The number of low-income residents in Montgomery County are rising and now they have a voice, a soft spoken and articulate voice. As a representative on the Montgomery County Community Action Board, Kevin Bryant will represent the Islamic Center of Maryland and low income residents of Gaithersburg.
Bryant has always believed in giving back to the community; that is why he teaches at the University of the District of Columbia, Community College where he is an Adjunct Professor of writing and public speaking. Bryant has also taught a course on Malcolm X at Howard University. His desire to help people started him in non-profit work including with Islamic Relief USA. At his current job, Bryant is a community planner for the United Planning Organization, a D.C. based federally funded community action agency, where he conducts research and provides analysis for their business decisions.
According to the Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice in Montgomery County, Maryland, half of all Montgomery County renters are spending more than they can afford for housing — a situation that leads to more overcrowding, evictions, and ultimately, homelessness.
Raised in a low-income community in Washington, D.C., he now lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland and is an active member of the Islamic Center of Maryland.
Montgomery County, Maryland is the region's second largest employment center. Housing costs in the area have risen at a faster rate than household incomes which has led to a housing crunch.
The county has long held a distinction for bridging the educational gap and racial divide by making low-income housing available in top school districts. But the current administration cannot rest on past laurels.
According to the Washington Post, the county’s affordable housing problem has been on the minds of county officials for years and is a priority for County Executive Isaiah Leggett (D).
In October 2012, Leggett started accepting applications to fill four vacancies on the County Community Action Board (CAB) for representatives of low-income residents from various geographic areas in the County.
The Community Action Board plays a vital role in meeting the task of assisting residents to attain self-sufficiency. The post is not just about low-income housing; it is about addressing poverty in the area.
Seeing this as a way to earn sadaqah (blessings), Kevin Bryant approached the Islamic Center of Maryland with his proposal of becoming their representative. Heartily accepted by the community, he submitted his application. It took almost a month to be reviewed by the County Council.
When he received the nomination from Leggett, to serve as a representative of low-income of residents of Gaithersburg and members of the Islamic Center of Maryland to the Community Action Board, Bryant accepted.
The County Executive and County Council designate staff as liaisons for boards including the CAB which governs the Community Action Agency. The agency creates and maintains programs, aims to reduce poverty in the County and to involve the low-income population in developing and carrying out anti-poverty programs in the County. "I represent the whole of the community in Gaithersburg, but I also have the opportunity to make the niche community of ICM aware of political situations that might directly affect them," says Bryant.
At the first CAB meeting he attended, Bryant met with Councilman Leventhal and learned of his passion for supporting low-income housing, and the challenges Leventhal faced with residents who are resistant to affordable housing initiatives in the county. Many times affluent neighbors do not want low-income housing in their neighborhoods. Residents fear that an influx of subsidized family housing units will decrease the property value of their homes and bring increased crime, noise, traffic into otherwise quiet neighborhoods.
A Muslim and father of five, Bryant believes that it is part of his faith to want for others that he wants for his own family. He says, “What I understand that we do at the CAB is to encourage under represented residents—who often tend to be low-income—to advocate for themselves according to their interests against well prepared and organized residents who are most often heard by decision makers in the county.”
He does not find himself at the crossroads representing both communities as there is a definite overlap. Bryant says that some may believe that there is a stereotype that Muslims are wealthy. "We have a very robust zakat (charity) program at ICM, and there are a number of congregants who are barely making ends meet," said Bryant.
In Montgomery County, 37% of homeowners pay greater than 30% of their income for housing and are considered housing burdened. CountyStat reports that housing production and preservation efforts peaked in 2010 at 2,783 units, and will trend downward for the foreseeable future given recent funding reductions.
"The Board advises the County Executive and the County Council on matters relating to the needs of poor and low-income individuals and families," said Mary Anderson, the Public Affairs Officer with the Department of Health and Human Services. "With the county's budget challenges these boards keep competing needs of their communities at the top of the agenda."
In the current economy the demand for affordable housing will continue to increase with growth in the number of retired seniors and in employees laid off or facing reduced hours. Adding to the need is the strong rental market and continuing rising rents.
This is a volunteer community service position, not a political position. "I tend to think of a political position as one where the elected is an official representative of an office on behalf of a constituency," says Bryant. It is an advisory group that can help influence policy by making recommendations. Anderson says each board has its own personality and the amount of work accomplished depends on the members. Some boards have influenced legislation at the state level. "The Commission on Aging helped draft legislation for the State General Assembly that eventually became law," said Anderson.
Raising awareness especially about filing taxes and qualifying for Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is part of Bryant’s position. This tax season, he will be spending several hours helping with free tax preparation for families whose income is below $51,000 and individuals earning under $35,000, as he is an IRS qualified volunteer tax preparer.
According to CAB in 2010, EITC lifted about 6.3 million people out of poverty, including about 3.3 million children. The Community Action Agency’s free Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) will be available until April 11, 2013 at various locations in Montgomery County in partnership with the CAB. Montgomery County residents can find more information on free tax preparation assistance on the county’s 311 number. In addition, The United Planning Organization will be offering free tax assistance until April 15 at the Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Center in Southeast Washington, DC where you will also find Bryant preparing taxes.
Bryant believes as a member of the board everyone is focused on the task of helping low-income residents; if they come to an impasse in the policy making process he will rely on his faith. "Like many people, religion is a deciding factor when we encounter moral dilemmas. When it comes to taking a stand on moral principles, I will continue to rely on Islam to inform my decisions. I guess you could say that I take the positions of many Republicans on conservative, or moral, issues although I am not a Republican," said Bryant. While he does not rule out running for political office in the future, he does not have any political aspirations at this point. "Allah is the best of planners," said Bryant.
Boards and commissions meet one or two evenings per month, have three year terms, and most are advisory in nature. Representatives are needed on many boards and we encourage other MoCo residents to visit http://www6.montgomerycountymd.gov/mcgtmpl.asp?url=/content/exec/boards/boards.asp for more information to get involved in the process.