Occupation: Coordinator of Energy and Sustainability for Durham Public Schools
Phone Number: 919-695-3232
Email Address: email@example.com
Years Lived in Durham: 5+ years in Durham and 9+ years in the Triangle
1) Durham residents, from the new group Durham for All to the demonstrators who tore down the Confederate monument on Main Street, are calling for more power to be placed in the hands of the people. In what ways do you think Durham can improve public participation in local government? How would you make room for that in city government?
Current methods of participation can be improved by relaxing the restrictions on giving public comment at Council meetings, shifting work sessions to early evenings, engaging informally with the community through more Coffee with Council-style events and providing more translation services. Given the growing community concerns about the direction of development, this is an excellent time to seek public input and craft a new, community-driven Comprehensive Plan. Considering that process takes a significant amount of time, communities could first be consulted to draft small area plans to address specific and urgent redevelopment pressure or desires. Sharing information with and seeking consultation from the public are all meaningful points of participation, but real power is derived from having direct input on financial decisions. Participatory budgeting efforts in Durham have been some good but very small early steps in the direction of direct democracy. Under my plan to implement Tax Increment Financing, I propose appointing community members to a steering committee of a redevelopment authority that would give Durhamites, not developers, more input on how to spend millions of dollars of new capital that could fund projects like affordable housing land acquisitions and other public infrastructure.
2) Because of state law, municipalities have a number of restrictions placed on them by the legislature: they can’t, for instance, be a sanctuary city, impose a city-wide minimum wage, enforce inclusionary zoning, or remove Confederate monuments. Under what circumstances should elected officials push back against the legislature?
I will add “pass a non-discrimination ordinance” to that list. Each issue has its own complexities and legal openings (or closures), and thus I believe its own path forward. Generally we have to be cunning in our approach to the state. In Durham the squeaky wheel might get the grease, but in Raleigh where there are more adherents to authoritarianism, “the nail that sticks up gets the hammer” seems to be their adage of practice. Where a legal footing that offers both tangible and political gain is available, I think elected officials should take a direct stand against the legislature, but I do not support throwing rocks at every hornets’ nest, especially when workarounds are available. On inclusionary zoning and affordable housing, I think there are opportunities to outmaneuver the policies that protect and aid developers; specifically, my plan to utilize Tax Increment Financing can pay for today’s public needs while giving future development the tax bill. On minimum wage I support circumventing the state’s restrictions by focusing on an economic development plan that supports local entrepreneurship and small businesses, which are far more likely to engage in or agree to living wage commitments. I think the other three topics (sanctuary cities, hate-based monuments and HB2 compromises) all offer unique legal openings that yield opportunities for local elected officials to, with the careful and skilled brush of creative lawyers, stand against the legislature in ways that not only could build a stronger community here in Durham but could potentially enable other municipal actions statewide against oppressive politics from Raleigh.
3.) Given the inflamed racial tensions after the recent events in Charlottesville, what steps should Durham take to position itself as a guardian of social justice? How would you characterize city leaders’ relationship with Durham’s communities of color, and what should be done to improve that relationship going forward?
The people of Durham have been doing a rather effective job lately of inserting ourselves directly into the position of “guardians of social justice,” both on the end of aggressively removing symbols of white supremacy and actively defending the city against rumored assemblies of enemies of peace. At this point the best steps are to continue to protect free speech and free assembly of our community members (though oddly, the Durham County Sheriff seems to be asserting himself as the main threat to those freedoms at this point). But this post-Charlottesville “state of emergency” is not new for many of our residents, as most communities of color live under an ever-present and very real level of intimidation, harassment and danger. In some cases that distress is derived from our very own city and county operations through the threats made by overzealous policing, the intimidating usage of checkpoints in our communities, the risk of deportation through our Sheriff’s collaboration with ICE and their Secure Communities program, and the sometimes deadly conditions faced by incarceration in the Durham County Detention Center. When our own government structures themselves are perpetuating fear and compromising safety among our residents, this deeply strains the city’s relationship with our communities. We must acknowledge where any problems exist and find solutions to improve our service to the community. Our city spends 32% of its general fund budget on policing compared with only 21% by Raleigh and Chapel Hill and just 16% by Cary. Changing that statistic is one of the most tangible ways Council can act to improve the relationship between communities of color and our city services. We should be investing in the potential of our community, not in its punishment.
In the absence of any meaningful oversight of the Durham County Sheriff by the County Commission (who are authorized by N.C. GS 153A-104 to make the Sheriff report under oath on any matter to the Commission), I believe the city should intervene and put pressure on the Sheriff for his reckless actions against Durhamites that have taken the lives of those in the detention center, have intimidated Durham residents through an excessive use of checkpoints, and have threatened Durham families through his collaboration with ICE. Had any of these abuses of power impacted different racial segments of our city, I believe the outcry would have led to more potent reactions by our elected officials at both the county and city. The general level of silence and inaction on many of these topics among some of our elected officials further erodes trust within our community. We do not need any more aspirational resolutions about inclusiveness: we need elected officials who will stand up boldly for people and speak out against the abuses facing some of us, especially in these autocratic times.
4) Durham’s public housing stock is aging, and there is limited money to redevelop units. What are your ideas for keeping residents of public housing in quality, affordable homes?
I will say more about affordable housing in general in my answer to Question #8, but, specifically as it pertains to our aging public housing stock, the need to update many of our DHA-managed housing communities wildly outstrips the availability of funding. In this situation I support using Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) from HUD to convert a large block of our housing communities to Section 8 housing. Greenville, SC has recently embarked on large-scale RAD projects too. Normally, I do not support the privatization of public assets, but, given the extent of our need and the flexibility and benefits these changes can bring to residents, I do support that action in this case. Further, public-private partnerships have become the most successful method to deploy affordable housing, and contracts can assure that income-adjusted rental housing will remain permanently affordable. The RAD strategy has been expressed within the City of Durham Affordable Housing Goals document, and the city should assure that DHA has all the resources it needs to accomplish this goal.
5) While much of Durham has seen a renaissance during Mayor Bell’s tenure, the city’s poverty rate has also increased. What are your ideas for lowering Durham’s poverty rate, other than providing affordable housing? How can Durham’s renaissance be spread more equitably throughout the city?
Poverty is a complex issue that does not have a simple or quick fix, but I believe three topics should be our focus: child development, homeownership and economic development. Though there is little direct overlap with city operations, I believe education is the most important structure available to lower the poverty rate. The city can support improving educational opportunities by supporting programs that improve access to early childhood development (like pre-K) and increase admission rates to higher education. The city could also assist youth and families by encouraging mentorship programs and providing more summer employment opportunities for youth.
Homeownership is one of the most successful ways for families to build wealth, and Durham should expand its commitment to programs, like home trusts, that facilitate expanding homeownership rates among lower income residents. Home trusts and community land trusts have the benefit of providing permanently-affordable housing, building personal wealth and stabilizing neighborhoods. Under my Tax Increment Financing plan that can raise capital for other affordable housing projects, home trusts could then be the main recipients of our now two pennies for affordable housing.
Promoting economic development directly in economically distressed areas is also needed. I do not prescribe to the idea that subsidies to luxury high rises downtown do anything substantive to alleviating poverty. I would much rather steer incentives towards homegrown small business development than to out-of-town for-profit developers. I also would want the Office of Economic & Workforce Development to focus on local entrepreneurship and new business growth rather than trying to lure large corporations to the city via gaudy incentive packages. Local small businesses contribute more new jobs to our economy and are more likely to pay their workers a living wage than large corporations.
6) The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project has moved into the engineering phase, although the Trump administration seems reticent to fund it. What are your thoughts on light rail? If completed, do you believe the project will be worth the community’s investment? Why or why not?
Although I am still displeased with the details of the route our neighbors to the west chose to make of their end of the light rail line, I do fully support the project moving forward. We are in dire need of establishing a reliable transit corridor between our communities, lest we want 15/501 to balloon to a 12-lane superhighway. The investment has a large price tag, but I do believe our community stands to gain tremendous value from light rail. In addition to establishing a more sustainable transportation option, light rail allows downtown and other rail stops to absorb a significant amount of dense urban growth that otherwise would continue to contribute to more suburban sprawl, more traffic and higher taxes to provide services to an expanding and more costly municipal footprint. Light rail also offers improved access to job centers, which can be a valuable tool in alleviating poverty. As a transportation planner by education, I am eager at the prospect of representing Durham in light rail negotiations.
7) Given the current direction of Durham city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific changes you will advocate if elected?
As mentioned in Question #5 above, the poverty rate in Durham is increasing. I could end the discussion right there and answer, “No, things are not on the right course,” but even more data points exist. Out-of-town real estate developers are receiving millions of dollars in local tax dollar giveaways for building luxury condos and boutique hotels. Long-time residents across this city are being forced out of their neighborhoods due to increasing costs of living. Evictions are prevalent. Compared with our neighboring communities, we spend an exorbitant amount of city funds on policing. Even though the privileged in Durham are doing quite well and have more nightlife options available to them than ever before, I would not say that Durham is on the right course. It is time for change, it is time to invest in our communities, and it is time to spread opportunity to everyone in Durham. I will advocate for ending subsidies to for-profit developers, investing in economically distressed areas of town to encourage entrepreneurship and access to goods, services and jobs, bolstering programs aimed at childhood development and youth empowerment, and ultimately shifting funding away from policing (which is a punitive approach to social structure failures) and towards proactive and preventative community-based social investments. I will also advocate for stabilizing neighborhoods so that people are less likely to be driven from their long-time residences by an influx of money and more wealthy residents.
8) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.
The most pressing issue within the city is the need for more affordable housing. I have an “all-of-the-above” housing strategy to protect the availability of affordable housing in Durham. The centerpiece of the agenda is implementing a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district within downtown and nearby areas where light rail stops are planned. TIFs allow capital to be raised by borrowing against anticipated future tax revenue expansion. Rather than adding to the property tax rate (like Durham did this year) or passing a general obligation bond (like Chapel Hill did this year)—both of which increase the tax burden on all residents, especially lower income residents—a TIF district is responsible for paying off the new debt which means future development can be on the hook to pay for today’s affordable housing needs. I also don’t want to overlook existing housing stock: a strategic energy efficiency upgrade program can lower homeowners’ and renters’ utility bills and a revolving loan fund for landlords to upgrade their properties to meet Section 8 requirements can increase the stock of adequate and affordable housing.
The second pressing issue is ending the continued use of subsidies to support for-profit development. One City Center, the 27-story tall behemoth downtown received $3.97-million from the city and another $3.97-million from the county. For what specific purpose other than assure big profit? Some of the condos are selling for over $1-million each. The city has no business giving tax dollars away to private developers to build tall buildings downtown when we should be investing in East Durham, in alleviating poverty, in our children and our youth, and in small business development. By handing over incentives to developers, we are reversing the natural taxation order that should be in place: commercial development should be the foundation of our tax base. When new commercial development soaks up tax giveaways, it effectively raises taxes for the rest of us, which makes property tax even more regressive and burdensome on our residents.
The third pressing issue is law enforcement reform. As stated above dedicating 32% of our city budget to policing is much higher than our peer cities in our region—this needs to change. Further, there were 44 specific reforms that the Human Relations Commission and others presented to the City Manager three years ago. The Manager is still working on implemented those recommendations, though there were several key points, especially regarding the abuse of police searches, that have yet to be addressed. I will not back down to the police union in bringing a more sensible police budget to Durham, and I will press the City Manager to fulfill more recommended police reforms.
9) What in your public or professional career shows your ability to be an effective member of the city council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to deal with them?
I work for Durham Public Schools as the Coordinator of Energy and Sustainability where I manage the $8-million per year utility budget. That is money that we literally burn on an annual basis to meet our energy needs. The status quo considers those expenditures to be fixed costs and simply required to keep the institution functioning. My explicit duty is to question the status quo, identify strategic investments that can be made to improve the quality of our learning environment while lowering operating costs and then implement projects and programs by working with a diverse set of stakeholders. I want to bring that same critical thinking and investment-geared approach to the City Council so that our city can move beyond development subsidies and a weighty police budget.
Further, I am an engineer and transportation/land use planner by education. I would consider myself the pragmatist out of this year’s candidate field. From working nearly five years in the Manager’s Office at the Town of Chapel Hill, I now have over eight years of combined experience with local government in the Triangle. In that time I have learned the levers of bureaucracy and use them regularly in my work and public involvement with the School Board and County Commission. Coupled with my engineering mindset and a drive to achieve efficiency and justice, I simply have a knack to get things done, especially in the local government arena. I am specifically well-qualified to address development issues, growth impact/gentrification problems, transportation topics, energy matters, and sustainability subjects.
10) Please give an example of an action by the city council in the past year that went wrong or should have been handled differently. Also, what was the city’s biggest accomplishment during that period?
The residents of Southside should have received tax relief in the form of grants much sooner and without a tenuous 4-3 vote. After months of discussion and follow up, the mayor and his closest allies on the Council stiffened at the idea that those homeowners who experienced substantial tax increases due to what amounted to city-funded gentrification of their neighborhood should be considered for a grant rather than the mayor’s favored approach of loans that would have followed the property almost as a lien until the property is sold. The most shocking fact of this story was barely covered by local media: the Department of Community Development reported that “an annual estimated maximum amount needed to assist eligible homeowners in the Southside area would be $6,970.” Six thousand nine hundred seventy dollars to directly assist low-income homeowners who could no longer afford their property tax bill. Yes, there was a discussion that lingered for over eight months over less than $7,000 that was to be directly distributed to low-income homeowners. Would the mayor have allowed a discussion of a subsidy to an out-of-town developer to linger for so long? Typically those subsidies are in the realm of millions of dollars and often are pure grants. Though this measure did pass 4-3, it is disheartening to think that it took over eight months for our Council to act and even then, the vote was split so closely over such a small yet impactful decision. City Council should work for the people of Durham, not just those with large financial interests.
The city’s biggest accomplishment over the past year was seeing a new police chief take office and early in her service demonstrate in several ways that she has the capacity to be responsive to the community. One such instance came in March when the Durham community had a long overdue discussion about the intimidation experienced by our communities of color at local law enforcement checkpoints. Fears, especially in the immigrant community, were compounded by the new rhetoric emanating from DC. Our police chief heard these concerns and publicly announced at a CAN event attended by over 1300 community members that the Durham Police Department was going to “cease and desist” the use of checkpoints. This was a welcomed announcement, especially after the Sheriff’s Office did nothing to assuage the fears of the community earlier in that meeting.
11) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?
I identify politically as a practical progressive.
12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
I believe that our local government, like those at the state and national levels, has too often been a place where those with wealth and power go to manipulate the system to expand or at least protect their own wealth and power. We see that in our own community through the distribution of subsidies, the lack of urgency about working-class housing issues, and the disproportional expenditures on policing. Much like the higher levels of government, it is rare that people have the opportunity to select independent voices to represent the interests of regular people and the common good; instead political action committees (PACs), special interests and funding from wealthy donors tend to tilt the candidate pool and ultimately the course of decision-making. Durham politics certainly are not immune from the influence of PACs, special interests and money. This election cycle, there are many candidates running that are running independent campaigns because they care about our city. I am one of those candidates who bring an independent and unpurchased voice to the table. I don’t rely on or report to any PAC, and I am not responsible to any large donors or bodies of supporters. I am asking the people of Durham if they want me to represent and be responsive to them. I’ve listened and been plugged into the pulse of the community; now I have presented ideas to tackle the issues that our city faces. I will stand up to developers, the police union and any special interests that might stand in the way of what our vision is for achieving the common good. I believe deeply in democracy and in people’s ability to choose their representatives. I would be honored to represent our city on the Council and to do so with the utmost commitment to serve with efficiency, effectiveness and responsiveness.