2019 Mayoral Candidates (From Left: Mary-Ann Baldwin, Zainab Baloch, Charles Francis and Caroline Sullivan)

The Race Is On

In Buzz, City Council, Feature Stories, July/August 2019, Top Readsby Jane Porter

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This story has been updated to include answers from mayoral candidates George Knott and Justin Sutton. Follow the links below for the full interviews with Knott and Sutton and check back for interviews with other mayoral candidates who file before the July 19 deadline.

Filing for Raleigh’s October 8 municipal elections opens this month and six candidates so far have filed to run for mayor. Former City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin, community organizer and state worker Zainab Baloch, attorney Charles Francis, former County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, musician George Knott and attorney Justin Sutton share their thoughts on affordable housing, police accountability, managing growth and the City Council’s long term vision.

Follow the links for the full interviews with Baldwin, Baloch, Francis, Sullivan, Sutton and Knott.

Affordable Housing

Baldwin: “We need policy changes, planning and leadership. We have to stop treating developers like the enemy and figure out incentives and how we can work in partnership with them.” 

We asked if candidates support the City Council’s proposal to put an affordable housing bond on the ballot next year. They do, but say more is needed. 

Supports ADUs (aka backyard cottages or granny flats), cottage courts and tiny homes; reducing minimum lot sizes and parking requirements, using publicly owned excess property for housing, building along transit corridors, partnering with developers for land swaps and eliminating single family zoning (city laws dictating building only homes designed for a single family).

Baloch: “We need to make sure we’re involving the most impacted people in the conversation first. We need to listen and figure out how to build more affordable housing, convert renters to owners, fix up housing we already have, let people who have been in their communities stay and embrace development that reinvests in the community.” 

Supports building along transit corridors, eliminating single family zoning. 

Francis: “We need to immediately set up a task force of developers interested in building affordable housing, bankers, bond attorneys, tax attorneys, activists, and come up with five to 10 things, right away, that will have immediate impact.”

Supports using bond money to subsidize developers to include affordable units, focusing on increasing homeownership, and programs where buyers who can afford to own, for instance, get assistance saving up for a down payment. Proposes expanding tax credits for developments that increase density in areas where forecasted—“but it needs to be density with diversity, not just for high-income people.” Proposes changing the city’s site plan review process for larger projects; instead of city staff reviewing site plans, reviews should go directly to the city’s Planning Commission and then to the City Council for public input.

Sullivan: “You’ve got traditional affordable housing, voucher programs, Section 8, city housing; supportive housing for individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorders; veteran housing; workforce housing; housing for young people just starting out; senior housing. Different groups of people need safe, affordable housing and you’ve got different funding and capital streams for them. We have to figure out how best to coordinate and deploy all of those strategies.”

Supports convening a stakeholder group to develop strategies to address affordable housing. Says partnering with private developers and nonprofits to build new stock, continuing programs to help keep people in their homes, mortgage assistance and assistance for first-time buyers will be key. 

Knott: Supports incentivizing/requiring developers to include affordable housing units in new projects. (Currently, state law prohibits municipalities from requiring developers to include affordable housing). Supports adding affordable housing downtown through zoning/permitting initiatives. 

“A bond is what you do when you have a onetime project that requires capital and the way our city is working and runs now, we absolutely need to do that. But a better answer would be, let’s not make affordable housing a bond issue. Let’s roll it into the budget and fund it every single budget year and we should have been doing that for the last 20 years.” 

Sutton: “With any proposed affordable housing development, we need to ensure access to public services, education, healthcare facilities, recreational resources, transportation, and job opportunities.”

Says a bond referendum on affordable housing is not a sustainable model for residents. Supports expanding existing housing programs, rental vouchers, subsidies, housing rehabilitation and Council allocating more funding to homebuyer assistance programs for first time low-income buyers.

Police Accountability

We asked if candidates support a police oversight board with investigative and subpoena powers (it would need authorization from state lawmakers).

Baldwin: “We need to do a better job of communicating with all different groups within the city. Community policing is really important so people can get to know each other and work together to do good.”

Does not support petitioning the General Assembly to set up a board with subpoena powers.

Baloch: “People want a police accountability board not because they want to micromanage the police; they don’t trust the government to do that job. Once you build that trust with all residents, there won’t be a need to fight for police accountability anymore. Unfortunately, that trust is not there for all residents and we’ve got to recognize that.”

Francis: Supports looking at paying officers more; expanding the number of officers on the police force to keep pace with growth; enacting an on-at-all-times body camera policy; expanding officer training in interactions with people with mental health issues. 

“If there is a citizen review task force, the people on it need to undergo extensive training. They need to understand daily realities for officers, that it’s rare for something to go sideways and for there to be an allegation of excessive force.”

Sullivan: “There needs to be increased engagement and people need to feel heard. We have to look at safety in a bigger way. What can law enforcement do to engage communities? Police need to establish relationships before there are crises. And we need to continue intervention training for officers. Only 386 officers out of 800 have been trained in crisis intervention.”

Knott: Supports a police oversight board with subpoena power as a “first step to give citizens more accountability and transparency.”

“You can have an entire police force of, it doesn’t matter if they’re white or black police officers, if they have done all the racial training in the world, it’s not a white-black thing. It’s a police-citizen thing. The police are in power, they hold it over the poor people. And the problem is, until we figure out how to get around that, no police accountability board will ever work.”

Sutton: Supports a community oversight board “to foster strategic and collaborative partnerships between RPD and key neighborhood stakeholders.”

“We need increased community engagement to ensure our safety needs are being met along with programs that focus on public safety education. I also believe there is a need for criminal justice reform through comprehensive officer training programs. However, we are currently hampered by budget cuts which may delay implementation along with a backlog of public safety equipment needs.”

A 40 Story Building on Peace Street

Developer John Kane wants to rezone an area of Peace Street to build a 40 story tower. We asked candidates if they would support the proposal as is or negotiate for affordable housing. 

Baldwin: “That’s my neighborhood and I would love to look out at that every day. [Neighbors] are supportive and have been waiting for development in this area of downtown for a long time. It is totally underutilized, underdeveloped and underresourced.”

Supports proposal because it is on a Bus Rapid Transit line and next to a cycle track; says city should be more creative with incentives rather than “beating developers over the head” with tradeoffs for affordable housing.

Baloch: “It’s pretty clear developers are interested in providing affordable housing and if they can still build dense buildings…what a great tradeoff.” 

Francis: “In general, downtown should have more density. You can’t expect the developer to pay the cost of affordable housing—there’s a difference between the rent generated by market housing and affordable housing. It’s a social problem, so society has to contribute to the cost of funding it. Developers are open to [including affordable housing], it’s just a question of how we pay for it.”

Sullivan: “Density where it makes sense is needed. That’s a very dense part of downtown already. It is zoned to be dense and the improvements on Peace Street and Capital Boulevard will help that. It is becoming what we want in a dense neighborhood, walkable, with grocery stores.”

Knott: Says the tower is a bad idea due to infrastructure constraints but acknowledges that more housing is needed. 

“There is a very real over-exertion of the infrastructure on the street all by itself. I’m not even talking about sewer or water. I believe we are in an enormous [real estate] bubble. And if it pops, it’s going to be really messy downtown. Like all these high-rises three quarters empty? Whoa, could you imagine.”

Sutton:Does not support proposal as is but would consider an “affordable housing cost share project” with willing developers and public input.

Density and Infrastructure 

We asked if Raleigh is dense enough and if it has the infrastructure to support more density.

Baldwin: “We do have the infrastructure but the way to get more is to look at mobility choices. If people bike, walk or take the bus to work, it alleviates traffic and you need less parking. We don’t have enough density and the core is where density belongs.”

Baloch: “There is no way to build out anymore, we need to build up. We do have the infrastructure to support density but we need more units and more transit options. There’s no way you can do that without density.”

Francis: “There should be greater density downtown, ideally like a wedding cake approach where the tallest buildings are on Fayetteville Street and step down to 20, 15 stories as you go onto the streets off of that. We don’t have the infrastructure to support density, so in building taller buildings, we’re going to have to improve infrastructure.”

Sullivan: “There is not enough stock in general and infrastructure is going to continue to be a challenge. But we are going to have more robust transit options, which will help as we grow.”

Knott: Does not think Raleigh has the infrastructure to support more density. 

“That’s my No. 1 biggest concern. We have an amazing infrastructure for a town that’s half our size.” 

Sutton: “There are limitations to growth. Increased density will only strain our infrastructure and city resources (i.e. public utilities, public safety response, roadways, etc.)…If anything, we will need to place greater emphasis on city infrastructure and asset management programs to streamline business and public safety operations in the most densely populated areas of the city.”

Council’s Vision for Growth

We asked if current City Council members put forth a strong long-term vision for growth.

Baldwin: “They don’t have a vision. The vision is ‘We want things to stay the way they are.’ Raleigh is going to grow whether people like it or not and I don’t want to end up like Seattle with two-hour commutes, where the average price of a home is inching up to a million dollars.”

Baloch: “We’re building a city for 2020, not for 2050. We need new leaders, new visions, new people who have not traditionally been in those spaces with new ideas to fix problems. Raleigh is the biggest tech hub after Silicon Valley. We’re in a prime place where, with more visionaries, we have the resources and people to make an impact.”

Francis: “People are frustrated when they look at the Council now because they see a lack of leadership and lack of a leader. That’s what’s needed, someone who can define what there is consensus about, be bold and do something conclusive to move us forward. Mayor Meeker was good at that when he was in office and that’s what we need again.”

Sullivan: “There’s room for improvement. There need to be more discussions about growth in general, where we’ll be in five, 10, 20 years, how we manage growth and how, in the process, everyone’s voice is heard. I fear if we don’t make decisions on where we want to be in the future, it will be difficult to handle the growth as it comes.”

Knott:“They’re putting forward the wrong vision for Raleigh’s growth. I’m a proponent of organic growth, I’m not a proponent of artificially driven growth. We pay millions of dollars for economic development and we give tax credits where companies don’t pay taxes for years at a time. The ramifications of that are absolutely killing our city.” 

Sutton:“Our needs are constantly changing…we will need to reassess the appropriateness of specific projects in order to allocate taxpayer dollars to the greatest areas of need… We need responsible and effective budgeting strategies to address the true long-term vision for Raleigh’s progressive growth.”

Management and Staffing

We asked if Raleigh’s city managers and staffers are doing a good job implementing the Council’s vision as stated and in running the city day to day.

Baldwin: “We have one of the best staffs in the country, really smart people working for us. A major problem is that the Council has engaged in a war with staff. Staffers are belittled, shamed and attacked. That is totally inappropriate behavior. The problem is the City Council is interfering in staff’s work. We need to look at our code of conduct and call people out or set up policies that say what isn’t allowed, to stop the bad behavior.”

Baloch: “From my sense of city events and interactions, we have an amazing staff. We’ve recruited people from all over the country and we have people onboard who have been in Raleigh forever, doing amazing programs. Leadership comes from the top. The people have the resources, the creativity, and they want to do more, but what holds them up is Council.”

Francis: “There have been instances where Council defers too much to the staff and cedes too much policy making authority. The job of the staff should be to execute and implement policy adopted by the Council, not make policy themselves. With the council-manager form of government we have and a part-time City Council, it can be easier to just go along with the staff recommendation. I intend to push back on that because there have been too many instances where staff has been allowed to make policy.”

Sullivan: “We have a strong city manager and the staff does a good job. It’s important for elected officials to be able to give staff a strong vision of where the city should be going, and guidance so they can execute what needs to be done every day. But there are a lot of talented people and they do a good job serving the community.”

Knott:“I have so much respect for the professionals, the staff and city manger, they’re professionals. And politicians are at best amateurs and at worst, politicians. I have the utmost respect for professionals, and that includes the staff of the city and the city planners.”

Sutton: “There must be a dynamic shift in how we do business in this city, how we govern as a collective body, and how we effectively manage city resources for long term sustainability and growth.”

Follow the links for the full interviews with Francis, Baloch, Sullivan, Knott, Sutton and Baldwin.

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