Mary-Ann Baldwin

Interview with Mary-Ann Baldwin

In City Council by Jane Porter2 Comments

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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?

The answer to that is no, that’s not enough, and I like to say we can’t buy our way out of this crisis. And it is a looming crisis. I’ve come up with a ten point plan that addresses what I believe is needed. No. 1 is policy. We need policy changes, planning and leadership. The ten point plan really starts with leadership and education, telling people why this is important and what the consequences are if we don’t build more housing stock. I’m advocating for ADUs by right. I think people should have a choice in whether they want to age in place, have an aging parent come live with them or even house a boomerang kid who has a bunch of college debt and no place to stay. It just gives people choices and that’s one of many components. The second thing is missing middle housing. Right now in Raleigh, if you tear down a duplex you cannot rebuild it. You have to build one house. So you’re losing stock just based on the fact that you can’t replenish it with a duplex or triplex or townhouse or whatever. We really need to look at missing middle housing and how we can change our zoning to allow for more flexibility. I’m also an advocate for cottage courts and tiny homes. That was something I had been working on before I left the Council and the whole tiny home discussion went away after I left. Again, it is just different types of housing, different types of choices. Minimum lot sizes, there needs to be a reduction in that because that is one of the things encouraging McMansions. And I think we need to reduce the parking requirements because that adds to the cost of housing. Anything we can do to reduce the cost is important. On the inter-city visit, we learned Seattle was working with the county and the schools to look at identifying underutilized properties and then either releasing that to the private development community for affordable housing or doing housing themselves. That is something we should take a look at here. If the schools say they have some excess property on a school site, why couldn’t we build, say, a teachers village there. If the county or city has property that’s underutilized, could we build something like what the salvation army has on Capital Boulevard, a place to house women and children or veterans? Those are two huge needs. We just have to be creative and work together. Obviously, up-zoning for density, that’s where the planning comes in. We have to look at all our transit corridors and we have to stop treating developers like they’re the enemy and figure out how we can work in partnership and what kinds of incentives we could work with. For instance, land swaps—maybe a developer owns property here but they own property in another spot; could they build affordable housing in that other spot for rezoning? Could we look at gap funding, TIF financing, expedited approvals? We need to get together with the development community and pull together a panel and identify what’s possible. Then, we need to partner with a land trust, that is something we haven’t done and really need to do. Then, a well crafted bond. That means we need to engage the community, plan accordingly and poll to determine the dollar value. 

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?

There are a couple of things at play here. No. 1, we need to do a better job of communicating with all different groups within the city. We started what we called “community conversations” and we should have kept that going. We started it and people never felt heard so the communication piece is really important. Community policing is really important, so people get to know each other and it’s not just “Oh, there’s a bad guy, or there’s a cop;” it’s like, “Here’s people trying to work together to do good and then there are people who care about their community.” As far as a police oversight board is concerned, we need to do something. But I am not willing to go to the General Assembly and ask them for permission to set up a police oversight board with subpoena powers. That could backfire and you could end up with something you don’t want. I wold rather we figure out something that works for Raleigh and I believe we can do that through conversation, and being open to various ideas. Any time the General Assembly gets involved, you just don’t know what that could end up looking like. I’m not willing to take that chance. 

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?

That’s my neighborhood and I would look out at that every single day. People in the neighborhood are actually very supportive of this. We have been waiting for development in that part of downtown for a long time. It is totally underutilized, totally underdeveloped and totally under-resourced. This particular development sits on a Bus Rapid Transit transit line. It will be next to a cycle track which will connect to a greenway. The city has just invested $10 million in new intersections in that area to alleviate traffic so if we can’t build something there, I don’t know where we can build it in the city. I am totally in favor of that. Back to incentive piece, we need to get creative with incentives and it shouldn’t just be beating [developers] over the head and saying if you put affordable housing there, you can get this rezoning. We need to be more creative than that and work with developers in different ways. 

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

It can be kind of a chicken and the egg thing. Do we have the infrastructure, yes, I think we do but the way to get better infrastructure is to look at more mobility choices. If you have people biking to work, you need less parking and it alleviates traffic. If you have people taking a bus to work, a Bus Rapid Transit line, that is going to do the same thing. If you make streets more walkable, people can walk places; density allows that, it creates those walkable communities. I don’t think we have enough density and the core is where density belongs. There are also opportunities for density along different corridors, whether it’s Wilmington Street, South Saunders Street, Blount Street… places close to downtown offer a lot of opportunities. When I first ran for City Council 12 years ago, everybody was talking about sprawl, how it’s bad. Now, everybody is anti-density and you can’t have it both ways. It’s not anti-this or that, it is, “yeah, we have to have density, but in the right areas, and when we think about it, that is also how we’re going to reduce congestion and create better environmental conditions.” 

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?

CACs have value but I don’t think they should be the only form of citizen engagement. When you have eight people at a CAC meeting making a decision abut a zoning case, that’s not representative of the community. Young people will watch something on Facebool Live, they’ll watch digital streaming. If you have a young child at home, going to a 7 o’clock city meeting is not on your top list of activities but if you have an opportunity to engage from your living room, that is the missing piece, the technology. The city did an outstanding job of engagement on Dix Park and that should offer some type of blueprint. We had a citizen engagement task force that looked at options and came back with some great ideas but there was resistance on the part of CACs. The CACs need to be open to being more inclusive and including others in newer ways and that’s really important. Young people need to have their voices heard, renters need to have their voices heard, people of color need to have their voices heard. One of the gentlemen who is an expert in this field, who spoke to the Council about engagement, basically said the people who show up at meetings are 50 year old white homeowners. When I looked out in the audience, that’s who was sitting there. So he nailed that. We have to look for ways to be more inclusive and also to offer engagement in Spanish language. That is really important, to make sure others feel welcome as well. 

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

I don’t think they have a vision. The vision is “No, we want things to stay the way they are.” Raleigh is going to grow whether people like it or not. I don’t want us to end up like Seattle with two hour commutes and the average price of a home inching up to a million dollars. We can do better than that but we have to act with urgency. We have to have that vision. I talk about my vision for the City Council as being one of progress, innovation and compassion. Progress is advancing the things that are important: housing affordability, transportation, caring for our homeless. The innovation piece is embracing new ideas, new technology, proactively managing that and looking for new ideas within government to do things different ways. We shouldn’t be afraid of that, we should embrace it. Compassion is obvious, taking care of the people who need our help the most. That, to me, is one of the most important things we can do as a city. 

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?

We have one of the best staffs in the country. We have really smart people working for us. One of the major problems we have right now is that City Council has engaged in a war with staff. They are belittled, they are shamed, they are attacked. That is totally inappropriate behavior. I would challenge anybody to want to work under those circumstances. I know if I came to work every day and my boss publicly shamed me, I would be devastated. Those are the kind of conditions people are working under right now. The problem is the City Council is interfering in staff work. They are supposed to set policy and the vision, the staff is supposed to execute. It is really hard to execute a vision that doesn’t exist but it is also really hard to execute and do your job or feel empowered to do your job when you’re going to get cut down. That has to stop. There is a code of conduct and we need to look at that code of conduct and call out people or set up policies saying “no, this isn’t allowed” and just stop the bad behavior. I feel very strongly about that. 

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

This goes back to the whole idea of supporting innovative ideas and new ideas. First off, the rules are way too strict. When I chaired the Law and Public Safety Committee, we probably had close to 75 people who came to a number of meetings we held on the short-term rental issue. The majority were in favor. There may have been one or two people who had concerns. And then the hotel/motel industry had concerns. Their No. 1 concern was taxes. We worked with Airbnb and they immediately started taking out taxes to address that issue so that came off the table. The other concerns expressed, we dealt with in a very fair way. We said let’s form a registry, we’ll charge people to join the registry so we know who is a short-term rental, we know who is a long-term rental and we can deal with the problem appropriately. If you wanted to rent a full house, you had to get a special use permit, which meant your neighbors would have to be notified and you would have to follow certain criteria. The third thing we said was “Let’s initiate a three strikes and you’re out rule.” So, if a problem is reported at your short-term rental, you pay a fine. Second time, you pay a bigger fine. Third time, you’re not allowed to operate and if you do, you’re fined excessively. So that’s shutting down bad behavior. The current rules just shut down Airbnb. To say you can’t rent your house, or somebody coming here can’t rent a house, that’s just short-sighted. People come here for weddings, for the Bluegrass Fest, they come as families, for graduations. People need to feel that they’re welcomed in this city and that they can find a reasonably priced place to stay. Some people also come because they’re looking to move here. What does it say if they can’t try out a neighborhood? It doesn’t send the right message and it hurts tourism. As far as scooters are concerned, they are great. They increase accessibility throughout the city. The Council should have said “You cant drive a scooter on a sidewalk in the core of downtown; if you do, you’ll get fined” and they will enforce it. End of problem. 

Last Word

Housing affordability is the No. 1 challenge and we need to address that in sync with transportation and transit because all of it is intertwined. To be successful in growing the city, in the way we want to see it grow, those are the two main issues I will focus on. When I talk about transportation and mobility, I’m talking about choices. It’s more than just commuter rail, which is really important to help with the gridlock that now exists on I-40 ,but also creating more walkable communities, protected bike lanes. People would ride more bikes if they felt safer so it comes down to all of the choices.  

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