Name as it appears on the ballot: Leonardo Williams
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.leofordurham.com
Occupation & employer: Small Business Owner, Zweli’s
Years lived in Durham: 22 years
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?
There are many things our Durham government does well; the ability to work together, adhere collectively, independently, and strategically when necessary, to advice from formal and informal forums, pressuring developers to offer resource packages that best serve Durham’s residents, and more. However, I plan to join the council to improve upon what has already been done and explore new ideas together with the community. That requires bringing an expertise that does not currently exist through lived expertise and experiences. Our Durham City Council does not have the representation of a working class small business owner yet — even though small businesses collectively hire and employ the largest concentration of Durham’s residents. When making decisions, it’s imperative to incorporate a process that considers the impact on our jobs and workers, economic mobility for all of Durham’s residents, and how we as a city and its residents can prosper.
2) Please identify the three most pressing issues you believe the city faces and how you believe the city should address them.
The issues that are facing our city are all connected. Housing, community safety, and the pandemic are top priorities in Durham right now. However, we must understand the root causes that lie deep in the fabric of our city first: economic mobility. It is increasingly difficult for residents in Durham to find financial prosperity. Without it, people cannot access basic necessities like food, healthcare, and shelter. Ultimately, we have to admit this can lead to despair, which often leads to the crime that our city is witnessing. We have a responsibility to make sure that the people who live here should not merely live to survive; they should prosper and succeed. A few approaches that I have practiced and will continue to push are to: Public Safety: ● Fund organizations who are currently performing direct engagement to curb crime at a rate that truly reflects the need. ● Establish a city-wide apprenticeship program for high schoolers with startups and local businesses throughout Durham to engage them with prosperity and not crime. ● Establish a legitimate emergency response corps for nonviolent offenses. Prosperity: ● Establish a robust Small Business Sustainability and Success Program. ● Expand, evolve, and innovate the Office of Economic & Workforce Development to be reflective of Durham’s small business sector. ● Establish a Venture Capital firm in partnership with the Durham Chamber to encourage and support economic creativity and mobility. Housing: ● Identify and purchase under-utilized properties to expand innovation and opportunity. ● Increase public-private partnerships for commercial and residential expansion with community-centered design. ● Increase our affordable housing inventory. Enhance the diversification of Durham’s housing model to incorporate additional multi-use properties not only as a means to attract more tenants, but also to leverage the value of public housing (e.g, DHA’s RAD conversation) while simultaneously improving the quality of living conditions for Durham’s public housing residents. ● Partner with Durham Housing Authority to ensure that public housing is a safe haven for residents. ● Continue to invest in a robust Evictions Diversion Program. ● Increase accessibility to resources for tenants who are prepared to migrate from Section 8 or Public Housing to independent ownership or self-sustained rental properties.
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?
Through my activism and advocacy as an educator in Durham Public Schools, I became chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children – NC’s largest nonprofit for public school children. I led the organization in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to provide necessary funds for educators and students. I was a member of the NC Association of Educators and served as an executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators. I founded the PHASE 3 Group geared toward community, school, and family support; I also worked with mental health agencies to support local public schools. I was an educational consultant for Governor Roy Cooper’s administration, contributing expert strategies and solutions for supporting the North Carolina School System. During the pandemic, I established a formal relationship between Durham Public Schools and Ottendorf Labs to ensure DPS students had access to free, accurate COVID-19 testing. I also lobbied the NC General Assembly for the right to collective bargaining for educators and worked on a statewide bi-partisan committee for NC School Principals. In the business sector, I served on the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce — activating coalition-building for those who weren’t often at the table and supporting small businesses across Durham. When our city was not able to adequately support our small businesses during the pandemic, I worked across the city to establish the Durham Small Business Coalition. We organized $3 million for the Small Business Fund during COVID-19 to support folks in Durham. I also helped establish a city-wide job fair with entry criteria of employers offering $15 per hour for full-time and part-time candidates. In community advocacy, I am deeply committed to mentorship and supporting our Black and Brown communities. Though we were on the brink of losing our restaurant, I led the efforts of local restaurant owners and volunteers to feed our displaced neighbors from McDougald Terrace. I co-founded the 1000 Black Men mentorship program, am a part of alumni mentoring programs at NCCU, and currently working on a citywide apprenticeship program for Durham youth. I co-founded Bank Black in Durham and started Activate Durham which is a mutual aid network. I serve on the Board of the Emily K Center, and I am a candidate for the Biden/Harris White House Small Business Council. All of my activism and advocacy has been in partnership with resilient community members seeking support and resources to live and thrive here in Durham.
4) 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.
Best: Durham has become one of the most effective examples of equitable engagement opportunities amongst midsize cities in our nation. One of examples is the participatory budgeting process. As a proponent of community resources being dictated by the direct needs of our residents, affording community members to have direct access to how funds are spent is pivotal. The foundation of community engagement that the participatory budgeting cycle set forth can be an essential tool for upcoming projects and plans. From compensated community ambassadors, community-designed solutions, and democratic voting on policies, we can employ these strategies to community safety and wellness, youth initiatives, and development. We can also build from these strategies to include more Durham residents while addressing barriers like the pandemic, transportation, broadband access, and childcare. Should’ve handled differently: During the pandemic, the Durham City Council was met with an opportunity to directly support local small businesses, in an effort to save jobs. I personally helped to draft the proposal to provide $10K to any locally owned small business who could prove they were on the brink of closing. This proposal was not initially embraced and I believe much of this was due to the lack of council members having direct day to day experience of how to run an actual business.. This exposed the fact that there was no working class small business representation on council. To save jobs by way of small businesses, the city’s largest collective employer, is to save our local economy and the health of our city.
5) The city has seen an uptick in gun homicides since 2018, including recent tragic deaths of children. Gun violence is obviously a multifaceted problem with no simple solution. But, in your view, what can or should the city be doing to stem the tide of violence that it isn’t doing now?
We as a community are now tasked with holistically redefining what policing looks like for our city. As a former Durham Public Schools educator, I was often praised by my colleagues and peers for being attentive, proactive, and nurturing when it came to serving our students. About nine months ago, after seeing a young Black man on the news for committing murder, I realized that I had reached my capacity for violent crimes perpetrated by young Black men. I began to document and aggregate news stories of all the young Black men who were committing serious crimes or victims of crimes. Throughout the course of documenting news stories, I identified nine former students whom I personally taught. It was heartbreaking. This became the number one issue in Durham for me. I understood this to be an issue largely caused by a lack of community engagement and an eroding social safety net. We have to be more practical, proactive, and intentional. Something I learned as a teacher in Durham Public Schools is that when students were bored, they got in trouble. When students were not challenged, they lost interest. When they were not engaged, we lost them. This is true in the streets as well. However, it is critical that we ensure that our city has the necessary resources to transition from reactive management of criminal infractions to proactive prevention. For example, establishing emergency response teams within public service agencies provides a baseline infrastructure of support. This is how we can transition from over-policing in neighborhoods of color to building authentic community relationships and specialized responses. I believe that this approach will proactively curb infractions while actually serving and protecting our neglected residents. I believe the key to public safety is strategic and authentic public engagement as well as an expansion of our social safety nets in Durham. This can be achieved by increasing the availability of the activities being offered across our city such as community training centers, more after school programs or extended learning time, mentorship programs, and apprenticeship programs. I propose we fund organizations who are currently performing direct engagement to curb crime at a rate that truly reflects the need. The current annual cost to incarcerate a person in NC is at $30K. The annual cost of education at Durham Tech is just under $2K. Trade jobs earned at a community college are now paying well over six figures. At an equal rate, for every 10 people we incarcerate, Durham could actually invest in a new startup that could produce millions of dollars back into the economy here locally. I propose we establish a city-wide apprenticeship program for high school juniors and seniors with startups and local businesses throughout Durham. In addition, it would be beneficial for our young people to expand “Extended School Day” services sponsored by the City of Durham. It is also imperative that we update public infrastructure to increase access to greenways, playgrounds, public parks, and other activities that young people can be involved in.
6) Do you support transferring 15 positions from the Durham Police Department to the newly created Community Safety Department for its new pilot programs? How should the city further grow the Community Safety Department if the pilot programs are successful?
I appreciate the insight and research that Durham Beyond Policing and Durham for All presented during these information sessions and town halls. I will commit to working together with all members of our community, especially those most impacted by violence and over-policing, to vote for what is best for our community at that time. It is possible that with the next city council, we can do more. I believe this compromise is the bare minimum of what our city should and can do. We need to have an entire emergency response corps that exists as its own department, separate from the police department. I am hopeful that the strides we have made in the community through the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force as well as the Community Safety Department will support the long-awaited and necessary calls for support in Durham. I propose we establish a legitimate emergency response corps (in addition and collaboration to the Community Safety department) for nonviolent offenses and seek community and data-driven decisions on the allocation of resources and funding for mental health and public safety. This would include partnering with entities who are specialists in this work such as Alliance Health and the Federal campaign to incorporate a 3 digit emergency response number for non-violent emergencies.
7) Given the influx of people and money Durham has seen in recent years, and recent plans for Google and Apple to open offices in the area, 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?
Adequate housing is a fundamental human right. All people deserve the right to homes that are safe, secure, and free from environmental hazards. Every resident regardless of their socioeconomic standing deserves access to quality and sufficient housing. They should have the support to work toward ownership within the city they live (a case for reparations). It is imperative that we work collectively to ensure that renters and homeowners have access to quality housing that does not impose a severe financial burden. We have to increase our affordable housing inventory. In order to do so, we have to build sensibly and intentionally. I propose that we identify and rezone underutilized property across the city to zone into design districts. We can build neighborhoods on those properties and inject housing inventory at the AMI level. Design districts are ideal for affordable housing here in Durham. They would not require parking minimums and can be zoned for open spaces, parks, trails, and other arts and cultural amenities. These spaces allow for more mixed-use, mixed-income properties. Affordability is just one component of the overall holistic approach. Before we even begin to address affordability, we have to talk about access to housing. When I listen to the community, I listen to the whole community and the following two points have been the most glaring for me personally: 1) there are a great number of people who are getting approved for homes when trying to purchase. However, when approved for a loan, they are faced with an extremely aggressive market and banks are appraising at a much lower rate than the offers being accepted. This becomes an access issue well above the poverty line. Specifically, a person finds a home for sale at $500K. They make an offer for $550K during this aggressive market. They’re middle class per se and they put down $110K. The bank appraises and approves at a value/worth of $400K. The person must now be prepared to front $260K to even be considered competitive. Compare that with the average household income in Durham which is just under $60K. 2) I was reading an article in the @TriangleBIZJrnl and it stated, 44% of new homes since January 2021 were purchased by residents from the Raleigh/Durham area, and 22% were purchased by out-of-state people moving here. However, 34% were purchased by unnamed commercial entities, trusts, etc., and that is quite frightening. Our livelihood is being held hostage via a business transaction. We must explore every authority possible to protect people in need of shelter in our communities. The housing market is redefining poverty and homelessness in the Triangle. Our only pushback is economic mobility and a local government with the muscle to stand for those being run over. Let’s build sensibly and strategically. Through the expansion of opportunities for home ownership, our city will be best positioned to combat the forces of gentrification and displacement. This is also a method in which we can leverage transient populations as they are affiliated with better paying, more permanent jobs. I believe Durham now has an opportunity to continue the diversification of its housing model to incorporate additional multi-use properties not only as a means to attract more tenants but to increase our housing inventory. We can also leverage the value of public housing by designing them to actually serve our communities and better utilize the properties while simultaneously improving the quality of living conditions for Durham’s public housing residents. This strategy would increase accessibility to resources for tenants who are prepared to migrate from Section 8 or Public Housing to independent ownership or self-sustained rental properties.
8) How should the city address housing for people who currently make less than the $15/hour minimum wage? How can the city ensure more people make the current living wage?
We must increase our housing stock. The more options we have to offer, the more residents will be met where they are. Durham’s new comprehensive plan is rooted in equity and addressing the harms of our past. The addition of at least 20% small dwelling units would allow diversification in housing options and provide opportunities for diverse wages. The use of deed restrictions would allow the city leverage to ensure decisions are based on the needs of Durham’s residents. My goal as a council member is to ensure shelter for every resident, despite their economic status. I would not make exceptions to that commitment. I support providing a living wage for workers and as a current employer, I am leading by example. As a private employer, I am paying my staff a starting rate of $15 per hour because it’s what they need to sustain themselves. However, we must expand the minimum wage as part of our local and statewide culture. I understand that not every local small business may be able to offer this wage or be in the position to do so, but I believe the city can support local small business owners to lead the way, facilitating the evolution of a new minimum wage. This can exemplify the partnership between city government and local organizing. We must do so while simultaneously lobbying our state legislature to realize and appreciate the value of strong local economies. Everyone resident in Durham deserves access to a decent quality of life. The more workers we help reach economic mobility, the more we can address the rising cost of living, childcare, health care, and more.
9) What are the city’s most pressing transit needs? How should the city expand bus services to reach more riders?
As Durham grows, we’re nearing the point of outgrowing our transit infrastructure. There are case studies of this all throughout the country from Atlanta to Denver to Austin, where cars are heavily relied on. Durham is a part of the “#2 Best Places To Live” in America. Locally, we take pride in that claim. However, out-of-staters see it as a very attractive reason to move here. Durham’s most pressing transit need currently is the need for diversification of transit options. I’m a major proponent of our city’s resources directly reflecting the needs of her residents. I personally own a small business that requires employees to sometimes stay late. However, those who do not own a vehicle rely on the frequency of the bus routes which leave them having to hike rides home. This is a safety issue. There are several people who’d rather rely on two wheels than four. This is obviously more environmentally-friendly, but Durham has yet to truly and wholesomely embrace cycling as a formal means of transportation. Once we build roadways and trails that connect our city from each region with safety measures to protect riders, we will be well on our way to diversifying our infrastructure. Although the recent campaign for Light Rail failed, we can explore rideshare, park & ride, and incentive programs for using public transit. We also need to address environmental concerns while providing equitable and affordable transit. The 20th century was built around the idea that the more roads we build, the better. This has led to unprecedented traffic. Additionally, the space required to park vehicles is substantial, especially given the lack of availability of affordable housing in the city. Every two parking spaces requires the same square footage as a 600 sqft apartment. And the climate impacts are tremendous with transportation accounting for the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. It is time to look at a 21st century way of moving that prioritizes people, not cars. We need better pedestrian infrastructure, including sidewalks, greenways, and safe crossing points. To that end, we should make public transit free and incentivize the use of public transit. I do not view this as “eliminating revenue” because when we’re moving people and providing access to jobs and retail, we’re expanding our tax base.
10) How should the council improve transit infrastructure for cyclists, who aren’t protected from traffic by physical barriers and don’t always have options for coordinated bike lanes?
In order to have a bike-friendly community, one that includes everyone, there are a few actions we must take as a city. We have to develop a bike pathway infrastructure that connects to greenways, major routes, and safe crossing points. Additionally, some of our roads can be outfitted to include bike lanes if they are wide enough; studies have shown that narrower car lanes can also decrease the rate of speeding in many areas. We also have to evaluate major crossing locations. The Durham transportation department has over a year long backlog of intersections that require traffic calming measures because of their risk to pedestrians. We would also benefit from a pilot program of separated on-street bike facilities by installing flexible delineators and buffer zones for cyclists. I would rely much on the advice of our advisory councils and commissions who have already facilitated community conversations and planning around this topic like the Environmental Affairs Board (EAB), Durham Open Space and Trails (DOST), and Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Council (BPAC) as well as Bike Durham.
11) How do you think the city’s policy of Expanding Housing Choices will work to increase density in Durham’s urban core? Will the policy work to create more mixed-income communities? Should it work this way? What more could be done to add density or relieve pressures on home values?
This was one of the best votes our council has taken. Diversifying housing options provides a broader capacity for meeting the needs of residents. Durham has a mixture of people who have different economic capabilities. Our housing stock should reflect them, especially considering that we have a housing shortage which is contributing to the affordability issue. As we work to increase our housing stock, we will also build more units that fit economically with more people. In regards to supply and demand, increasing supply will eventually appease demand. From there, we will need to tackle policy ideas that prevent corporations, LLCs, trusts, etc. from buying up and “sitting” on property for the sake of high return on investment (ROI) business transactions.
12) New census data shows that 19 percent of Durham’s Black residents live under the poverty line, while about 7 percent of whites and a third of Hispanic residents do. A 2020 Racial Equity Task Force report found growing wealth disparities between Black and white residents that were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. How (if it all) do you think the city should use the report’s findings to make the city a more equitable one for all residents?
We need to reduce the disparities that our communities are facing by investing in racial equity. Durham has funded and supported these task forces in their research, engagement, and reporting, but we need to actually utilize these findings and solutions and implement them in our city. We first must ensure that Durham residents are committed and invested in racial equity in their everyday lives. Here are a few initial steps I would take to establish racial equity in our local culture. ● Create a sub document that is more digestible for public consumption and market it. ● Establish a criteria that rewards private interest participation. ● Adhere to the report to ensure its findings are considered and ultimately incorporated, especially in budgeting. I’d like to address housing, evictions, and the Racial Equity Fund which I see as a few important components of the findings of the Racial Equity Task Force. Ideally, as a city, we can work to ensure we address every aspect of the findings from the task force’s loving call to action. “In Durham, the median household income is $65,317, and the average monthly rental price is $1,287… during the first six months of the pandemic, Durham saw the highest percentage increase, of 34 percent. In other words, the average renter making the median household income in Durham County would spend nearly 24 percent of their gross income on housing, before income taxes or any other payroll deductions are taken out of their paycheck.” -WRAL Techwire It has become blatantly obvious (to most of us) that we had deep disparities before the pandemic which were exacerbated in the last two years. While the poorest of Durham struggle to make ends meet, the appeal of big tech companies in RTP are drawing wealthier residents to our city. We are seeing how that is playing out in our housing market. We need to support our renters and keep them housed now and sustain this work well after the pandemic. Many renters do not know their rights or they face confusion in a system that was not meant to help them. Durham should continue to invest in a robust Evictions Diversion Program to establish a universal right to counsel for those who are facing evictions. Many of the evictions faced in Durham are from public housing; we need to collaborate with the Durham Housing Authority to reform their eviction filings. There are also a number of resources and organizations that can support residents with rental assistance like the HOPE program; we need to advocate for these programs. We also need to support grassroots coalitions to focus on intersecting issues that include housing but can address other issues like food insecurity, healthcare, and legal aid. As we know, these issues are all connected. However, we know that organizations cannot keep up with the housing demand and lack of affordability. We need to get people access to economic support from a public-private fund to not only survive this hard time, but also be able to stand on their own two feet and be well prepared for any hard times in the future. We know that evictions in Durham have affected mostly Black and Latinx communities, but we do not have the desegregated data. This is common across the country that we do not track race and gender of evictions, but we should. With this kind of information, we can better inform our policies and prevent further discrimination in the housing space. Additionally, I foresee the Racial Equity Fund (REF) as the first step to reparations. This fund could allot opportunities for a true economic return on investment, creating space to show how, when given a fair shot, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities can truly show their worth and strengths. The REF would continue creating capacity for local economic mobilization that has been started through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Restaurant Revitalization Act. The REF could also serve Durham as a venture capital fund for racial equity values, encouraging innovative methods to close Durham’s racial wealth gap. Equity is ownership! Currently, the neighborhood and community development is conceptualizing the “longtime homeowners grant” program. There are funding demands already identified in this pivotal program that will be necessary to incorporate. This is one example of how the REF can subsidize current stabilizing programs that best support Durham’s most vulnerable residents.
13) The city council established a Durham Workers’ Rights Commission in 2019. What do you feel it has achieved so far? What should its role and focus be, and how should it achieve its goals? Has the city supported it adequately?
North Carolina was recently referred to as the worst state for workers in the United States according to Oxfam. Unfortunately, our state legislatures have yet to consider creating space for workers’ voices. Therefore, this status is sadly correct. However, I appreciate the Durham City Council leading by example to encourage workers to engage and be heard. More so, as a small business owner, I add to that culture of engagement with practicality. I practice engagement and value my staff’s input by seeking their ideas to improve the work. I believe the private sector can join with our local government to enhance this workplace culture. Our city council took a step in the right direction with the Workers’ Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, shortly after the Durham Workers’ Rights Commission was formed, we were faced with the global pandemic. Although the commission has not executed as much as they desired from within, our city council has made some significant steps to appreciate workers through flexible work venues and hazard pay. As we strive to get back to functioning normally, I offer some ideas that the commission can leverage: The Durham Workers’ Rights Commission can 1. Create a foundation of support to our state delegations to repeal the ban on collective bargaining that will ultimately incorporate shared power within corporations 2. Promote consistent labor policies that establish working conditions that are respectful to human decency 3. Facilitate the evolution of a new minimum wage 4. Support and commit to racial justice in the workplace The more workers we help reach economic mobility, the more we can address the rising cost of living, childcare, healthcare, and more.
14) What is the city doing currently to ensure environmental sustainability in new construction? What more could it do?
From the preservation of our wetlands to encouraging developers to build more environmentally friendly structures, Durham governments have a proven track record on their expectations to set a standard for what a new and improved Durham looks like. Where I would add to this is bringing more ‘best practices’ from my colleagues in the private sector, encouraging better use of energy, recycling, composting, and educating the public on our practices. It’s also worth noting that both new and older construction contribute to toxins and waste in our environment. More of our construction should be based on regenerative approaches, and we should expand on our green building standards in Durham.
15) If there are other issues you would like to discuss, please do so here.
Durham faces three primary risks from climate change which include more intense flooding, longer periods of drought, and severe heat. We have seen this every year, devastating our communities. Climate change is already impacting Durham and disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. In order to address climate change we must look at what we can do to slow its progress and how to lessen its impacts on our city.
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