Interview with Charles Francis

In City Council by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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The City Council has proposed putting an affordable housing bond on the ballot next year. Do you support the bond and do you think that’s enough to address Raleigh’s affordable housing problem?

Affordable housing is one of the top issues in the city, if not the top issue. I stressed it in 2017 and I’m going to be talking about it a lot in this campaign and emphasizing it as Mayor. I do support an affordable housing bond. The exact amount of the bond, I’m not sure. The important thing is what we do with the money. It costs $140, $150, $160 thousand to build an apartment so it’s not practical for the city to use the money to build apartments. Usually, the way you’re using that money is as a subsidy for private development. For example, what you want is for the private sector to have affordable units like people have talked about in some of the market rate buildings downtown, so you’re layering in different subsidies. The effective way to use that city bond money is to subsidize the private market to include affordable units. Much more than a bond is going to be required. One of the things I proposed is that, immediately, we will set up a task force of developers interested in building affordable housing, bankers, bond attorneys, tax attorneys, activists on the issue and come up with five to 10 things we can do right away that will have an impact. That includes a housing bond, it includes expanding tax credits on development, includes increasing density in areas where we need to have more density like downtown, like the places where the boulevards meet 440, but it can’t just be density, it needs to be density with diversity and density with ethics so we find a way for different people to live in these dense areas. It shouldn’t just be only density for high income people, it needs to be density that also includes affordable housing. Another thing we need to do is to remove some of the unnecessary impediments in the development process that slow it down and make it more expensive unnecessarily. I will give one example: the site plan review process is too cumbersome. The city staff very often takes too long in giving endless rounds of comments back to people developing properties which adds time and expense to development which is passed along to renters or to buyers. So we need to increase the stock of accessible housing, I won’t say affordable housing, but accessible housing both to rent and to buy. One of the things highlighted by the [recent] New York Times article about gentrification is the main problem is with the lack of ownership. Because without ownership you don’t have control. So a lot of people who own properties in the areas that are being gentrified may feel there is some cultural displacement taking place. But as owners, they can generally make a decision whether or not they’re going to sell and leave. When people don’t own a property, they’re renters and the owners decide to sell, then they’re out. So we need to focus on how we can increase homeownership. My wife and I bought our first home right when we were getting married in 1991. There was an old NCNB (a predecessor to Bank of America) an old NCNB program where we only had to come up with a $3,000 down payment. We were both young attorneys and we didn’t have $3,000 for that. We had to save for several months, each of us putting in a few hundred dollars until we got it and were able to buy our first home. We need to have more programs like that, like the one in East College Park that make homeownership more accessible for people who can afford to have a home but just may not have the money for a down payment or need other assistance. There’s not going to be one strategy that’s going to solve the whole problem. There needs to be a number of strategies. Up under the affordable housing problem is really a stagnation in the growth of wages. If people make enough money then they are able to afford housing but at the same time we’re trying to create more access to housing, we’ve got try and create and attract more jobs that pay a higher wage. If we do that, then more people will be able to afford the market rate for housing. 

Raleigh’s Human Relations Commission recently recommended the city set up a police oversight board with investigative and subpoena powers. Raleigh’s Police Chief has stated she is not in favor of such a board. Does Raleigh need a board for police oversight?

The police have an incredibly difficult job. They are called in to some of the most violent, difficult, fraught, tense situations in human life and police need to be strongly supported by the city and its citizens. We need to pay officers well, perhaps more than what they are paid now. There is also an issue with force strength. A lot of people have told me as Raleigh has grown, the number of officers has not kept up with that and so they may be being spread too thin. So we need to look at whether we have enough officers for the job they’re being asked to do. But once we respect them as professionals and respect them in their compensation and the way we staff, then the citizens are entitled to a certain level of transparency back. We should have a body camera policy where those cameras are on all the time that they’re interacting with citizens. And some form of police oversight is necessary. I’m not sure about the exact form of it and whether it will go all the way to subpoena powers and things like that but something to increase transparency. We also should look at the training that officers are receiving to deal with people who have mental health issues, with LGBTQ people, and maybe what is needed is to have non-law enforcement people who are available to deal with some of these mental health situations so they can work to de-escalate a situation rather than have it escalating into violence. If there is a citizen review task force, I would require that the people who are on it undergo extensive training. If you’re a lawyer and you sign up to be an arbitrator, you have to take a 40 hour course, you have to really want to do it. There should be something like that for this, so that only people who are really serious about the problem will be a part of it and they’ll understand that most of the time, what the officers experience is mundane and it’s only the rare experience where you have something go sideways and there’s an allegation of excessive force. That’s not the norm and anyone who serves on this task force needs to understand something about what the daily realities of an officer are. And then they will be better able to assess that rare instance where something jumps off or goes sideways and there’s a claim of excessive force. 

John Kane has proposed building a 40 story tower in the Peace Street area downtown. If elected Mayor, would you support the rezoning for that proposal as is, or try to negotiate for inclusion of affordable hosing units?

I haven’t studied that particular proposal in detail and I wouldn’t take a position on a proposal like that. In general, the downtown area where that property is should have more density. I don’t know what the exact level of stories needs to be without studying it further but, like I said before, we don’t want just density downtown for density’s sake but we want to have density with diversity, density with ethics and inclusion. You can’t expect the developer to pay the cost of affordable housing. There is a difference between the rent that is generated by market housing and affordable housing. It’s a social problem, so society has to contribute to the cost of funding it. That’s the reason why I proposed that task force, to try to figure out ways that we can fund that. I have some ideas on that. Project based vouchers may be helpful, using the bond money we’re talking about from past or future bonds to offset the difference could be helpful. I’m sure there are other strategies that could be used that I haven’t thought about, that smart people could come up with, but it just takes leadership to coordinate people and focus on solving that. In general, when you have a large, dense building built like that, you ought to do everything you can to include some affordable housing in the project. Developers are open to that, it’s just a question of how we’re going to pay for it. 

Does Raleigh have enough density and do we currently have the infrastructure to support more?

There should be greater density in downtown. Ideally what you might have is sort of a wedding cake approach, where the tallest buildings are on Fayetteville Street and stepping down from 40 stories on Fayetteville Street to 20 to 15 as you go onto streets off of that. We should have more density downtown, but no, we don’t have the infrastructure to support it. So in building tall buildings and building greater density, we are going to have to improve the infrastructure. 

CACs (neighborhood meetings) have traditionally been ways for citizens to engage with decisions that will go before the City Council. Do you support CACs or do you think, with a lot of these conversations happening online these days, that CACs have outlasted their usefulness?

There is still a role for CACs. They have been effective and I support them. The CAC system has been in place for a long time and I don’t think it has deterred growth in Raleigh at all. We need to look at ways to improve and increase citizen engagement and not try to limit citizen engagement. One of the reasons people all over Raleigh are frustrated is because they don’t think their voices are respected and heard. The CACs are one vehicle for that. We should look at people being able to participate online or by conference call. That’s a way that a lot of people participate and do business now. I suppose that there could be a, just like some people listen to a streaming church service, instead of actually being in the sanctuary we probably should look at technology where people could participate, or at least listen to, the CAC meeting online as well as being there. They wouldn’t take the place of an in-person meeting. There have been efforts by some staff and the city to limit the CACs and I would strongly oppose that. I support the CAC process. 

Are the current members of the City Council putting forward a strong enough vision for Raleigh’s growth?

The current Council needs and requires and wants leadership. Why people are frustrated now, when they look at the Council, is they feel like there is a lack of leadership and lack of a leader. That’s what’s needed right now, leadership in the sense of someone who can get us to define what there is a consensus about. Not the lowest common denominator, but to set the consensus, being bold and something that’s conclusive that’s going to move us forward and then to bring a majority of the Council and a majority of the city together behind that vision to get it done. Mayor Meeker was very good at that when he was in office and that is what we need again, now. I have relationships with some of the members of Council now. The basis of any working relationship is personal relationships. I have good relationships with some of the members of the Council now and i am confident I can form good relationships with whoever is elected to the Council. There are a lot of talented people running, a lot of energy is behind those candidates and I look forward to working with whoever may be elected. 

Are the city managers and staff doing a good job implementing the Council’s vision as stated and running the day to day operations of the city?

On the first question I need to learn more about that but I will defer until I learn more and answer the second. There have been instances where the Council defers too much to the staff and the Council cedes too much policy making authority to the staff. The job of the staff should be to execute and implement the policy adopted by the council and to advise the City Council on alternative courses of action, not to make policy themselves. Part of it is this council-manager form of governor that we have and this part-time City Council, it’s just easier to go along with the staff recommendation. I intend to go against the grain on that or push back on that because there have been too many instances where the staff has been allowed to make policy. A couple examples:

The site plan review process for certain types of site plans, bigger site plans, used to go to the Planning Commission and then the City Council. Now, a lot of it is just administered by the staff. When that change was made, people thought it would be a more streamlining change but it has not been because it results in just these endless rounds of reviews and comments by staff and a feeling by the citizens that they’re not getting a chance to be heard in a public forum. The site plan review process, certain big site plans, ought to go back to the Planning Commission and then to the Council and not just be a staff function. 

A second example: there was recently a kerfuffle about Councilman Cox and his interceding on behalf of neighbors in Brentwood on a utility pipe going through their backyard. The essence of it was a utility pipe would be run, the city had chosen a course that was going to be vey disruptive to these Brentwood residents by going through their backyard, it was going to impact property values, affect their quality of life and that had been a staff decision. Councilman Cox spoke up against that decision and said “we should consider a parallel course that will have much less impact on these property owners.” Some people criticized him for doing that but  I think it was entirely right and proper that he did that because something like that really was a policy decision that should not have been delegated to staff without any oversight or question. There needs to be a clear delineation in the way that things are run between policy and implementation and that the policy should fall to the Council even if that requires a little bit more work on the Council’s part. 

Recently, the Council passed a suite of rules regulating Airbnb and electric scooters. Do you support the rules or feel they are too strict?

My position on scooters is that I am pro-scooter and pro micro-mobility. We ought to have a set of rules that makes it easier and not harder for young people and all people to be able to rent a scooter. On Airbnb, we need to revisit what we are doing with that. Airbnb and those types of home sharing arrangements are ways many people like to travel and ways people are able to achieve some additional income. So I think that needs to be revisited. Scooters need to be revisited too, in order to make sure we are not over-regulating the use of scooters and regulating them out of existence. The policy ought to lean toward making it easier instead of harder for people to rent scooters. Micro-mobility is good. 

Last Word

I am a pro-development candidate and I will be a pro-development mayor. But—this is the big but—the growth that we have in the city shouldn’t be just for buildings or for the city limits. The growth should be for the benefit of the people who live here. The frustration many people have in Raleigh is that the growth has been exclusive and not inclusive. It has excluded people from neighborhoods and they have been here for a long time. It’s excluded them from gleaming towers downtown. We need to figure out a way that the city policy can help more people to be included in the growth and in the good life in Raleigh. So, I am pro growth, but a form of growth that more people who are already here now can benefit from. That’s what I’m looking forward to working with the City Council, the staff, the citizens on, coming up with that type of a model for growth, that type of model that would be more sustainable. One that includes more people, one that is environmentally friendly, one that considers more transit options. That is the type of growth we will be able to continue for decades and that people would truly benefit from. 

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