Name as it appears on the ballot: Mary Black-Branch
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: mary4districta.com
Occupation & employer: Narrative Strategist, Shirley Chisholm Project
Years lived in Raleigh: 18
1. Given the direction of the Raleigh government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, what specific changes will you advocate for if elected?
No. A government that is actively stifling the voices of residents is never on the right course. City council has had too many closed door meetings and avoided meaningful community engagement. We saw in 2021 when Raleigh City Council delayed the election an extra year, as well as when Raleigh City Council voted to disband the Citizen Advisory Councils. As a community advocate, I always work to amplify the voices of those who are often ignored and marginalized. As a City Councilor, I pledge to always uplift community input in the decision making process and work to reinstate a revamped Citizen Advisory Council. Moreover, the deep levels of gentrification and displacement driven by the growth over community policies is increasingly harmful to the fabric of what makes Raleigh a place people want to move to.
2. If you are a candidate for a district seat, please identify your priorities for your district. If you are an at-large or mayoral candidate, please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces.
As a candidate for District A, my priority is sustainable growth and development that maintains and improves the quality of life for the longtime residents of Raleigh and is inviting for people who want to move here. To be able to accommodate the growing population, this is all the more reason we must have sustainable development and urban design that is intentional in addressing equity and climate resilience. For the last decade, Raleigh has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. In the 15 years I have lived in District A, I’ve seen it grow and change in so many exciting ways. However, the way we are growing and developing will directly impact the future of affordability and the health of our environment. Development is good but it needs to come through an equity lens. It’s not sustainable for our growing community to centralize the same outdated development practices from larger cities that are now the hubs for housing unaffordability and environmental harm. It’s also important to note that these are the same cities that many people are relocating to Raleigh from in order to have a better life. If we want Raleigh to remain a beautiful, thriving, and vibrant city, then the growth, development, the environment, and equity have to be seen as complementary rather than conflicting units.
3. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of the city council and as an advocate for the issues that you believe are important?
The heart of my work is as an environmental liberator, a community advocate, and a climate storyteller. My work focuses on investing in the communities that suffer the most from the impacts of climate change. I served as the youngest member on Raleigh’s Environmental Advisory Board and work full time as a climate educator and narrative strategist with the Chisholm Legacy Project. I was the inaugural Raleigh IGNITE National Fellow and worked with young women to unlock their political ambitions, as well as a 2020 Women’s Earth Alliance Grassroots Accelerator participant for a youth climate advocacy program I created.
As a community advocate and environmental organizer, I would add diversity of thought to the council that is grounded in community experiences and considerations. As a young person, I would add diversity in the form of urgency to create a more equitable future. As a black woman, I would add diversity in background and lived experiences.
4. U.S. metros are grappling with a housing shortage, especially a shortage of affordable housing. Raleigh is no different. Many believe that the best way to address this crisis is via dense infill development along public transportation corridors. Do you share this vision for Raleigh’s growth? Please explain.
Infill housing is a solution proposed by many urban areas as a way to address the issue with affordable housing. Infill development needs to be walkable and transit-oriented. We should also be able to adapt to existing structures and push for land use that will promote climate resiliency. I would further challenge the city to take this one step further and ensure that the new housing must prioritize being permanently affordable to people making 30% AMI or below. It is not enough to just build more housing because we cannot and should not count on the “trickle-down economy” to actually work in our favor.
5. In 2020, Raleigh citizens voted in favor of an $80 million affordable housing bond to assist with acquiring land and building near transit corridors, preserving existing inventory, down payment and homeowner repairs assistance, low-income housing tax credit financing, and more. The city also created a goal of adding 5,700 affordable units over 10 years and is on track to meet that goal. But it’s estimated that Raleigh has a deficit of some 20,000 units currently, and it’s clear much more work is needed. Should the city bring another affordable housing bond before voters? Why or why not? If yes, when, how much should the city ask for, and what should the bond fund?
Given that the city was voting to pass a park bond of $275 million dollars, if another affordable housing bond is called for, it should be the same amount or more. At this point, it is not enough to only build more housing, but the city must do more to preserve existing affordable housing. The city should invest most if not all of the housing funding toward not only building housing affordable to people making income at 30% or below, but also toward repair and rehab of existing affordable housing instead of resorting to tearing them down.
6. In neighborhoods across the city, ranch homes and other modest, more affordable single-family homes are being torn down and replaced with large (also single-family) McMansions that don’t provide more density. Does the city have any authority to regulate such teardowns? Should it regulate such teardowns and redevelopment?
Yes, but more regulation isn’t always the answer. The regulation should start with banning exclusionary zoning. The city has the authority to lift the restrictions on the types of developments that can be built citywide. The city can, also, require only affordable housing to be built on any area where it’s torn down.
7. One way Raleigh’s city council has attempted to address the city’s housing shortage is by allowing for more flexible housing options such as duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes in all neighborhoods in the city, eliminating certain zoning protections, and allowing apartments for zones along bus routes. Do you support this move to bring missing middle housing to the city and do you think it will be an effective policy for managing the city’s growth?
As a climate scientist, I recognize that urban planners increasingly suggest that one of the most impactful ways to slash greenhouse gas emissions is to make cities denser and more walkable. Missing Middle Housing is intended to be a solution that meets the growing demand for walkable neighborhood living. It provides a “missing middle” option between subsidized housing and market-rate mid-to high-rise housing. The answer to this question requires more nuance than just a yes or no and a deeper evaluation of the policies in place. What’s missing in the missing middle policy is teeth to make it equitable, benefits for the neighborhoods, and respect to the character and quality of the community. Currently, nothing requires constructions to be built at approximately the same height and mass as existing single-family homes. Most of these properties will be provided at market rate and deepen the issues we have with gentrification, displacement, and housing affordability. Missing middle housing needs to also incorporate low-income and affordable housing positions.
8. Raleigh’s city council has directed city staff to gather data on absentee investors who are buying up properties in the city. Would you support measures to limit investors from buying up homes as other U.S. cities are considering doing or further regulating whole house short-term rentals that some argue are detracting from the supply of homes available for full-time residents?
I would support measures to limit investors from buying up homes or further regulating short-term rentals. Short-term rentals reduce the existing supply of affordable housing by removing housing units from the market, and turning them into hotel rooms instead. Short-term rentals have also been found to contribute to the increase in rents that would further exacerbate the ongoing gentrification and displacement that are happening across Raleigh. A recent article published from Harvard by Danye Lee has brought up that in L.A., short-term rentals removed 7316 units from the city’s rental market back in 2014 while the mayor was hoping to build 16,000 new units. If we are serious about ensuring that we need to not only build but also preserve existing affordable housing, then we need to recognize that short-term rentals would be actively hindering our goal.
In cities like Charlotte and Atlanta, corporate investment firms purchased more than 30% of the homes sold in the fourth quarter of 2021. In the first half of 2022, more than 4% of home sales in Raleigh and Durham came from investors out of state. This is a trend that is taking place across the country. Specifically, these investment firms are focusing on buying up the stock of relatively inexpensive single-family homes built since the 1970s in growing metro areas. There are many factors at play, including a low supply of affordably priced homes and skyrocketing demand in the pandemic-disrupted economy, therefore more research is needed on this specific phenomena. Be that as it may, following in the footsteps of Atlanta, I would be interested in pursuing the efficacy of limiting the number of homes at a specific price point that can be purchased across the city or county by corporate investors. Additionally, I would support Homeowners Associations placing a cap on the number of homes that can be rented in a particular neighborhood and requiring new buyers to live in a home or leave it vacant for six months before they can rent it out.
9. What role should the city play in ensuring that the longtime residents of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in Southeast Raleigh and other areas of the city can continue to afford to live in those neighborhoods?
In the past year, home prices have risen 22%, apartment rent has increased an average of 14%, and Homelessness has doubled. What we do now to address the affordable housing crisis will have ripple effects for the future of affordability across the city for decades to come. I am a proponent of voluntary inclusionary zoning for low-income affordable housing through incentivized programs for developers. Additionally, I believe the use of affordable housing overlay districts where the city could identify zones where affordable housing will be created is a potential solution. The city has a habit of selling city-owned land to developers and then entrusting them to build affordable housing. If low-income housing were really a priority then the city must be at the forefront of the charge in building and maintaining it. First and foremost by preserving existing affordable housing units and developing a healthy fund to help repair and maintain these properties. We should also institute a “right-to-purchase” policy that gives nonprofits first dibs on property up for sale and bolsters the efforts of NGOs to preserve affordable housing. We need common sense property tax relief programs and first-time home buyer programs.
10. Public servants including police officers, firefighters, and teachers can’t afford to live in the city where they work. As a result, Raleigh loses good officers and teachers to other municipalities and is grappling with a current shortage of around 60 firefighters and more than 100 police officers. What can Raleigh leaders do to attract and retain the best officers and other public servants?
All public servants in this city deserve to be treated with the respect of being paid a liveable wage. A 2021 study showed the Raleigh metro area was the fourth worst-paying large metro in the United States for first responders. This is juxtaposed with the reality of the increasing rent, home costs, and property taxes across the city. Public servants are essential to our city and they deserve to be paid as such. This question especially hits home as my mother is a public school teacher that cannot afford to buy a house in the district we live in.
11. Do you support the city council’s decision to eliminate parking minimums for developers? Why or why not?
Yes, we should be shifting focus away from a car-centered city. I can see how removing the minimum could provide more potential spaces for affordable housing to be built, as well as reduce barriers for small business growth. However, I also recognize that removing the parking minimum may not necessarily address the existing issue we are facing with transit. As the city grows, we need to encourage better public transit systems in order to bring people to school, work, home, etc, without necessarily increasing the number of cars on the street.
12. In 2019, Raleigh’s city council voted to eliminate citizen advisory councils (CACs) without public notice or input. Do you feel this was the right decision? Do you support bringing back CACs? What do you think the council is doing right or wrong when it comes to community engagement post-CACs? Could you describe your vision for community engagement in Raleigh?
Two years ago when the city council voted to disband the Citizen Advisory Councils, they eliminated a nearly 50-year institution and the city’s only form of community engagement. The CACs needed deeper consideration on structuring, outreach, and communications that ensured that everyone had a chance to attend these meetings. Be that as it may, disbanding the CACs did nothing to solve this. Although we have a new community engagement board, as a former member of the Raleigh Environmental Advisory Board I recognize that these appointments can often be extremely siloed and that 16 voices alone cannot represent the nearly half a million people in our city. What our city needs now more than ever is a deep and fundamental community engagement model. My vision for community engagement is based on building and maintaining trust between our elected officials and the people. Only when Raleigh lifts the voices of the community can Raleigh truly thrive. As future Raleigh City Councilor, I will ensure that not only will the voices of the people be heard during meetings, but that the people, especially the impacted Black and brown communities in Raleigh, will have a seat at the table as part of the decision-making process in shaping Raleigh with the lens of equity. I will also work toward a solution to strengthen the voting powers of Black and brown communities in Raleigh.
13. Following shooting deaths of Raleigh residents by RPD officers, the city council established a civilian-staffed police review board in 2020 that had no official power and fell apart soon after two of its members resigned. The council also established the ACORNS unit to address mental health crises, but data shows the unit rarely assists on calls related to suicides and involuntary mental health commitments, leaving most of those calls to police officers. Do you feel that the council has done enough, in partnership with the police chief, to reform the police force and address officer violence? Would you support cutting the department’s $124.5 million police budget?
I do not believe that the council has done enough to address police violence in Raleigh, and will support cutting the department’s $124.5 million police budget. Akiel Denkins, Jaqwan Terry, Soheil Mojarrad, Keith Collins, David Atkinson, Reuel Rodriguez-Nunez, Daniel Turcios, these are names of people who have been murdered by the Raleigh police officers. When the news of Soheil Mojarrad’s murder came about, there was call from the public for a committee to hold the police accountable. We have a police advisory board that not only has no teeth, but also serves more as a PR to promote the image of police officers rather than addressing the inherent issue with the system. This year, the police not only murdered Daniel Turcios, they also harassed the people who participated in rally during MLK Day. The city council has not made any public statement of their negligence with the way the RPD has treated the general public. I find inspiration in new community safety models from Durham Community Safety Department that just launched 4 new crisis response pilots that aim to connect people experiencing non-violent mental health crises or quality of life concerns with the right care by sending new responses that better match residents’ needs.
14. Raleigh has made strides on transit in the last several years. Bus fare is free and construction of new Bus Rapid Transit routes is underway, bike lanes are expanding to areas across the city, and commuter rail will eventually connect Raleigh to Durham and Johnston Counties. Is the city doing a good job of managing its current transit systems, encouraging residents to use them, and planning for more future transit and connectivity? Should the city be investing more on bike, pedestrian, and other transit infrastructure?
The city of Raleigh only seems to be doing a good job of managing its transit systems for aesthetics and not so much substance or for the riders. This is made evident by the $720,000 they plan to spend on bright red bus stops on the only 200 out of 1000 bus stops across the city. Moreover, the city only serves selective areas of the city reliably while others wait hours for buses that may or may not ever come. Every resident of our city deserves fast, frequent, free, and reliable public transportation models. Furthermore, there are hundreds of bus stops that still lack shelters and benches. Our bus stops need shelters to protect riders from the elements and our bus drivers need better pay to decrease the driver shortage. Additionally, we need more sidewalks and bike lanes based on data around cyclist usage of where people bike juxtaposed to where people are more likely to walk or use alternative forms of public transportation. My vision of public transit is one that is holistic and responsive to how people in our city live, specifically given that many people do not work, live, and go to school in the same area.
15. Downtown Raleigh has struggled to rebound following the COVID-19 pandemic with foot traffic still down and many storefronts and offices sitting vacant. The council has implemented a new social district to try to bring people downtown again. What more could or should the city council do to revitalize the urban core?
The city should invest more in the communities that make up downtown. The city could work with creatives, artists, and collectives to create a more vibrant downtown that prioritizes localized experiences. We have to prioritize building spaces that lift people out of poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities, permanently closing many of the city’s Black + Brown-owned businesses. Based on a recent study from NCbudgetandtax.org, people of color are less likely to COVID-19 recovery loans which puts them at a disadvantage to be able to build back better. The city needs to be intentional and reach out to small businesses, especially businesses owned by Black and Brown folks, to provide financial investments to ensure they thrive because we are still feeling the effects of COVID to this day. An entertaining downtown region is great but if it lacks the intersectionality of the people of Raleigh we are doing everyone a disservice.
16. Do you support Raleigh’s $275 million parks bond on the ballot this fall? Why or why not?
The answer to this question is very nuanced. I do believe that parks are good for the community in that they have the potential to integrate much-needed biodiversity into the urban structure. I support investments in our public parks, greenways, and greenspaces as this is vital to the character of our city. However, it seems like a slap in the face to many people in our community to support a $275 million parks bond when Raleigh is in need of over 55,000 affordable and low-income homes and the $80 million housing bond passed in 2019 has yet to be used completely. Raleigh is in a severe affordable housing crisis. Home prices, rent, and homelessness have skyrocketed over the last year. As I have been campaigning for the last year these are the conversations I am having with teachers, public workers, working class, and low-income residents that are desperate for a solution. If the city passes the park bond, then I believe the city should call for another housing bond that is equal to or greater than the park bond.
17. If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
No one ever asks about the environment or the climate crisis. It is one of the most existential considerations for the future of every city from stormwater management to sustainable city design. Presently our growth and development model prioritizes profit over people and the planet. This is seeking quick, short-term gratification that does little to nothing to address the issues we are going to be facing for generations to come. We have historic Black neighborhoods in Raleigh that are continuing to experience the brunt of the impact brought about by climate change, whether that’s through increased flooding or urban heat islands. Climate justice is racial justice, housing justice, and economic justice. We must do more to protect our most vulnerable communities in Raleigh instead of consistently catering to the wealthy and the powerful.