Interview with Zainab Baloch

Zainab Baloch
Zainab Baloch

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?

I do support the bond proposal, it;s a solution to a problem that we are years and decades behind on so we need to take action now. But having bonds every single time we need money for affordable housing is not the answer. By keeping bonds just focused on affordable housing, we take away the aspect of looking at it holistically. Like how are we doing affordable housing with transit, how we are making it sustainable, how are we making the quality of life better for our residents? The bonds make us evaluate our success based off how many houses are built versus how many homes are created, how many people we’ve made better quality of life for. So there are other ways the Council can be looking at addressing housing. We’ve seen things like getting rid of single-family zoning work around different places in the country. We know that comes from the Jim Crowe era and causes inequities that we, as a city, know we can do better on. I got my Masters in Public Administration and I learned about zoning, specifically around [eliminating] single family zoning; that has shown the biggest impact you can have and a very small risk pool. We also need to make sure we are involving the most impacted people in the conversation first, that we are going out and listening to the community and figuring out what can we do to not only build affordable housing but to convert renters to owners, how to go into the community and fix up the houses already there, how do we let people who have been part of these communities forever stay in there and embrace development that reinvests in their own community? i don’t think development and growth is wrong but it is wrong when you’re only developing in areas now because that land is valuable, land that was never valuable before, but now is and you’re pushing people out from there. 

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?

Raleigh needs accountability. Because this is portrayed so highly in national media, we stay away from it here, but us wanting feedback or to improve our police force does not mean we’re against the police force. Everyone respects and honors what our officers do every single day but we also recognize there is no way to do our job better unless we get better. There is no other job in the country that you’re going to be able to move to the next level, you’re going to be able to improve in your career, unless you go through more training, unless you get more resources to help you get to that level. The fact that people want that and want it because we also know it will impact the residents that our officers are serving, is the basic right of a community. The reason people want a police accountability board is not because everyone wants to oversee and micro-manage the police. They don’t trust in the government right now to do that job. So once you build that trust with the residents and you get residents to trust the government, there won’t be a need to push and fight for police accountability anymore because our leaders will be holding people accountable. So people don’t have to be there pushing for that. Unfortunately, trust is not there for all residents and we’ve got to recognize that. It might be there for some residents but at the end of the day, statistics show that these issues exist, especially in low-income and black and brown communities. 

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?

If you’re going to build a 40 story tower, there better be some affordable housing in there. It just seems simple. It’s pretty clear that developers are also interested in the idea and in providing affordable housing, but would still be allowed to build more dense buildings. What a great tradeoff. Why are we not thinking about that when we are letting developers propose these buildings? We should actively be thinking about that. It takes a leader and a vision and wanting to work in partnerships and some creativity, understanding that the public and private worlds can work together, provide social good and do it with more urgency because we can build a lot more housing than we are building now. What we do now is we go and look at a city—say Seattle—and we continue to look at that city. What we need to do is to look at a lot of cities and, second, recognize whatever model we use here in Raleigh is not going to look like what every other city looks like. We need to create a model that is specific to the city, the needs, the history of the city. I don’t have a silver bullet of what’s going to work whats not and I don’t think any city in the world has figured it out. But what’s cool about it is we have the timing and the people and the resources that can study everybody and figure out a very comprehensive solution that specifically fits the community we have right now. 

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

I don’t think we are dense enough. There is not a way for us to build out anymore, we need to build up. We do have the infrastructure to support it but at end of the day, it’s about the fact that we need more units, we need more places for people to live and no way you can do that without density, no way you’re going to do that without getting rid of single-family zoning. And we cant be for affordable housing and make the city more transit oriented without increasing density. It is just not possible, it is not possible for any city we’ve seen anywhere in the country. So we’ve really got to embrace that and understand that that doesn’t mean we’re going to start building 40 story complexes in the middle of a neighborhood in Brier Creek. That’s not what that means. It means we can build some taller buildings in downtown and also build a few stories in other places so it doesn’t all just look the same. That also means hey, you may get a grocery store walking distance to where you live now, maybe then you’ll get a transit line on there because there are mixed use areas and businesses. So it opens people up to opportunities.

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 space for them. How we get citizen engagement and how citizens are engaged in the city does need to be re-looked at. If CACs provide an avenue for people, specifically people who have always been involved in politics, maybe from a different generation than I am, that is completely fine. You keep what you know and you make it better. But there definitely need to be more ways for people to get involved than just attending a meeting at 7 p.m. or trying to go to Council at 1 p.m. while everyone is working. I don’t know if this is the most efficient way to engage citizens but I do know people hold true to the CACs and it is part of a rich history of how work has gotten done in the city. If people are engaged that way, it is one tool we have. It is not our all-go-to tool for citizen engagement. We should have multiple tools in our toolbox making sure we’re getting citizens engaged because you have to engage people in various ways because not everyone is able to engage in the same way to go to those meetings. 

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

Right now, we are building a city for 2020, not 2050. We have a lot of varying issues under our belt the current City Council has tried to solve, tried different methods, tried to put effort into fixing, but at the end of the day, these are problems every city across the country is facing, if not the world. That means you need new leaders, new visions, new people in there that have not traditionally been in those spaces because you need new ideas to fix these problems. So Council needs leadership and vision, specifically vision in a city that’s the second biggest tech hub after Silicon Valley. We are in a prime place to where if we got more visionaries into office, we’d have all the resources and the people to make such an impact in a very fast-paced way that most cities won’t have the opportunity to. 

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?

I can’t completely speak to that, you really have to be working in City Council to know. But honestly, from what I have sensed from events and when I have interacted with staff, we have amazing staff. We have recruited people from all around the country, we have people onboard who have been in Raleigh forever, making amazing programs. I really do think leadership comes from the top. The people are amazing, they have the resources, they have the creativity, they want to do more. The thing that holds them up is Council 

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

The Airbnb rule goes into effect in 2020 so I’m hoping when I’m elected, we can switch that real fast. I don’t agree wth either of them. There are ways to build partnerships with people, work with them and compromise. For us, it is just “no, there is no other answer.” There’s no trying to figure out “Alright, there are a good amount of people valuing, making income off of  Airbnb, or off charging the Bird scooters.” That conversation has been completely left out, the fact that this is a second paycheck for people, especially for the Bird scooters. People—kids and teens—were making a living off of it and it was a good idea in a place that doesn’t have high chance of upward mobility. On top of that, you make things more expensive. When people visit from out of town, our hotels are very expensive and limited. Airbnb was an option for people to stay in at an affordable price. It was a place for families to stay in and not be forced to get three hotel rooms because they have a big family. When we did Airbnb, we based it off Asheville. We are different from Asheville, we’re not a tourist attraction. We are a place people come for work, to visit, to just enjoy and they should be able to enjoy it in a neighborhood, to really see the history of Raleigh. Where better to do that than in an Airbnb? With the scooters, what’s interesting is now Council has a contract and they’re going to have it with a new scooter company. The difference with that company is you can’t make income off of it. So the company would have to charge the scooters. Basically what they did was got rid of the Bird scooters and then said “We will bring this other company back but you can’t make any money off of it.” Now who is really getting harmed in that picture? Who are we benefitting and who are we harming? We also failed to talk about the environment in this conversation, the fact we are a car city—every day we add 63 people to Wake County, so that means we add just as many cars. Bird scooters take away that carbon. We didn’t think about, not only does it access mobility but we’re in a time where climate change is a very pressing need and Raleigh needs to be thinking about that in every single decision we make. 

Last Word

In my 28 years in Raleigh, I have met a lot of talented, good people and I really think that the people here in Raleigh are ready to lead Raleigh into the future. But they need people in office who are equitable, they need to be equitably represented, need people who have a vision in mind and are truly part of the community and know Raleigh and can really speak out for others. My platform is focused on mobility, security and happiness and the idea that everyone in the city should have economic opportunities to thrive and do better, to have security and feel safe in their neighborhoods and to feel protected by protectors, to not feel like police might be working with ICE. And then happiness. A lot of countries will gage their communities’ happiness. I read an article recently that stated that America is increasing in happiness inequality. The idea is to have basic shelter, to be able to trust your energy providers, to know the water you’re drinking is clean, to know your government has your well-being at heart and will remove barriers that keep you from pursuing a higher quality of life. 

Jane Porter

Jane is the editor of Raleigh Magazine. Questions, comments, criticisms/complaints? Email her at jane@raleighmag.com
Jane Porter

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Jane is the editor of Raleigh Magazine. Questions, comments, criticisms/complaints? Email her at jane@raleighmag.com