Name as it appears on the ballot: Nicole Stewart
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.nicoleforraleigh.com
Occupation & employer: Development Director, NC Conservation Network
Years lived in Raleigh: 16. I grew up in Apex and moved to Raleigh after attending UNCW.
1) Given the direction of Raleigh government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
No. We are at a pivotal moment in Raleigh’s history as our population quickly reaches 500,000. We have to PLAN FOR and BUILD a city that puts people first – that means planning for our future, not just preserving the present. We cannot be stalled by our fears, but rather City Council must embrace the opportunities before us to build a more equitable and sustainable community full of an abundance of diverse housing, jobs, and transit options.
2) If you are a candidate for a district seat, please identity your priorities for your district. If you are an at-large or mayoral candidate, please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces.
Raleigh has a growing list of pressing issues including Affordable Housing, housing affordability, developing an equitable transportation system, maintenance of our aging infrastructure (water and sewer lines, greenways and parks, sidewalks and bike lanes), and more. The most significant issue we will face in the upcoming year is prioritizing this list and determining how we will pay for these expenses.
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?
With regards to being an effective member of the City Council: After Hurricane Florence in 2018, I prioritized and successfully pushed Council to adopt a goal to reduce our carbon pollution.
In advocating for the issues I believe are important: Before we put paint on the ground, I reached out to and engaged stakeholders to create the first accessible parking spaces downtown. Out of that effort, I worked with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance to form the Downtown Accessibility Task Force which is focused on making downtown a more accessible community.
I’ve prioritized building relationships with various groups in our community, including accessibility advocates, immigrants, environmentalists, bicycle advocates, nonprofits and businesses that build housing, business and community leaders, the LGBT community, and many others. The benefits of this are clear and result in policies that meet the needs of our residents, not just a vocal minority. Working together, we can build a future that creates opportunities for everyone.
4) Most people agree that Raleigh faces a housing affordability crisis. Do you believe the council made a wise decision not to place a bond on this year’s ballot? Why or why not?
Yes, we did make the right decision. The City of Durham put in over a year’s worth of work on their Affordable Housing and housing affordability challenges before coming up with their $95 million bond proposal. The City of Raleigh has not yet done that work, and I do not support putting a bond on the ballot until we have. What I’m hearing our residents say is that Affordable Housing and housing affordability are priorities, and I’m also hearing them say to be mindful of how our tax dollars are spent.
5) Assuming the council places a bond referendum on the 2020 ballot, how much money do you believe the city should ask for? What do you believe it should fund? Outside of a bond, what steps should the city be taking to promote housing affordability in Raleigh?
Before we ask for more money to build Affordable Housing, I believe we need to first take a holistic look at our Affordable Housing and housing affordability challenges specific to Raleigh. We need to bring stakeholders and community members together, similar to the City of Durham’s Expanding Housing Choices work, so we can create a fully thought out plan that we can then present to the community for their feedback. Some of the solutions we could consider include allowing duplexes and triplexes throughout the city, allowing for accessory dwelling units by right, building more Affordable Housing units, helping renters who are faced with eviction notices receive legal representation, helping more homeowners maintain their homes, and more. Once we have done the work, and implemented policies that will increase our housing stock while costing taxpayers nothing, then we can ask for more money to build Affordable Housing units.
6) Discussions surrounding housing often turn on questions of protecting neighborhoods’ characters or promoting density in the city’s core—i.e., what kinds of new housing the city should add, and where? At the crossroads of this conversation is the rapid gentrification of Southeast Raleigh. What role should the city play in ensuring that the longtime residents of those neighborhoods can continue to afford to live there?
First, we need to understand why Southeast Raleigh is Raleigh’s historical and predominantly African-American community, and the structural racism that, for decades, only allowed African-Americans to buy land in this part of town. Then, we need to acknowledge that there are vestiges of redlining and other segregationist policies still at play today; including Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts which helped codify a neighborhood’s original protective covenants meant to keep certain people out of a community. And, that Southeast Raleigh was undervalued for so long that it now remains the only reasonably affordable real estate close to the downtown core.
Raleigh is not alone in dealing with the challenges gentrification creates and no city in America has figured out how to effectively address it yet. However there are some facts we need to get a handle on that help us address some of the stress were unduly putting on Southeast Raleigh:
- People are moving here every day (often times with higher incomes), and many of them want to live in or near downtown.
- Our downtown real estate is at 95% occupancy, meaning it’s challenging to find a place to live here.
- Southeast Raleigh, having been devalued for generations, is appealing to individuals who want to be in downtown but can’t afford it or find an open unit. These people can then buy a property and put larger homes on the lot then were there originally – changing the character of the neighborhood.
One of the things I’ve been working on is trying to get educational information into the hands of residents who are receiving what appears to be predatory flyers offering to buy their homes. We need to make sure our longtime residents understand both what their homes are worth so they can get their fair share and that it may be hard to find something they can afford in Raleigh, should they choose to sell.
As Southeast Raleigh changes, we also need to make sure that people have good options and reasons to stay in Raleigh, instead of pushing them to the edges of Wake and Johnston counties, and even further out. This means that we must ensure we have an abundance of diverse housing options (at all price points) throughout Raleigh to be able to both house people moving around in our city and those just getting here. We must build more Affordable Housing along our high frequency transit corridors and throughout our city.
We need to do a better job of engaging our African-American owned businesses in Southeast Raleigh to see what kinds and levels of support they need to be successful as they exist today and with regards to where they want to be in the future.
Finally, we must do a better job capturing the stories of Southeast Raleigh so that new residents understand the rich history of the area.
7) The city currently has twenty neighborhood conservation overlay districts, which can restrict new development. Do you believe this tool is being used effectively? How would you change the city’s approach to NCODs, if at all?
No, NCODs are not being used effectively. Much has recently been written about how NCODs and other zoning tools are vestiges of redlining and other racially discriminatory practices in our zoning code (see The Color of Law). While used today to maintain certain neighborhood characteristics for the homeowners who currently live there, NCODs effectively work against our efforts to make room for new neighbors and create more housing options – effectively carving out large parts of our city where new people are not welcome.
I have asked our Growth & Natural Resources Committee to review NCODs holistically in consideration of the goals in our Comprehensive Plan.
8) If you could change anything about the city’s unified development ordinance, what would it be and why?
First, please see my answer above about taking a holistic look at our housing affordability challenges. We will likely learn that we need to allow more diverse housing options throughout our city, by allowing accessory dwelling units, duplexes, and triplexes by right.
More immediately, I would like to make a seemingly minor change that would mean small business owners do not have to go through a full site review simply when they are changing the use of an existing building. Instead they would only need a plot plan review. Many of our small and innovative business owners here in Raleigh (including some of our most renowned chefs) have been hurt by this trigger which has delayed each of their projects by months and cost them at least tens of thousands of dollars. This is an easy change we can make to help our small business owners right now.
9) Earlier this year, the council required homeowners who wish to build an accessory dwelling unit on their property to petition their neighbors through an overlay district process. So far, no neighborhoods have started the application process. Do you believe this is the right approach to ADUs, or do you believe they should be allowed by right? Please explain.
I do not believe it was the right approach, and actively argued against an overlay district for accessory dwelling units before it passed. The process is far too onerous and restrictive, especially at a time where we know we need to be expanding housing choices. Further, many cities that are tackling housing affordability have allowed accessory dwelling units by right and are actually now loosening their ordinances to allow multiple units on one property or offering incentives for residents to build them.
10) When considering new downtown development projects—e.g., John Kane’s proposed tower on Peace Street or new developments in the Warehouse District—how much consideration do you believe the council should give to automobile traffic and parking concerns?
None. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen downtown develop at a rapid pace with multiple new high rises. During this time, traffic has not worsened in our downtown core because when you allow for multi-use density, more people are able to commute without a car. The traffic in Raleigh is not a problem in our downtown core, rather we’re feeling it along our major road corridors and highways where people are commuting to/from work. The more walkable communities we create with a variety of housing, jobs, and amenities, the more cars we’ll take off the road.
11) Developers are eyeing at least three parcels on the outskirts of the downtown business district for twenty-plus-story buildings. Do you believe this area is an appropriate place to add height and density? What conditions should the city attach to such projects, if any?
Yes. We must continue to allow more density in our downtown core as well as expand it in appropriate directions, along our transit corridors. We now allow developers to offer voluntary Affordable Housing conditions to their projects.
12) What are your thoughts on the city’s approach to alternative transportation options downtown? Is the city handling issues such as regulating e-scooter companies and building protected bike lanes the right way? Why or why not?
Regardless of how you feel about e-scooters, their arrival in Raleigh signaled (more than bikes ever had) immediately that our bike infrastructure is inadequate. Instead of talking about this challenge, the majority on Council wanted to move forward by either banning e-scooters or restricting their use significantly. I have always advocated to keep e-scooters, while implementing safety measures that would keep drivers and pedestrians safe. I also support the forthcoming protected bike lane pilot project along Harrington, and look forward to advocating for more protected bike lanes. Further, we need to fully invest in our greenway system. For years, it has been deprioritized. However, as its primary use transitions from recreation to a mode of transportation, we need to ensure this system is maintained.
13) Earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance banning whole-house rentals and regulating other short-term rentals. Are you concerned about claims that this ordinance might conflict with state law? Do you believe the city’s policy is the best way to regulate Airbnb and other short-term rentals? Why or why not?
I am not concerned that Raleigh’s ordinance conflicts with state law as presently it does not. However, I do not believe that the policy City Council passed this year is the best way to regulate short-term rentals. So far, Council has only passed homeshare which allows an individual to rent up to two rooms in their primary residence. While this is an appropriate use, I asked that Council not enforce whole house rentals until we explicitly dealt with those. The rest of Council disagreed, passed this extremely limited short-term rental use and banned whole house rentals. We are now considering allowing whole house rentals only for a very limited period of time.
I believe short-term rentals provide our community with many benefits, including an additional source of income for homeowners, an opportunity for people looking to move here to get to know a neighborhood, and more options for visitors seeking overnight accommodations.
14) Do you think Raleigh’s system of Citizens Advisory Councils is the best way of fostering engagement with local government? If not, how do you believe the CAC system should be reformed?
I believe that the Raleigh CACs are one tool for engaging with local government. They are not a solution for everyone. Raleigh’s different departments including Transportation, Planning, and Parks have done much to meet people where they are at – from hosting pop-up events, seeking input via online forms, visiting other organizations’ meetings, and more. As a city organization, we can and should always continue to evolve the ways we do public engagement and should seek to sustain a two-way dialogue.
15) Four council members have called for the city to join a lawsuit over the RDU Airport Authority’s quarry lease with Wake Stone. Do you support RDU’s quarry lease? Do you believe this case is something the city should involve itself in? Why or why not?
No, I do not support a quarry next to Umstead Park. However, this is not a simple, do you want a quarry yes or no. I wish it was. This is a complex reality that has many complicating factors, not the least of which, the City of Raleigh (and the three other owners) do not have jurisdiction in this manner. At the current time, the ongoing lawsuit brought by the Umstead Coalition is the most efficient avenue to fight the quarry, and I am watching it closely.
16) When Mayor McFarlane announced her decision not to seek reelection, she cited increasing incivility among council members. Do you agree with her assessment? If so, what would do to lower the temperature in city government and make the council more productive?
I do agree with Mayor McFarlane’s assessment. I will continue to seek positive solutions for our community on the issues that are most challenging.
I have 20 years of experience pulling together diverse groups of people to talk about challenges and work toward solutions – both in the statewide environmental nonprofit community and also in Raleigh. This work is often challenging, and it requires people staying focused on our goals rather than getting lost in the weeds.
17) Do you believe the city needs a community police oversight board? If so, what should the board look like, and what powers should it have? Do you believe the city can or should challenge the state law that blocks access to certain police personnel records?
Raleigh is at a standstill on this decision, and I do not believe that forcing a yes or no answer is productive at this point. I think we need to pivot from focusing on one tool – a Community Oversight Board – to refocusing on our community’s common goals, which I believe are: 1) no more deaths at the hands of police, 2) police accountability, 3) more transparency, and 4) improved community-police relations.
Many candidates are going to tell you that they support an oversight board, and will then pivot to sending the decision out to the community for input. That also is unproductive and will result in SE Raleigh asking for a Community Oversight Board, with the vast majority of the rest of the city’s residents saying no. It’s our responsibility as Council to have this hard conversation holistically and make a decision. And, we can’t do it without meaningful input from the community. I strongly believe it’s time we dig in deep on this issue and not just pay lip service to community members who want more oversight and accountability. One solution I think we should immediately implement is to create a program and process that allows individuals who have a negative interaction with a police officer(s) to report their interaction to a public advocate within a City of Raleigh department that is not the Raleigh Police Department.
18) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.