Sheila A. Huggins | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week

Elections » Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County

Sheila A. Huggins

Durham City Council (Ward 3)


Shelia A. Huggins
Occupation: Attorney
Phone Number: 919-612-6315
Email Address:
Years Lived in Durham: 16

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?

I think that we need to focus on two things in order to improve public participation in local government and make room for public participation in city government.

First, we need a better understanding of why people are not participating. For instance, our City Council work sessions are held during traditional work hours so that City staff can attend and answer questions. However, this makes it hard for residents who are working to attend those work sessions. Although our residents live in Durham, many work in locations and environments that make it nearly impossible for them to attend. Some residents also don’t understand the process and how they can participate. Others feel the process is rigged against them and that their voice doesn’t really matter anyway. And when they are included, that participation occurs so late in the process that people don’t feel as if they really participated. For instance, although our Coffees with Council provide an opportunity for citizens to engage with City staff and ask questions of staff and Council members about the budget, the budget process has already been underway for several months. At that point, residents may feel like they are participating in a process where the deal has already been sealed.

Second, if we say that we will make public participation a priority in local government, then we have to commit to it. That commitment usually means time and resources, but government can’t do it all. Therefore, we need to focus on both internal and external resources. Internally, we may want to consider 1) adding call-in opportunities for our residents to participate and ask questions during work sessions, 2) providing additional staff and resources for our community engagement team that already works directly with residents and neighborhood groups, 3) optimizing the use of internet resources and our City Hall On-the-go van, 4) implementing citizen participatory budgeting (community budgeting) into our budget process, and 5) conducting our Coffees on a more frequent basis, such as quarterly or semi-annually. Externally, we need to continue to work directly with community and neighborhood organizations to provide more information about how residents can participate in the local government process, including our PACs. Most importantly, though, we need to hear the reasons why our residents aren’t participating and work to directly address those issues.

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?

Our elected officials in Durham have a strong history of opposing actions that do not support the values of our community. For instance, they passed resolutions against HB2 and the travel ban and resolutions in support of non-tenure track faculty at Duke and Medicaid expansion, resolutions that I wholeheartedly support. Our City Council members also encouraged local businesses and organizations to do the same.

I believe that we must continue to speak in opposition to legislation that does not support our values and that we must encourage our local businesses and organizations to not only do the same but to also pressure legislators to vote against this type of legislation. Our City Attorney’s Office has often provided guidance on the legal implications of the actions that our City Council takes as a result of pushing back. I support continuing to push back in every manner that we can, with guidance from our City Attorney’s office on what the possible consequences are.

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?

Durham’s leaders can help Durham continue to position itself as a guardian of social justice by 1) continuing to push back against legislation that does not support our values and that curtails or eliminates the rights of our City’s residents; 2) remaining active and engaged throughout the community by attending and participating in social justice events like vigils, forums, and community meetings; 3) making certain that our City’s policies and procedures protect all of the City’s residents against discrimination, inequitable treatment, and harassment, 4) incorporating race equity and implicit bias reduction strategies and training into the City’s decision-making processes in a comprehensive manner, 5) funding programs that support people of color and the non-profits in our community that are run by people of color, 6) reversing the trend of disinvestment by local government that has occurred in our communities of color by engaging in active progressive investment that is led by the people of color in those communities, and 7) creating and fostering an employment environment where City employees feel liberated and safe to discuss social justice issues that impact how City functions are carried out.

City leaders’ relationships with Durham’s communities of color vary in a number of ways. Leaders participate and have memberships in organizations that work on issues that are important to our communities of color, attend events that are sponsored by our communities of color, and have different skills that impact how they work with our communities of color, such as the languages that they speak. But there is always room for improvement. I believe that the most important thing that leaders can do is to build deeper relationships with persons of color, i.e. take the time to learn more about cultural and racial differences. Leaders must invite persons of color into their lives at the personal level. They have to go beyond just working with persons of color in the community or at the neighborhood level. They actually have to commit to fostering real relationships.

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?

The Durham Habitat for Humanity housing repair program, the City of Durham’s minor repair program, and other similar programs have limited funds for assisting homeowners with repairs. The programs frequently have waitlists that result in continuing damage to the property as the property owners wait for assistance, if the property owners are able to qualify for these programs at all. Furthermore, these programs are not sufficient to make the impact that we need to make. We need to focus on tackling this issue on a number of fronts, being also mindful of the potential for gentrification. We can do this by 1) actively addressing the gaps in the housing code that allow problem landlords to continue to let properties deteriorate, 2) pressuring our local lenders to consider alternative financing options when appropriate, 3) setting aside more city funds for housing renovation and reinvestment in communities of color, because most of the deteriorating housing is located is communities of color and communities where there has been government disinvestment, and 4) working with our community partners to encourage them to increase property ownership workshops so that members of our community can learn ways that they might be able to help maintain the homes that they live in.

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?

The economy of any city is dictated to a large extent by its labor force, and the ability to obtain a job and to gain career stability is vital to reducing the City’s poverty rate. This means that we have to actively 1) support our community partners who provide mental and social health programs so that people are ready for job training programs, 2) support job training programs that are based on job market needs for the future, that provide more than a livable wage, and that provide an opportunity for our residents to develop a true career path, and 3) develop a cross-departmental entrepreneurship team housed in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development that works directly with local businesses and community organizations to increase the number of new businesses that are owned by people of color.

We also need to focus on making sure that our current residents are working in places that are paying a livable wage and that provide them with an opportunity to be represented by the union of their choice. Workers should be able to come together in order to secure better rights and job conditions in their employment setting.

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?

I support Durham’s plans for rail-based transit, and I believe that it will be worth the community’s investment in the long-term.

In terms of growth, Durham is at a crossroads. If federal funding for the project is denied, then Durham will need to revisit and update its comprehensive transportation plan, taking into account the public bus transportation system, commuter programs, telecommuting programs, expanded bicycle lanes, car sharing programs, and street design in order to adequately plan for future growth. Additionally, we will need to incorporate urban planning techniques that will help manage growth at the neighborhood scale and also from the larger City-wide perspective. This will include reviewing and updating our Unified Development Ordinance to account for increased growth in a no-rail environment.

North Carolina is the tenth largest state in the country, and new residents call Durham their home every day. We will need to work closely with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to plan for and address the increased traffic that will result, and when available, we will need to secure federal transportation grants that may support smaller transportation and infrastructure projects that can alleviate some of the traffic pains that will result from increased growth.

With a lack of funding for rail at the federal level, the City may find increased pressure on the public transportation system. Thus, it will be vital to the health of the City to support housing and creative housing initiatives around key public transportation hubs, such as housing coops, higher density developments, and transit-oriented developments that integrate and maximize amenities, compactness, and pedestrian-oriented lifestyles.

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?

I believe that Durham is at a crossroads and that the decisions we make in this election will determine whether Durham is truly a city that welcomes and supports all. We talk about inclusion and diversity, but we are still separated by class, color, and race in a lot of ways. I believe that there has not been a real commitment to our communities of color and that in fact, there has been significant disinvestment. I’ve watched certain neighborhoods receive attention and then after a few years, I watched the commitment to those same neighborhoods falter. Neighborhoods are given support for a couple of major development projects as if those projects will somehow make up for the racial inequity that exists as a result of decisions made in the past and that continue to be made. The commitment needs to be real, and the commitment needs to be long-term.

I will be advocating for significant investment in our communities of color regarding development, affordable housing, and jobs programs, and I will be pushing for residents to have the opportunity to identify challenges in their neighborhoods and actively work on addressing those challenges through a citizen participatory budgeting process.

8) Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.

I believe the most important issue facing the City of Durham is equitable development. Included as sub-categories under this issue are the following:
• comprehensive affordable housing policies and practices for renters and homeowners;
• economic development strategies that consider and address the historic underutilization, underdevelopment, and marginalization of our communities of color and low income and low wealth neighborhoods; and
• community input processes that do not adequately result in representative participation in the development process from low income and low wealth residents and also persons of color.

If I am elected, I will not only vote for projects that support equitable development, I will also do the following:
• work to find creative ways to collaborate with developers to increase the affordable housing stock;
• partner with our non-profit community organizations to increase the affordable housing stock;
• seek input from residents on how to engage them more in the development process; and
• advocate for the creation of a plan that addresses the economic development of underutilized, underdeveloped, and marginalized properties in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods in Durham.

I also believe that our City needs to focus on job creation, job training, and job stability, because our economy and labor force is also an important issue facing the City. I would address these issues by 1) supporting our community partners who provide mental and social health programs so that people are ready for job training programs, 2) supporting job training programs that are based on job market needs for the future, that provide more than a livable wage, and that provide an opportunity for our residents to develop a true career path, 3) supporting programs that increase the ability of our residents to start the businesses they want to start, and 4) pushing for our local employers to provide livable wages and opportunities for employees to unionize.

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?

City of Durham Experience

Among the Ward 3 candidates, I am the only candidate who has worked as a City of Durham employee. My nine-year tenure includes experience working in three departments and working with numerous other departments. I’ve also written agenda items and presented those items at City Council work sessions, and my wide range of experience includes budgeting, development, operational management, personnel management, environmental issues, neighborhood projects, and strategic planning.

As real estate manager for the City of Durham, I managed a $1.2 million operating, personnel, and grant budget in the General Services Department. I coordinated and established priorities with various City departments for the acquisition, disposition, leasing, and management of real property. Because of my extensive background and education in environmental law and policy, I also oversaw environmental activities, including well placement, testing, and remediation, at several City-owned sites, working closely with the City Attorney's Office on matters involving environmental liability. I also worked directly with the City's Office of Economic and Workforce Development on several downtown development projects.

As the assistant director of community engagement for the City of Durham Neighborhood Improvement Services Department, I managed two divisions, Community Engagement and Human Relations, and oversaw the development and programming of numerous citywide events and projects that supported neighborhood revitalization efforts. I administered the planning and analysis of monthly performance measures for community projects and developed departmental policies and procedures.

As Senior Administration Manager for the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, I provided leadership and operational management to support workforce and economic development portfolio projects. I also led the planning process for the department's $3 million-plus budget, managed the departmental strategic planning process, analyzed the department’s performance measures, and functioned as the go-to person for the department's day-to-day operations.

My understanding of city processes provides me with a different perspective from which to analyze the challenges our city is facing and to determine how we can best address those challenges.

Legal Experience

I have a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and practice law in Durham where I focus on business, contracts, arts, and entertainment. I work daily with business owners who are facing the challenges of getting a new business off the ground or expanding a business they’ve had for many years. I’ve worked with restaurant owners, filmmakers, trucking companies, and more. I’ve spoken on business topics in Greensboro, Raleigh, Burlington, and Durham, and I continue to work with the pro bono legal clinic at the Alamance County Small Business Center. I also serve on the NCCU School of Business Board of Visitors.

My legal experience however is not limited to business law, I’ve handled environmental law, professional licensing issues, real estate law, bankruptcy matters, and other legal issues during my legal career. I also worked as an intern at Land Loss Prevention Project, handling discrimination appeals while I was a law student. This varied legal experience will be an asset to my work as a City Council member.

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?

I believe that the City’s biggest accomplishment was in authorizing the award of the $4,162,000 development grant to Development Ventures Incorporated to reacquire the Fayette Place site. The elimination of admission fees for drop-in programs and swimming for our youth and teens is deserving of an honorable mention.

Unfortunately, I believe that the City still engages in disinvestment in our communities of color and fails to adequately communicate changes to residents. For example, the placement of parking meters near the Senior Life Center. Most of our mature adults are on fixed incomes and attend programming at the center. Their discretionary income is directly impacted by the installation of parking meters that no longer allow them to attend the center without having to pay a parking fee. My concern is that there may have been a lack of communication with the people who actually use the center. In another example…the relocation of the City’s Impact Team from Driver Street to Fay Street seemed to also be missing direct communication from the City to residents. It is also evidence of the disinvestment by the City that continues to take place at the neighborhood level. For some reason, I thought that neighborhood improvement meant that you actually had teams out in the neighborhoods.

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 grew up in a household that has been committed to working at the local level for decades. My father served several terms on the Greenville City Council, and my mother is currently serving her second appointed term to the Pitt County Board of Commissioners. In May 1977, the News and Observer ran an article titled “Declining Neighborhood Fights for Survival with Group Action.” My father, along with others, was pictured in the article that mentioned how he “plays a major role in keeping Higgs neighborhood issues before city officials” in Greenville. Our neighborhood was “70% rental property” and had “one of the highest crime rates in town.”

The Democratic Party is not a perfect party, and there is no such thing as a perfect candidate. But my political philosophy has centered primarily around identifying and supporting those candidates who are most aligned with the values I believe in, and those persons have usually identified as Democrats or progressives.

I identify as a Democrat. I serve as one of five elected North Carolina representatives on the Democratic National Committee.

12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

Durham has the potential to be a great city, the kind of city where it doesn’t matter who you are, who you know, what you do, or where you came from. We just have to commit to making that happen, and that takes communication.

Let’s have open and honest conversations about the type of city we want. I want a great city that we can continue to be proud of, and I know that our residents what that too.

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