doubt that Barve is right that the county needs to build more housing. But he is wrong that sensible steps like Just Cause or rent control result in decreased building, no matter how much developers complain about them. Furthermore, the issue is the type of housing being built. Developers have proven over and over again that when left to their own devices, they will build overpriced apartments, not the affordable units most of us need. The only chance we have is public intervention.
On that front Barve did offer some hope that he is not a total lost cause. He acknowledged that publicly-built social housing may be the only way to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder. He praised Del. Vaughn Stewart’s (D-19) social housing bill as “big and bold” but said it “needed work.”
But Barve has made it clear he thinks basic needs like housing are best delivered by big business, not publicly-run institutions. The delegate even told us that he thinks health care is also a commodity, not a right, which at this point is surely a view held only by the extreme right wing of the Democratic party. So forgive us if we are skeptical that we will see the Kumar Barve Public Homes coming to Montgomery County any time soon.
“Country Clubs = Farms.” Wait, what?
If Barve had a coherent, if wrong, narrative about housing, his explanation of his votes in 2018 and again this year to allow Montgomery County country clubs to keep their tax breaks made little sense.
Barve repeatedly hid behind tax exemptions that farms receive to justify tax giveaways to country clubs.
“Similar things should be taxed similarly,” he said over and over again, asserting that since country clubs are like farms, and since farms receive tax exemptions, so should country clubs.
It’s hard to know where to start. First of all – and does this really need to be said? – country clubs are not like farms. They may both be private open space which use high volumes of pesticides and herbicides, as Barve said, but farms provide a public good: food. Country clubs provide recreation for the very wealthy.
Second, since when are “similar things taxed similarly”? Barve himself said that the tax break farms receive is bigger than the one for country clubs. If The legislature singled out country clubs to receive these breaks, they can single them out again to take those tax breaks away. Just this session, the legislature passed a bill (HB432) to give property tax exemptions to museums that meet certain very specific requirements, essentially allowing one museum to take advantage.
The Way Forward Does Not Include Corporate Democrats Like Kumar Barve
Kumar Barve is not the worst legislator in Annapolis, and is not the worst Democrat. But given his influence and his tendency to side with the powerful, he is an oversized obstacle to progress. Moreover, he is out of step with his district.
We cannot achieve real economic justice in Montgomery County or Maryland when one of the legislature’s most powerful leaders sees housing and health care not as rights but as commodities, yet at the same time will twist himself into knots to defend tax cuts for country clubs. We can, and must, do better.
It is that simple.
The authors are Barve’s constituents in the 17th District.
You can view partial video footage of the Town Hall below, and read a transcript here.