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Housing affordability, post-pandemic recovery dominate House District 7 candidate forum

Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (via Doug Kerr/Flickr)

(Updated at 9:50 a.m. on 5/19/2023) A slate of four candidates running to represent Reston in the House of Delegates aired their ideas on housing affordability, mental health issues and post-pandemic recovery at a candidate forum last night (Wednesday).

Organized by the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Cornerstones, the forum at the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation (1441 Wiehle Avenue) challenged the District 7 candidates with questions from a panel, followed by meet-and-greet time with the audience.

The race is among the most crowded in years, as longtime delegate Ken Plum retires.

The most fundamental differences between the four Democratic candidates arose in a question about the one piece of legislation they would propose if elected to office.

Paul Berry — a teacher who frequently referenced his experience as a board appointee in former governor Ralph Northam’s office — said he would introduce an optional firearms buyback program. The program wouldn’t be mandatory in order to get Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s signature.

(Correction: This article previously said Paul Berry is an attorney who worked in Northam’s office. He works as a teacher and in data science, and his role in Northam’s office was as an appointee to advisory boards, according to his campaign website. Fellow candidate Karen Keys-Gamarra is an attorney.)  

Karen Keys-Gamarra, an at-large member of the Fairfax County School Board, said she would go a step further by advocating for an assault weapons ban. Shyamali Roy Hauth, an Air Force veteran who previously worked in the office of Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn, said she would get rid of a disability waiver waitlist that has existed for years.

Mary Barthelson, a systems engineer at SAIC who squared off against Plum in the 2021 Democratic primary, said she hopes to study entry barriers to Virginia’s workforce.

Affordable housing

All candidates said they would oppose state legislation to override local zoning ordinances in order to permit more dense housing, a move championed by one-time 86th District delegate Ibraheem Samirah. Arlington recently passed legislation that effectively ended single-family-only zoning in the county.

But the proposed solutions to combat housing affordability issues varied.

Barthelson said increasing the capital gains tax and incentivizing developers to include more affordable housing was her priority, along with using commercial buildings for transitional housing.

“I think I’d look at a multifaceted approach,” she said.

Berry prefaced his answer by stating that high eviction rates are particularly alarming.

“Before we start taking about supply in the future, I want to keep people in their homes right now,” he said.

He added that there may be opportunities to transform paved and underutilized surface areas into affordable housing.

“The value has to be there for a developer,” Berry said.

Hauth said she hopes to provide local boards of supervisors with the tools they need to boost their affordable housing stock.

Mental health in schools

When asked how to tackle high rates of mental health issues in schools, candidates also approached the issue with varying methods.

Keys-Gamarra, who said she was intimately familiar with these issues in her work on the school board, said that she would propose legislation titled, “Let’s get serious about mental health.” Her priorities were removing the stigma around mental health issues, funding telehealth programs and offering tutoring for students who are falling behind after the pandemic.

Barthelson concurred on the need for additional support outside of school for children, particularly those on Medicaid. She suggested bringing a mobile health crisis unit to Reston and relaxing rules for social workers to practice in Virginia.

“This is a service that is available to other parts of the county,” she said.

In contrast, Berry drew on his work with the Latino community while advising Northam’s office. He said the ratio of psychologists and counselors to students needs to be lowered and that schools need to be built with a community environment in mind.

“No one single solution out of Richmond is going to solve everything,” Berry said.

Hauth hopes to reintroduce legislation that educates children on mental health issues — a proposal that failed in the last session — so they have the vocabulary to explain and detect possible issues.

She said she didn’t have the tools to help identify her own son’s mental health issues in the past. She also called for more family counselors instead of focusing just on child psychologists.

Issues related to high eviction rates and rent increases now that federally-supported programs introduced during the pandemic are now ending also dominated the discussion.

Barthelson said there needs to be more funding for housing and workforce development programs, while Berry emphasized the need to invest in rental assistance, food security programs, community partnerships and a trust fund for affordable housing.

Hauth and Keys-Gamarra echoed those sentiments.

“The pandemic is not really over,” Hauth said. “There are still repercussions from this.”

Early voting in the District 7 race and other primaries is now underway, with the actual primary coming on June 20.

In the Nov. 7 elections, Fairfax County voters will determine new representatives for the Virginia House of Delegates, State Senate, commonwealth’s attorney, the Board of Supervisors, and school board.

Photo via Doug Kerr/Flickr