Name as it appears on the ballot: Catherine (Cat) Lawson
Party affiliation: Unaffiliated
Campaign website: catlawson.com
Occupation & employer: Professor, Duke University School of Law
Years lived in Raleigh: 13
1. Given the direction of Raleigh government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, what specific changes will you advocate for if elected?
From the pandemic to protests, population boom to economic headwinds, the last two and a half years have challenged our city. No institution has performed perfectly, but I’ve seen Council work hard to correct the errors of their predecessors—those INDY in 2019 called the “pining-for-the-past anti-development crew..short-sighted, and dysfunctional.”
So yes, I think the Council has charted a positive path towards responsible growth and responsive governance during incredibly challenging years.
But I think there is room to improve public trust on several fronts. If elected, I will immediately propose a mandatory code of ethics with requirements for yearly disclosures of personal financial interests and standards that govern recusals on votes where members have conflicts. Voters may be shocked no disclosures or standards are in place for City Council, though they’ve existed for even the lowest-level state board and commission for years. It’s time to correct that.
To further close the trust deficit, I would continue investment in the newly-established Office of Community Engagement as it expands its proactive efforts to establish clear channels for public input, like the new community ambassador program, for example. Finally, I support expanding the newly-established Homeowner Repair Program and creating a Homeowner Care Fund–like the one under consideration by the Wake County Commissioners–to ensure that existing low-income homeowners are able to remain in their homes and enjoy the benefits of Raleigh’s growth.
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.
District A includes Midtown and most of North Raleigh. It is not the district of a decade ago. We need more sidewalks to connect pockets of growth within the district and connect greenways to maximize the use of our green spaces. For those who choose public transit, the experience needs to be safe and reliable with covered bus stops and predictable travel times.
North Hills is cementing its status as a major node for businesses and housing density. That means we’ll need special attention paid to the roadways and traffic mitigations in and around North Hills.
Overall, I’m optimistic for the District, which has managed to create housing options across the economic spectrum–including through townhomes sprinkled among single-family housing communities. We have the opportunity to continue building with intentionality and with growth in mind. This remains a critical time for the District, and I hope to support our community’s interests on Council.
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?
Though I’m a law professor and previously worked at our State Supreme Court, I’m a first-time candidate. But I’ve been active in the civic life of our city for years. I recently served as a member and then chair of a city-appointed study group that recommended modernization reforms and solicited public input on redrawn district maps. I previously contributed on civic issues for the News & Observer and Herald-Sun as one of their selected “NC Influencers,” and I’ve pushed against partisanship in interviews with WUNC and MSNBC after starting the viral #MeAt14. And I previously hosted a podcast shining light on the outstanding folks who breath live into our civic community, including Cheri Beasley and others.
I have a track record of effective consensus-building and advocacy, and will use those skills in pursuit of effective governance if given the opportunity to serve.
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.
There’s no single solution for our housing shortage, but the best research shows that increased supply is the best solution. We particularly need more entry-level and “missing middle” housing, which means development along transit corridors and infill within existing neighborhoods. But these changes can be implemented in ways that are consistent with existing neighborhood structures. Many older neighborhoods in Raleigh have duplexes and quadruplexes next door to single-family homes, and placing denser apartment buildings near to major roads and intersections with public transportation options is nothing new.
The hard truth is state law prevents the City from requiring a certain percentage of affordable housing units in new developments, so we need to work with the private sector to increase the overall options available while continuing to invest public funds into subsidized housing that protects the most vulnerable members of our community.
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?
Potentially, yes. In hindsight, the 2018 bond should have been higher to meet the needs of our growing city. A new bond would make more resources available for additional subsidized housing units and enable more partnerships like the ones currently underway with CASA and Southeast Raleigh Promise. But we also must reduce the causes of homelessness/unstable housing by increasing job opportunities, increasing the overall housing supply, and protecting existing homeowners. I would support the City assessing whether a new housing bond could be used to meet these goals without creating a burdensome property tax increase.
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?
Counsel shouldn’t be in the business of deciding whether an older home should be torn down and replaced or not and what kind of building should replace it would create more barriers to housing creation, not fewer. But the City can and should promote mixed-housing neighborhoods by making it easier for duplexes and similar gentle density solutions to be introduced, but I don’t believe it would be useful for the City to second guess what kinds of homes people want to buy.
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 quadraplexes 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.
Yes. Raleigh needs more entry-level and “missing middle” housing, which means development along transit corridors and infill within existing neighborhoods. Many older neighborhoods in Raleigh have duplexes and quadruplexes next door to single-family homes, and this approach promotes greater neighborhood diversity. Similarly, placing denser apartment buildings near major roads and intersections with public transportation options is nothing new. Neighborhoods with exclusively single-family homes are more anomalous than some advocacy groups would like us to believe.
But the recent zoning revisions deserve oversight. As these changes go into effect, it’s important to measure their effectiveness and their impact and make adjustments along the way based on what we learn. I want to hear from affected persons—from residents and developers to city staff—to identify where there are opportunities to clarify and streamline zoning codes and the permitting process. But I believe it’s fair to let the current changes take effect and evaluate their impact as we work together to increase housing options in Raleigh.
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?
Potentially, especially if it could be done without limiting individual members of our community from owning rental properties. But realistically, options are extremely limited at the city level and tackling will require state-level legislative change. Instead, the City should prioritize enforcement of landlord-tenant laws to guard against abusive or exploitative practices and increase tenant protections, such as by raising awareness of the new partnership with Campbell Law School to provide legal services to low-income persons facing eviction or homelessness through the civil system, where there is not an affirmative right to counsel. It’s an important step in closing a resource gap in this area.
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?
Raleigh’s growth is only as good as it is equitable. All members of our community should have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of our growth, and we should not bet our present on a promised future. But the picture is more complicated than some activists suggest: for some, a decision to sell a home and capitalize on increased value can become the seed for generational wealth. But no one should feel forced into that decision by changes to the city they love. That’s why initiatives like the new Homeowner Repair Program are so important, and why I support creating a Homeowner Care Fund like the one under consideration before the Wake County Commissioners. City planning should also prioritize transit and walkable connections between new developments and existing neighborhoods as well as the expansion of services to historically underfunded neighborhoods so that existing homeowners have the chance to enjoy the new benefits surrounding their neighborhoods.
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?
The most obvious first step is raising pay. Raleigh’s compensation lags surrounding areas and underperforms in a competitive hiring environment. For police officers and firefighters particularly, we need to be competitive in both recruiting new officers and retaining existing ones, which means predictable increases in compensation for experienced service members. Allowing police officers to take their cars home, compensating them for additional training and specialization, and giving them options for either additional vacation or pay when they work overtime are all options that we should be implementing. I would also like the City to explore whether we can create a special housing grant for city employees who live in Raleigh.
11. Do you support the city council’s decision to eliminate parking minimums for developers? Why or why not?
Yes. Parking minimums are a relic of car-dependent city planning. Instead of parking, particularly surface-level parking, that land can and should be used for public gathering spaces, housing, service providers, literally anything else that will offer more value to the people who live, work, and play in our City.
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?
The prior CACs failed to evolve as representative voices of the communities they were supposed to represent. Few people are able to attend meetings on a set schedule, even if those meetings are remote. But it’s important to note that CACs still exist as community groups, they just no longer meet the need for representation that had previously justified their special access and taxpayer funding.
But the transition to the new Office of Community Engagement wasn’t perfect. It would have been better if the new team had been in place and been ready to go the same day CACs were defunded. The new Office is prioritizing proactive paths to meet with community members, including the new community ambassador program.
The work of community engagement is something Council cannot delegate. Individual Council members are also responsible for cultivating and maintaining ties with the communities who elect them and oversee their work. That means being available as leaders who serve the City. Raleigh is a big and diverse place, and we’re going to need multiple methods of community engagement instead of simply relying on the CAC model.
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 support a “both/and” approach to public safety, one that increases police officer pay so that Raleigh can hire the best candidates who exemplify the best in law enforcement, and that requires comprehensive social training with independent, community-based oversight.
Some recent initiatives are good starts to a more equitable and community-based approach to policing: the ACORNs unit that partners police officers and social workers, the appointment of an LGBTQ+ community liaison, the recent community-led deescalation training. All of these are good first steps towards a public safety approach based in trust and partnership, and all of these initiatives should be built on and expanded.
But what is clear is that underfunded policing is not going to serve the people of Raleigh. Our officers take on a massive responsibility when they choose to serve, and I’m confident that the continued leadership from Chief Patterson and continued funding and oversight from Council will help us create a safe Raleigh for all.
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?
We need more transit options, but we also need to reduce the distance residents need to travel for essential services. Those goals require improving our existing bus route service and creating more sheltered bus stops, investing in additional public transit options like commuter rail, and simultaneously identifying opportunities for mixed-use and commercial development that are accessible to neighborhoods and transit stops. Creating a truly multi-modal City takes time and steady investment, not start-and-stop initiatives.
The majority of Raleigh’s transit improvements require regional partnerships, which complicates timelines and increases the amount of consensus-building needed for progress. The City should invest more in the projects that are within its control while continuing to work with our regional partners on long-term transit projects that will benefit the region as a whole.
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 pandemic fundamentally shifted the reality of many people’s workspaces and social lives across our community. Downtown Raleigh can’t depend on 9-to-5 office workers to support stores and restaurants anymore, so we need more mixed-use and residential density downtown as well as more hotels so that we can maximize the potential of our Convention Center and event spaces. The City should also develop more spaces that enable remote and hybrid work needs, and continue repurposing unnecessary street parking and unused spaces as gathering spaces. Where there are vacant storefronts, the City should work with the landlords to host pop-up and short-term enterprises, potentially emphasizing equitable opportunities for local businesses. And finally, people need to feel safe downtown, so continuing to invest in safe walkable spaces and prioritizing pedestrian experiences over cars should be a priority as we invest in the future of Raleigh.
16. Do you support Raleigh’s $275 million parks bond on the ballot this fall? Why or why not?
Yes. The parks bond is a great investment in some of Raleigh’s best assets: our parks and greenways. The bond benefits every single district, and District A in particular will receive art center improvements at Shelley Lake, three greenway improvements and connections, and improvements at Green Road Park. Safe and accessible green spaces should be available to all members of our community, and the bond will help accomplish that goal.
17. If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
I am an independent candidate in this race with the background and temperament necessary to get results for my District and our City. I’m grateful for the support of those who lead, protect, and build our city. And I’m thankful for the vote of confidence from Wake Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, former Mayor Charles Meeker, and Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. Public trust is earned through transparency and communication. I plan to make that a reality on Council, and I hope to earn voters’ trust.
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