Steve Schewel | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week

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Steve Schewel

Durham - Mayor and City Council


Name as it appears on the ballot: Steve Schewel

Full legal name, if different: Stephen Matthew Schewel

Date of birth: March 11, 1951

Home address: 2101 W. Club Blvd., Durham, N.C. 27705

Campaign Web site: To come

Occupation & employer: President, Independent Weekly


Describe your past leadership roles, both in career and community. How will these experiences help you serve on Council? Please be specific about how these roles correspond to a city council member's responsibilities.

Member and Vice-Chair, Durham Public Schools Board of Education: I served on the school board for four years with many of the same responsibilities I will have if elected to the city council. That is, we oversaw a $350 million budget, set policy for a school system of over 4,000 employees and 30,000 students, and had the responsibility of hiring and evaluating the key manager, the superintendent, to run the system and do it well. These roles correspond closely with the work of the city council. In addition, I chaired the school board's administrative services committee which was responsible for budget oversight, a key responsibility of the city council.

President, Independent Weekly: With a handful of others, I founded the Independent Weekly in 1983 and have been the president of the company ever since. I am the majority owner of the company and the chair of the board of directors as well. In this role, I have run a small company with about 30 full-time employees for the past 28 years. I have built budgets, met a payroll even in the most difficult times, dealt with cumbersome government regulations, and worked hard to satisfy our many advertisers and readers. I believe this will give me a valuable business person's perspective to bring to the council.

Youth soccer coach, 18 years: I have coached at the YMCA, the Strikers Club, Brogden Middle School and most recently Riverside High School. Through coaching, I have come to know the needs of Durham's children and how the city council might help address them.

Community Boards: By volunteering on many community boards, I have gained valuable insight into workings of our community. These boards include the Durham Tech Community Foundation (past chair), Crayons2Calculators (the free warehouse for Durham school teachers which I founded), Urban Ministries, the Durham Arts Council, the Durham Education Network and others.

How do you define yourself politically? How have you demonstrated this political philosophy in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I would describe myself as a progressive with business experience and a style that helps people find common solutions to the challenges that face them. For my campaign platform, see below.

List the three most important issues facing Durham, in order of priority. If elected, how will you address these issues? Please be specific.

The three most important issues facing Durham are (1) fighting poverty and joblessness; (2) defending our small-city quality of life, our neighborhoods and our environment; and (3) fighting crime. Here is how I will address these issues:

Durham is growing rapidly along with our region, and our response to this growth will determine our future. We have two critical challenges before us.

First, we need to grow in such a way that we enhance rather than diminish our wonderful small-city quality of life. More people moving in means more pressure on our land, air, water and roadways. We need to preserve open space and parkland, protect the livability of our neighborhoods, prevent the deterioration of our air and water quality, keep pace with our infrastructure needs and avoid the miseries of traffic congestion.

Second, we need to grow in such a way that everyone has the opportunity to share in the benefits of growth. The harsh underside to Durham's recent prosperity is that thousands of people in our city are poor, jobless, and living in substandard houses in neighborhoods where drugs and crime are constant threats. We need to make sure that every neighborhood is a safe neighborhood, that we are supporting low-income housing initiatives and enforcing the housing code, that we are providing excellent recreational and after-school activities for inner-city children, and that we are creating a system of mobility that makes employment around our region accessible to all our citizens. In short, we need to use police, planning, recreation, housing, job placement and training, transportation and inspections resources to lift up the neglected parts of our community.

City government has a limited but crucial role to play in facing both of these challenges. Here is what I will fight for:

Strong zoning regulations to protect neighborhoods, open space, air and water

A mobility strategy thinking ahead to the next 50 years of growth. This includes a comprehensive mass transit network with buses and, in the near future, light rail in cooperation with neighboring counties.

A robust strategy to expand affordable housing stock in central city neighborhoods including (1) active code enforcement, (2) wise use of federal, state and local housing dollars, and (3) partnership with Durham Housing Authority and non-profit housing providers (see details below).

Expansion of our system of trails, greenways and bike lanes. The American Tobacco Trail is a Durham treasure. Let's do more.

Additional parks and ball fields in the city core as well as the suburbs, and improved quality of city recreation and after-school programs for our children

A refusal to accept that any neighborhood in Durham is a "dangerous neighborhood." Every neighborhood has to be safe. We need cooperative efforts by the police and local drug treatment and mental health agencies to get people the help they need and to prevent crime. Community policing is critical to involving neighborhoods in their own safety.

Attention to the needs of our Hispanic citizens who now make up 15 percent of our local population and 20 percent of our schoolchildren. With a spirit of cooperation, we can all prosper together.

"Catch-up" infrastructure maintenance for parks and city buildings followed by an annual maintenance schedule based on our current plan for streets

Transparency and efficiency in the expenditure of all bond proceeds and tax dollars. Our citizens need to have complete faith in the management capabilities and integrity of our city officials.

Further details on some of these points follow below.

Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

Although the N.C. General Assembly has weakened the ability of localities to make laws controlling the sale and use of handguns, I am interested in pursuing ways in which Durham can limit handgun use and thus cut down on gun violence.

In recent years, the Council has targeted community development improvements to certain areas, i.e. Northeast Central Durham and Rolling Hills/Southside. Name a specific area of the city that hasn't yet been targeted with services, but needs attention. What are the needs there, and how would you address them if elected?

I would take mild issue with the premise of this question. Most of the high-poverty neighborhoods in our city are receiving some sort of ameliorative attention by city government, and I think it is in those areas that we need to be continuing to concentrate our efforts, including SW Central Durham, Walltown, Southside and Northeast Central Durham.

Although circumstances differ, the needs in all of these areas are essentially the same: jobs, safe and drug-free streets, decent housing, good schools, recreational activities and facilities for kids, a clean environment and plenty of green space. I have written above how I would begin to address many of these issues. For more specifics on affordable housing and community development—a key element in fighting on all the fronts listed above—see below.

The City Council recently voted to allocate a large percentage of current and future federal housing grants to one project in the Rolling Hills and Southside neighborhoods. Dedicating these future allocations has reduced available funding for other housing-related services. Do you agree with the council's decision? Explain why.

This was a difficult decision, but I think the council made the right one in the end. I understand the historical importance of Rolling Hills to the African-American community, especially, and I believe the chosen developer for the project can do a good job with it. However, with this decision must come a commitment from future city councils to finding additional funds for development of affordable housing in Southside, SW Central Durham, NE Central Durham and throughout the city. Here are my specific ideas on how to do this, plus other non-financial ways to boost our stock of affordable housing:

First, the City should put a bond issue for affordable housing on the ballot in the next few years. Right now the City is up against the limit of its bonded indebtedness, but once this loosens up, a housing bond should be at the top of the list. If approved by voters, this bond money should be used to leverage other private, federal and state dollars along the models below.

Second, the City should be an active partner in expanding the land-banking model for affordable housing development described in the answer below. The current land-banking is working well largely because Duke is providing an $8 million pool at 0% interest for neighborhoods in its orbit. The City should take an active role in finding a low-interest financing pool for land-banking in neighborhoods farther east. A bond issue could be part of this solution, but there may be others as well involving other lenders in the City's orbit.

Third, as affordable home-owned housing is built in previously neglected neighborhoods, replacing run-down inexpensive rentals, this often forces the price of rents up in that neighborhood and nearby. So as part of the affordable housing initiatives, the City should work with non-profit developers and the Housing Authority to encourage the construction of affordable apartments for low-income people. (See land-banking, below.)

Fourth, the City should adopt the Pro-Active Rental Compliance Program that is coming to Council this fall. This has been successful in Greensboro in reducing housing code violations and producing safer houses. It has also apparently cut staff costs there since inspections are done up front on a random basis. Strong code enforcement is essential to improving our stock of affordable housing, and this pro-active model can help.

Fifth, the City should work closely with developers and use its leverage to get developers to include affordable housing units in their plans.

Sixth, the City should support housing counseling which HUD has de-funded. Apparently, some HUD funding for this may be restored, but the City should consider taking up the slack. Currently there are tremendous needs for counseling people who want to save the small downpayments needed for purchasing even affordable homes. Even with a Section 8 voucher and City and State subsidy of rents using federal dollars, the small downpayments and closing costs required of low-income borrowers can be difficult to obtain or save for. Housing counseling is crucial in this process for low-income borrowers. Currently, Durham residents wanting this counseling have to go to Raleigh or Chapel Hill, and there is fear that these programs may be cut as well. The City has an excellent Individual Development Account (IDA) program in which it contributes $7 for each $1 saved by a low-income individual for a downpayment. (This is HUD money.) But without counseling, people will not be able to take advantage of this program.

Seventh, and very critically, the City needs a coordinated Durham Housing Authority strategy to build units in place of those scheduled by the Authority for tearing down. This will depend in large part on endangered HUD funding. But this is critical to the success of Durham's affordable housing strategy, and it should include rentals and affordable home ownership in the mix.

There is an outstanding model for affordable housing now being employed in Durham. This is informally called the land-bank model, and it involves cooperation among a number of critical partners. Right now it is operating in Southwest Central Durham and in Southside, and it should be expanded to other neighborhoods. A simple explanation of this fairly complex arrangement is this: A lender (in this case Duke) lends money at 0% interest (or 1%, say) to the Self-Help Credit Union which holds the funds and uses them to purchase property appropriate for renovation or new affordable housing on a vacant lot. An allocation committee for this money is formed for the neighborhood consisting of people from the neighborhood, Self-Help and local non-profit builders such as Habitat, the Land Trustees and Builders of Hope. It is critical to give the neighbors a strong voice in this process. Then SHCU itself or the other non-profit builders apply for funds from this loan fund to build or renovate affordable housing in the neighborhood. The allocation committee reviews each request and can ask for modifications, etc. before allocating the funds to deserving projects. This has worked to provide about 100 affordable housing units in Southwest Central Durham in the past few years, and SHCU now holds about 100 Southside properties in the land bank for redevelopment. Here are the advantages of the land-bank model: It allows for the neighborhood and non-profit housing developers to engage in neighborhood-wide planning that makes sense. It gives significant, meaningful neighborhood participation in the process. It allows time for developers to get funding lined up since the land bank can acquire land when it sees an opportunity and hold it at low cost until the developer is ready. It can take advantage of opportunities for larger purchases when they come up because the funds are available at Self-Help. And it can leverage large amounts of federal dollars through the City's CDBG and "Home" programs to help the non-profit developers buy the properties out of the land bank and thus make them eventually affordable to very low-income buyers.

What role should the city play in the development or redevelopment of commercial real estate? Do you believe the city should award incentives to private developers, and under what circumstances?

The city should facilitate commercial development along important urban commercial corridors in high-poverty areas where retail development is lagging. This can be done through infrastructure improvements, police work and other basic city services, as well as such programs as façade grants. As for awarding city incentives to private developers of large projects, this should be done when (a) the project can be reasonably predicted to have a big, transformative positive effect and (b) it is a good deal for the taxpayers in that the tax revenue generated from the new project will more than offset the lost revenues through incentives.

Several large-scale housing developments have stalled in recent years, leaving behind half-finished neighborhoods, roads and other infrastructure. Given the unfinished projects and recent economic challenges, how should the city proceed in deciding whether to approve new projects? Does the economic downturn call for a revision of current policies?

Yes, the downturn and recent problems cited in your question do mean the city needs to adopt revised policies. The city should pass new rules requiring increased surety from developers up front. This might be as much as insuring 100% of the project's potential costs rather than the current 50%. Also, it's important that these surety levels not be negotiated away at the staff level as was done in two of the current cases where the 50% insurance level was cut to 35% for the developers, thus leaving the homeowners holding the bag.

Police Chief Jose Lopez reported to Council earlier this year that crime reports in the city of Durham have dropped more than 30 percent since 10 years ago. Analyze the police department's current strategies in crime prevention and enforcement. What areas need improvement? How would you enable the department to make those improvements, if elected.

While crime is down in Durham and nationwide, which is great, there are still neighborhoods in Durham which suffer from high incidences of crime. The HEAT teams now concentrating in certain areas seem to be having a positive impact and maybe should be expanded. The increase in data-driven crime response has been helpful to the police department and should be continued. Neighborhood Watch programs should be strengthened for crime prevention. We need to continue the city-funded domestic violence court. Above all, we night to fight crime at its root causes by providing better housing, good schools and excellent recreational opportunities for our kids, and jobs for our young men and women. This is not mostly a city government task, though city government has a role as outlined above; it is a community-wide task.

In the past year, the council has taken an official stance on several national issues, voting last year to stop any official city travel to Arizona in light of its controversial immigration law; voting earlier this year to accept Mexican national identification cards as an official ID in traffic stops and other city-related business; and voting this summer to oppose statewide efforts to ban same-sex marriages. How would you have voted on each of these issues? How do you feel about the council taking a stand on these national issues?

I feel the council should only sparingly act on issues of state and national interest, and those issues should be important ones to the citizens of Durham. In all of the cases cited in your question, I feel this standard was met, and I would have voted for all of them. In one case, the case of the Mexican national identification cards, this was action which affected the actions of local officials, so that is particularly appropriate for the council to take up. But when matters come up at a state or federal level which affect Durham in an important way, it is appropriate for the city to express its opinion through the council.

To learn about other candidates' stances on the issues, read their 2011 Candidate Questionnaires.

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