Name as it appears on the ballot: Marion T. Johnson
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.mariontjohnson.com
Occupation & employer: Senior Consultant, Frontline Solutions
Years lived in Durham: 7
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 am excited to see Durham passing progressive budgets that prioritize things like equity, affordable housing, and alternative solutions to community safety. I identify as a progressive, and these values are very much in line with mine. But I am also sensitive to the fact that many community members feel left out of decision-making processes and conversations that impact their lives in Durham, and don’t feel that city council is as accessible or responsive as they could be.
My vision for Durham is a community that is grounded in equity, shared abundance, and accessibility. That kind of community is only possible if we center the experiences and amplify the voices of the people who are closest to harm. That includes people who are suffering from gentrification, displacement, and homelessness. That includes people who are struggling to make ends meet, especially thanks to this pandemic. That includes people who are living in sidewalk-poor neighborhoods with insufficient public transit access.
My leadership will be based in listening to and amplifying those voices, making sure people feel heard–not just by me, but by the city council as a whole. I want people to feel empowered to speak with us, and to know that we will walk alongside them to help find the answers and support that they need.
2) Please identify the three most pressing issues you believe the city faces and how you believe the city should address them.
Durham, like most cities, is facing an economic crisis in the wake of COVID-19. We have weathered an $8 million loss in revenue since the beginning of the pandemic. We’re also in a pre-emption-friendly state that prevents the kind of aggressive tax policy that we really need to counteract the decade-plus of regressive tax policies from the state and federal level. However, Durham still has the potential and ability to make strong progressive budgets that prioritize things like a thriving wage of $25/hour for municipal employees and contractors; affordable medium-high and high-density housing, as well as rental assistance; free public transit; and prioritizing infrastructure maintenance and repair in low-income neighborhoods. Using federal recovery funds is another tool we have available to us to avoid leaning on regressive budget and tax solutions to fill the hole in our city budget.
COVID-19 also exacerbated Durham’s housing crisis. We already had a housing shortage, particularly in affordable housing; and were battling rapid gentrification and displacement, especially of Black families. COVID-19 accelerated the eviction rate, the rate at which people become homeless, and the widening wealth gap between homeowners and renters. The people who are most vulnerable are people who have unstable or unofficial housing agreements, or are renting month-to-month, because they often don’t qualify for typical tenant protections. We need to expand legal protections for renters, and require that developers agree to eviction protections for new housing developments. The city-county effort that created the Durham Emergency Rental Assistance Program is a great example of how leadership can leverage multiple levels of support – city, county, and federal – to best serve and protect residents.
Finally, community safety and gun violence are things I hear about from Durham residents every day. Gun violence is extremely prevalent in my own neighborhood. I’m very excited about the alternatives to community safety that city council is currently exploring. But it’s also important to hold space for different communities’ relationships to policing in general. Everyone wants a system that supports, protects, and empowers them. But the current policing system we have doesn’t give that to everyone. There are some parts of Durham that feel completely ignored and abandoned by this system. There are others that feel surveilled and criminalized. I’m equally concerned with what we do as a city regarding police as I am with how we do it, making sure that residents feel bought in to and brought along in this process. Otherwise, they have no reason to believe that this process will serve them the way they need it to.
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?
I worked in D.C. on LGBTQ health advocacy, as well as work-family issues like fair pay and paid family and medical leave. I earned my MPP from Duke University, then worked in state-level nonprofit research and advocacy for the next four years, including at the NC Justice Center, where I also served as union chair. In my role as Budget and Tax Policy Advocate, my mission was to make North Carolina residents feel engaged and empowered by our state’s budgeting process, and recognize their power as constituents to hold their elected officials accountable to their values. I served on the board of the Durham People’s Alliance, including one year as co-chair; and on the founding committee of the Carolina Federation. I currently serve as chair of Durham’s participatory budgeting steering committee.
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.
The budget that city council passed this year is extremely exciting to me, especially the city-county tax relief program for longtime Durham homeowners who are currently earning 30 percent or less than our area median income, and funding for the Community Safety Department. This budget is also kickstarting the implementation of Durham’s affordable housing bond, which will both create more affordable housing and connect residents to existing housing.
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?
I take gun violence in Durham very seriously. My neighborhood sees a lot of gun violence, and a few years ago a man was shot to death right outside our home. In my conversations with community members and law enforcement officers, I’m more convinced than ever that gun violence and other violent crimes are the ultimate result of numerous systemic failures, and that adding more police does not solve any of those failures. Increasing surveillance with programs like ShotSpotter doesn’t do anything to prevent gun violence. Alleviating poverty, homelessness, and access to guns does prevent gun violence. We need sustained commitment to economic justice, housing justice, and true community safety–and that commitment will take more than just city council. It must be a county-, state-, and ultimately nation-wide commitment.
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 was proud to sign on to the 10 to Transform campaign. Results from cities that have piloted efforts like the Department of Community Safety, including New York City, are extremely encouraging. Dispatching trained and unarmed mental health specialists and paramedics instead of police for certain nonviolent emergency calls has resulted in more people accepting assistance and fewer people sent to the hospital. I believe sending armed police into every situation increases the likelihood of violence, especially against Black people and people with mental health issues, and that violence isn’t keeping us safe. I’m committed to reimagining public safety in Durham, and believe that this is a crucial and exciting first step to doing so.
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?
Gentrification, displacement, and unsustainable over-development have created a housing crisis in Durham, especially for Black communities who have lived here for generations. Walltown and the Northgate Mall development is such a striking example of what happens when developers don’t feel accountable to the neighborhoods that they’re planning to build in. Private investment and development can’t continue to change Durham while not including Durham in its planning. Durham is the only city our size in North Carolina that doesn’t utilize community-led small area plans, and I think this is a big missed opportunity. Small area plans are a great tool for residents to clarify and defend their own priorities, especially when it comes to housing, neighborhood repair and revitalization, and environmental policies. They would empower city council to approve developments that are in line with the community’s standards and boundaries, and not leave historically Black neighborhoods in particular vulnerable to developers who see the land as an opportunity for profit, not a community to be respected. But most importantly, they would empower residents to determine what their neighborhoods and communities can look like.
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?
Our definition of affordable housing needs to reflect people’s reality, especially people who are earning less than $15 an hour. I define affordable housing as housing that’s affordable for people making 60% and less of the area median income. Durham’s AMI is $86,400, so to me, housing that’s affordable for people making $51,840 and less qualifies.
Right now, Durham is advocating for a living wage of $15 an hour, which is a vast improvement from the federal minimum wage, but it’s still not enough to afford a 2-bedroom rental in North Carolina. So we’re already fighting for less than what people truly need. A thriving wage is something that gives us the breathing room we need and deserve and doesn’t keep us treading water, one missed paycheck away from disaster. That’s why I believe we should be advocating for a thriving wage of $25 an hour.
9) What are the city’s most pressing transit needs? How should the city expand bus services to reach more riders?
I’m really committed to making Durham more friendly towards people who aren’t driving cars – people who are walking, biking, using wheelchairs, or taking the bus. Making Durham a transit- and pedestrian-friendly city will make us a more accessible city, as well as a more environmentally-conscious one. This can include expanding bike lanes and making them more consistent, implementing dedicated bus lanes on busier thoroughfares, increasing bus routes beyond the city center, co-creating a commuter rail throughout the Triangle, and investing in green transit like GoDurham’s two electric buses. I’ve also been excited to see the success of the Streetery, and am interested in how we could make some downtown streets permanently closed to cars so that we can increase pedestrian traffic and free up some space.
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?
Again, our city infrastructure needs to be more transit- and pedestrian-friendly, and that includes cyclists. Our current bike lanes are inadequate in scope and consistency, and provide a serious safety hazard for cyclists. Prioritizing bike lanes and sidewalk maintenance and repair, particularly in neighborhoods that are sidewalk-poor and/or have typically been neglected when it comes to infrastructure and revitalization, is an accessibility, safety, and equity issue.
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?
Affordable housing shouldn’t accommodate just one type of resident, and it shouldn’t look one particular way. Affordable housing is a need across different household structures. We need diverse, green, affordable housing, particularly transit-accessible medium-high and high-density housing that doesn’t contribute to sprawl and pollution. Having small dwelling units would meaningfully contribute to that density, so we can take advantage of small or irregularly-shaped plots of land that otherwise go unused or undeveloped. It would also allow us to divide larger lots into smaller parcels, thereby creating more housing options than we previously had. If residents could provide a meaningful argument as to why small dwelling units would be disruptive to their neighborhood, or if the small dwelling units would contribute to a poorer standard of living (due to accessibility issues, for instance) then I believe city council should make an exception to this policy.
I think the priority for zoning in Durham right now is to create as much housing as possible, with a particular focus on affordable housing. That means re-zoning city-owned parcels of land as medium-high and high density residential land, so that we can build housing that can accommodate a range of options – not just studios and one-bedrooms – while not contributing to sprawl.
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?
The 2020 Racial Equity Task Force Report is a bracing and necessary wake-up call for Durham, and how city government can commit to being truly anti-racist and not just race-neutral. I was especially struck by how clear and direct the language in the report is about the white supremacy and racial trauma that are fundamental to this country and every institution that grows out of it, including city government and public schools. I believe the recommendations in that report, which are comprehensive and wide-ranging, should serve as the foundation of Durham’s strategic plan. The recommended racial equity checklist and racial impact tool are particularly exciting to me, because they’re in line with the kinds of recommendations we make to our clients at my firm. The word ‘checklist’ is somewhat misleading, because equity can’t be achieved if we think of it as checking a box, but having meaningful questions to ask when we’re evaluating whether a program, policy, or other decision is furthering equity is an important way to make equity tangible.
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?
As a former union chair (NOLSW/UAW Local 2320), I strongly support the Workers’ Rights Commission and their Workers Bill of Rights. I believe deeply in the right of workers to join unions and collectively bargain with their employers. Unionizing and collective bargaining promotes labor peace, facilitates effective and efficient provision of public services, and combats workplace discrimination.
North Carolina remains as one of only three states with a blanket prohibition on public sector collective bargaining. A simple repeal of the ban on collective bargaining would be a modest step, bringing North Carolina in line with the rest of the country. I believe advocating at the state level for this repeal should be a major priority for this commission. I also believe that this commission should use both the Worker Bill of Rights and the Racial Equity Task Force report as grounding in their strategic plan, to ensure that any strategies and goals the commission lays out have equity at the center.
14) What is the city doing currently to ensure environmental sustainability in new construction? What more could it be doing?
A sustainable, healthy Durham requires policies that don’t leave Black and brown communities disproportionately vulnerable to environmental harm. We need to be as aggressive as possible, not just to combat the climate change crisis (which will take a national, not just city-level, effort) but also to combat the environmental racism that’s baked into our city. That includes:
- Prioritizing streetlight and pothole repairs in typically neglected neighborhoods
- Earmarking funding for green infrastructure in low-income communities
- Investing in renewable energy and carbon neutrality
- Making land use decisions that protect against urban sprawl
- Providing renovation funding for neighborhoods that disproportionately face dangerous pollutants, like lead paint
15) If there are other issues you would like to discuss, please do so here.
I’m running to keep Durham at the forefront of North Carolina’s progressive movement, and to do so in a way that keeps Durham accessible, affordable, and livable. I believe we have a choice between that Durham and a Durham that only rich people can afford to live in.
We’re facing so many crises—a housing crisis, a public health crisis, an economic crisis—and we’re also facing so many opportunities. We need leaders who will make the right choices for Durham to survive these crises and take advantage of these opportunities.
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