Name as it appears on the ballot: Joshua Gunn
Party affiliation: Unaffiliated
Campaign website: JGunnForDurham.com
Occupation & employer: Artist, Partner, Provident1898 and Vice President, Durham Chamber of Commerce
Years lived in Durham: Born and raised.
1) Given the direction of Durham government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
I think in general, the City of Durham and its government have made great strides in moving our city forward, as a beacon of social justice and innovative ideas. I do have concerns though regarding the economic policies of our council and the subsequent negative implications for our most vulnerable communities. A government that has self-proclaimed itself as “the most progressive city,” presides over a population with 20% of its residents living below the poverty line. That does not feel like progress to me. If elected, I will advocate for a comprehensive economic development strategy that engages our business community to create jobs for Durham residents, and engage our workforce development resources to ensure Durham residents receive the training they need for those jobs. Due to the current economic policy of many of our councilmembers, Durham residents are losing jobs daily to surrounding communities. Policies that simply focus on social justice, and ignore economic justice are problematic and have resulted in absence of opportunities for thousands of our fellow Durhamites. I believe that many of our city’s major issues, including affordability, access and crime are directly related to economic opportunity and the ability of Durhamites to meet their basic needs. Economic Development is also a vital tool to increase revenue for the city through growing our economy, which in turn lessens the burden on the individual taxpayers. This will enable us to not only provide jobs and training, but to increase tax revenue to pay for things like transit, affordable housing, homeless and mental health services, and public safety resources… without placing this burden on individual tax payers by constantly raising property tax, or other forms of regressive taxes that unfairly burden the poor or those on a fixed income. Stated simply, if elected, I will focus on getting Durhamites to work and to making our city work for all of us.
2) Please identify the three most pressing issues you believe the city faces and how you believe the city should address them.
The most pressing issue today in Durham is crime. As a lifelong Durham resident, I remember growing up in Durham in the 1990’s and lived through some of our most violent years. I remember reading about shootings daily, and I remember losing people that I knew personally to gun violence. 2019 feels very much like one of those years. Dozens of Murders and hundreds of shootings, as well as a rise in other forms of violent crime throughout our neighborhoods. I spend time in communities on all sides of our city, and every single person talks about this rise in crime, and the gunshots they hear nightly, and the fear they feel for their safety and the safety or their families. I believe we must make safety our number one priority right now. I know that crime is a symptom of many things, and I will work to address the underlying issues, but we must also urgently treat this symptom. I believe crime is very much a function of economics, and one way we will address it is through creating jobs and increasing access to training and job opportunities. We must also ensure that our law enforcement agencies are properly resourced and properly trained. We must also establish and fund a community task force to empower community members to keep one another safe and prevent crime before it happens. This is not an “either/or” proposition, to truly address crime, we can and we must do all of these things and be all-in on public safety. The time has passed for ideological debates or political divides, to address the issue of crime in our community it will take cooperation from all of us, and for every one of us to recognize the urgency of this issue. If we are not safe in our community then none of the other initiatives matter. If elected, this will be my number one priority.
As I stated above, another pressing issue for Durham is our current economic strategy, and the lack of sustainable, living-wage jobs. Our current economic strategy, while it aims to slow the effects of gentrification, has actually exacerbated it. While prices continue to rise, wages stagnate and Durhamites are losing out on job opportunities that will help us better afford our lives. We have a crisis of affordability in Durham, and our current economic strategy is making it worse. It may be hard to tell if you drive downtown and see all of the cranes in the sky, but if you look at the data, Durham’s economy has been all but stagnant the past couple of years, especially when compared to the rest of the triangle. The growth of our regions GDP is essentially neutral, while surrounding areas are adding jobs at a much higher rate. We’ve overemphasized residential development in our downtown core and haven’t focused at all on bringing in the jobs that Durham’s residents need. Surrounding municipalities are adding jobs through cooperation between their elected officials, economic development entities and the businesses that are bringing in jobs. For the past 3 years, I’ve served as Vice President at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, the organization tasked with doing economic development and creating jobs in Durham. Our organization has helped bring thousands of jobs to Durham, but in recent years, has had to do this in spite of our city’s elected officials’ reluctance to cooperate. This not only means less jobs for Durham, this also means that the people elected to represent the community have no input on the types of jobs that land here. As a member of Durham’s City Council, I will address this through a renewed economic development strategy that partners with businesses to drive jobs and ensures that our residents are prepared for those jobs, by properly informing and resourcing our workforce development facilities. We cannot keep fighting against the opportunities that our community needs, simply because it doesn’t’ align with a certain “agenda.” True progress is an economy that works for all people, and a city that affords its residents with economic opportunities to improve their quality of life.
The third issue is transit. As our city continues to grow, traffic and parking woes are growing along with it. Commute times are getting longer, and our carbon footprint continues to grow exponentially. The lack of efficient, affordable transit is also making it more difficult for people economically. The time is now for a practical, regional solution to transit for Durham. This solution is Bus Rapid Transit. Largely misunderstood as simply “adding more busses on the road,” Bus Rapid Transit is better characterized as a hybrid between rail and bus, with an elevated platform and dedicated lanes to quickly and efficiently get people to their destinations. This year, in the wake of the failed $200 Million LightRail debacle, we organized a trip to Richmond, VA, a community of almost identical size and demographics to Durham, to take a look at their Bus Rapid Transit system. Not only is it working brilliantly, they were able to implement it at a fraction of the cost to LightRail. Furthermore, Bus Rapid Transit can actually be built along the corridors that we most travel, which was not the case for the planned Durham-Orange LightRail. BRT can be implemented to get folks to work, to school, to the airport, to RTP, Northern and Southern Durham. It’s a practical strategy, costs far less to build/ride and takes much less time to implement. Raleigh and Chapel Hill are already in the process of rolling out Bus Raipd Transit, meaning our system could seamlessly tie into theirs, creating a truly connected region. This is the solution we need, and one that we can actually afford.
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?
As a native of this community, I believe that lived experience matters. I believe that the 4-generations of my family who’ve lived in Durham, and the perspective I’ve gained from them matters. I believe that it’s one thing to read about the history of a community, but its another thing entirely to live it; I believe this perspective is missing today from our City Council. The lack of a true connection to the people of our city, and the necessary perspective is limiting their ability to effectively make decisions that consider the needs of the people. This is something that I bring to the table and my advocacy for the community from this perspective is well-documented. I’ve spent the majority of my life as a musician, creating music, touring, performing, making film and television; at every opportunity I’ve ensured that I was spreading the good news of Durham and advocating for the most vulnerable members of our community. I am a co-founder of one of Durham’s largest festivals, Black August in the Park, which is designed to create safe spaces for members of the African Disapora, hosted 10,000 attendees this year. Founded with four of my friends, Black August in the Park is an example of my ability to organize around an issue effectively and to create something that works for the people its intended to serve. I am also a business owner, owning my own entertainment company for 10 years and as a Partner in the Provident1898 Coworking Space, a co-working space centered around the needs of minority and underserved entrepreneurs; Given the large city budget and the over 2,000 employees our council is in charge of, business acumen is a crucial component for this role. I also work full-time, and understand what it means to hold down a full-time job while managing other things. I have a wife and two small children, and I understand what it means to have to work hard to provide for your family. This perspective is also key, as it will balance out the current council’s composition career politicians, with the perspective of “everyday” Durham. It is this combination of both perspective and experience that makes my candidacy unique in today’s city landscape, and that I believe will help me to best serve all of Durham.
4) In your view, what’s the best or most important thing the city council has done in the past year? Alternatively, name a decision you believe the council got wrong or an issue you believe the city should have handled differently. Please explain your answer.
The most important thing the city accomplished this year is implementing a $15.46 minimum wage for all city employees. I am strong advocate for living-wage employment and applaud the city council’s advocacy on this issue. Alternatively, I believe the City Council completely mismanaged its role in delivering a transit solution to Durham. While there were several stakeholders in the project, the city played a crucial role in ensuring that the needs of the community were met, and through poor management and poor strategic planning, the project became more, and more expensive and ultimately failed. Too much emphasis was placed on what LightRail could’ve been in theory, rather than the practical implementation of the plan and the realities of what this flawed plan would’ve meant for Durham. It is time that our government represents the needs of all of Durham, not just the people who agree with them; as someone who was close to the project for the past 3 years, it seemingly became much more about “just getting it done,” than actually doing it right.
5) This year, the city has since an uptick in gun homicides compared to 2018, recently including the tragic death of a nine-year-old boy. Gun violence is obviously a multifaceted problem with no simple solutions. But, in your view, what can or should the city be doing to stem the tide of violence that it isn’t doing now?
As I mentioned in earlier response, I believe this is our most critical issue in Durham today. As your question states, it is certainly a multi-faceted problem and will require both long-term and short-term solutions. I believe we must invest in the short terms solutions which include our law enforcement agencies, and ensure they are properly resourced and trained to help prevent violence in our communities. As a black man in the United States of America, I understand the complex relationship between police and communities, and I fully understand the lack of trust that exists. I am also aware that we have worked diligently to recruit and hire leadership in Durham, in Chief Davis, and to elect leadership in Sherrif Birkhead; we have two phenomenal leaders in law enforcement here and I trust them, and intend to work with them to keep our communities safe. This means giving them the resources and technology they need to best do their job. I also acknowledge that police are not the only mechanism, and sometimes, not even the best mechanism to keep us safe. I will also advocate for the creation and funding of a community safety task force that empowers community members to keep one another safe. We must address both prevention and enforcement, and this is a crucial component to that strategy. I also believe we need to establish an escalation point for cases involving mental illness and substance abuse, that is not police. We shouldn’t criminalize mental illness, nor should we criminalize addiction. Community’s should have resources to call, to intervene in cases involving mental illness that will give the person the services they need but will also ensure the safety of everyone around them. I believe viewing public safety holistically is key, and that we can work together to fund these initiatives. These additional resources actually will serve to reduce the need for police calls, and ultimately make it easier for our law enforcement agencies to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. Public Safety is all of our responsibility, and we must cut through the “us vs. them” narrative and center our focus on doing all that we can. In the meantime we must also continue to focus on eliminating the desire for crime, which is rooted in poverty or scarcity of opportunity. As a member of Durham City Council, I will ensure that we are addressing both the root causes and the symptoms.
6) In recent elections, residents have supported leaders who have embraced criminal justice reforms, including reducing or eliminating cash bail and court fines and fees. Advocacy groups have argued—in our view, rightly—for more systemic solutions to violent crime than incarceration. But some of these solutions, which aim to reshape disadvantages communities, will take time to bear fruit, whereas gun violence is causing harm right now. What do you say to residents who want more immediate answers to crime problems in their neighborhoods? In what ways can the city help them?
I believe we must address this immediate need for safety, and I also believe we can continue our work on addressing systemic inequities in our criminal justice system. As a member of Council I will ensure that law enforcement is properly resourced and the neighborhoods who are asking for increased patrols, get those patrols. I will investigate and advocate for technology like Shot-Spotters to reduce 911 wait times and ensure law enforcement officials can respond quickly to sounds of gunfire, protecting our neighborhoods and overcoming the fear that prevents some people from calling for help in the first place. I will also work with our law enforcement officials to ensure they are receiving the proper training, to make sure that a call to the police means safety for the people in need, and not further escalation of the situation. I will also continue to work with community organizers on alternative ways to keep our community safe, including establishing harm-free zones and de-escalation training. We have a lot of work to do in evolving our safety strategy, however our residents need help now. As a Councilman, I will make it my number one priority to respond to the concerns of our residents and deploy the necessary resources to keep us all safe.
7) Earlier this year, the council declined the police chief’s request for additional officers. Do you believe this was a wise decision? Why or why not?
I agree with the role of organizers and advocacy groups to agitate the system and fight back against systemic injustice, and I also understand the need to properly resource our city’s institutions. I do not believe the decision to decline Chief Davis’ request was wise, and there are several reasons. The first, and most fundamental reason is that our city is growing by 13 people a day, as our city grows, the pull on our Police Department and need for services naturally grows along with it. This means officers are working longer hours, costing the city money in overtime, and also creating overworked officers which could impact their judgement, ultimately making us less safe. I also have faith in Chief Davis, as a nationally recognized and highly decorated officer, who was recruited here based on her track record for protecting and serving the community. I believe, if a professional, especially of her caliber, says that she needs additional resources to do her job, we should trust her recommendation. I am well aware of the issues with the institution of policing, and I think there is work to be done in addressing many of the systemic inequities; I also believe, in order to do that work well, our law enforcement agencies need to be properly resourced. The last and final frustration with the decision not to fund the additional officers is that it was positioned as if the city has to choose between paying a living-wage, and properly resourcing our police department. This is not true, and we shouldn’t accept this excuse. We should pay our people a living wage, and we should also have a police department that is working efficiently for us. Furthermore, the proposed community safety task force that was positioned as an alternative to the police department’s request, also did not get funded. In the end, our neighborhoods didn’t get either of the resources they’re requesting to keep us safe. This is a problem, and something I will work to address immediately if given the opportunity to serve.
8) This year, the Durham-Orange Light Rail project collapsed over a route dispute with Duke University and other complications. Tell us how you envision what Durham’s approach to public transportation and mass transit should look like going forward. Where should the city focus its resources?
I addressed this above, so I’m copying that answer here as well:
As our city continues to grow, traffic and parking woes are growing along with it. Commute times are getting longer, and our carbon footprint continues to grow exponentially. The lack of efficient, affordable transit is also making it more difficult for people economically. The time is now for a practical, regional solution to transit for Durham. This solution is Bus Rapid Transit. Largely misunderstood as simply “adding more busses on the road,” Bus Rapid Transit is better characterized as a hybrid between rail and bus, with an elevated platform and dedicated lanes to quickly and efficiently get people to their destinations. This year, in the wake of the failed $200 Million LightRail debacle, we organized a trip to Richmond, VA, a community of almost identical size and demographics to Durham, to take a look at their Bus Rapid Transit system. Not only is it working brilliantly, they were able to implement it at a fraction of the cost to LightRail. Furthermore, Bus Rapid Transit can actually be built along the corridors that we most travel, which was not the case for the planned Durham-Orange LightRail. BRT can be implemented to get folks to work, to school, to the airport, to RTP, Northern and Southern Durham. It’s a practical strategy, costs far less to build/ride and takes much less time to implement. Raleigh and Chapel Hill are already in the process of rolling out Bus Raipd Transit, meaning our system could seamlessly tie into theirs, creating a truly connected region. This is the solution we need, and one that we can actually afford.
9) Much of the city’s affordable housing strategy has been planned in conjunction with light rail, and as recently as last year, Durham Housing Authority CEO Anthony Scott called light rail “critical” to his agency’s goals for low-income housing. In what ways does light rail’s demise affect the city’s strategy? How should the city alter its approach, if at all?
LightRail is not an efficient solution for Durham, nor is it our most cost-effective solution. With no connection to Wake County, LightRail simply doesn’t make sense. Transit, however is a very critical component of any true affordability strategy, and we can address this with Bus Rapid Transit. Low-Income residents need affordable transit, that works and we also need to ensure there are jobs created for them to access on those transit lines.
10) In November, Durham will ask residents to vote on a $95 million bond to support affordable housing, a key part of a larger strategy to build or preserve more than twenty-five hundred affordable units and move at least seventeen hundred homeless households into housing, as well as create new homeownership opportunities and help those facing eviction. We’d like to ask a few questions about the bond:
- Do you support the bond, including the property tax hike that will be required to implement it?
I support the effort to create Affordable Housing for all of Durham, however I have some serious questions about the strategy attached to the bond as it stands today. A few of my concerns are as follows:
-The first 5 years of the bond only focuses on properties downtown. This means that the city’s public housing residents, currently not in downtown, who are living in crumbling housing, will have to sit by and wait while we develop new properties in the downtown core. I have personally spoken to residents in our public housing neighborhoods, some even have holes in their roof, this plan does nothing to address our current public housing resident’s needs, unless they live downtown.
-The absence of a true economic strategy surrounding the bond is troubling. We are talking about dropping people into downtown, without any focus on where those people will work, or shop, or eat. Downtown today is very expensive, and absent of a true strategy to ensure affordable grocers, transit and other amenities exists, this could only increase the overall expenses for the residents, as they have to travel further to get food or to work.
-This Affordable Housing plan as it is currently laid out, doesn’t focus enough on the needs of Durham’s poor. While workforce housing is important, I believe we should prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable in our city, not limit them to the margins by only allotting a small percentage of the bond for their needs.
-This bond, places all of the burden on individual tax payers, in the form of a tax increase. As I laid out earlier, I think we should look at alternative methods to fund our affordable housing initiatives, and lessen the burden on individuals.
This said, I do believe we must act quickly to address the Affordable Housing crisis and would be willing to work closely with the Mayor on making revisions to the strategy to address these inconsistencies.
- If you support the bond, what would be your argument to homeowners who have seen their property taxes rise over the last several years for why they should support the bond? How will it benefit them? Why is this bond so vital?
- About $60 million of the bond would go to the DHA to redevelop its downtown properties, a project that is already in motion. Tell us how you’d like to see the city spend the rest? In what ways can the city promote affordable housing most effectively?
11) Given the influx of people and money Durham has seen in recent years, gentrification has become a major concern, in East Durham but also in other neighborhoods close to downtown. In what ways can or should the city intervene?
Gentrification is an issue throughout the world, especially in growing metro areas like Durham. The city is working through ways to intervene via affordable housing and other programs; however, I think we are missing a major factor in helping people to afford their life in a growing city. The city must employ an economic development strategy that focuses on job growth, equity of opportunity and job training. These programs will ensure that people are able to meet their basic needs, but also ensure that people have the ability to improve their economic condition overall. We must also focus on racial equity and eliminating barriers for opportunity to address the centuries of repressive policies that have created our income inequality. This policy should go hand-in-hand with our initiatives around affordable housing and transit to create an economy and a city that works for all.
12) Durham’s downtown is ringed by low-density neighborhoods, which has contributed to rising home values in the urban core. Earlier this year, the city proposed a plan called Expanded Housing Choices, which would allow for more—and more kinds—of housing near downtown. It met with pushback and has been delayed for months. (EHC is scheduled to come back before the council on September 3.) Disputes that seem to turn on the question of density vs. neighborhood protection seem to be emerging all over the country, including in Raleigh. What are your thoughts on the city’s approach to EHC? Is it adequately considering the desires of neighborhoods? Is it being aggressive enough in adding density in the urban core? Is it handling the situation just right?
13) As of 2017, nearly half of Durham residents living in poverty were black. The city’s overall economy has improved markedly over the last two decades. What are your ideas for making its renaissance more equitable?
You get what you invest in. The City has historically invested very little in programs that promote Black entrepreneurship or black business. The City has also invested very little in incentive programs for Black Developers, as well as little to no investment in Black Institutions. We must invest city resources equitably, which means investing more in the places that need it the most That doesn’t simply mean a social program or free seminar, but real economic investment in projects and developments that are designed to benefit black business owners, and black community members. We must also invest in job growth, and partner with county government to ensure our public schools (which educate the majority of the city’s black and brown children) are preparing students for the jobs and economic opportunities we create.
14) 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 citywide minimum wage, enact an antidiscrimination ordinance that includes LGBTQ residents, or enforce inclusionary zoning. Under what circumstances should elected officials push back against the legislature?
While the state limits our ability to do many things, it does not limit our voice and our advocacy. All residents of Durham, especially our elected officials should advocate and push back against the legislature in any instance where the human rights, or social justice of Durhamites are being compromised.
15) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
We don’t have to look far to see the status of our city today. 20% of our people in poverty, 50% of those people are black. Violent crime on the rise. We have elected officials that are doing many things right, but are missing the mark on these two very key issues. I was taught that democracy really boils down to two choices: If you think things are fine the way they are, then vote to re-elect the current leadership, but if you think we need a change, vote for change. I’m running to bring perspective and practicality to our government in Durham, to work beyond ideology and philosophy, and truly serve the needs of our community. Together we can make Durham a safe city, that works for all of us. Let’s do this. #ForDurhamByDurham