Name as it appears on the ballot: STEF MENDELL
Party affiliation: DEMOCRAT
Campaign website: https://www.stefmendellforcouncil.com/
Occupation & employer: Retired International Communications Executive (GlaxoSmithKline)
Years lived in Raleigh: 55
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?
Every two years the City of Raleigh conducts a statistically significant survey. In the most recent one, more than 90% of Raleigh residents said they were pleased with how things are going in the City, but they do have concerns about how we are managing growth, traffic, and housing affordability. In my canvassing to date I am hearing the same things.
Raleigh continues to be recognized nationally in a number of “Best City” categories and people and businesses continue to move here.
The challenge for us is to accommodate growth while preserving our quality of life. I am an advocate for managed growth that is environmentally sensitive, supported by adequate infrastructure, and contextually appropriate. We absolutely need to increase density and our Comprehensive Plan outlines the most appropriate places for that to happen. While adding density, we must be cognizant that density in and of itself does not lead to affordability. And affordability is the goal. We must continue to seek opportunities to maintain naturally occurring affordable housing and incorporate more affordable housing throughout Raleigh.
Despite statements to the contrary, Raleigh is not in financial trouble. We continue to maintain a AAA Bond rating and we are required by law to balance our budget every year.
There are those who also are sounding alarms about the condition of our infrastructure, when in fact it is in great shape. In July 2019, our public utilities department received an “Excellence in Management Platinum Recognition” from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies for our “commitment to sustainable, successful programs that exemplify the attributes of an effectively managed utility.” In 2019, Raleigh received national recognition for having four times FEWER sewer overflows than the national average. The smaller rate increase we approved in 2019 (1.6% instead of 3.2%) had no effect on the utilities maintenance budget which was funded at over 160%.
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.
Priorities for District E are similar to priorities throughout Raleigh – preserving our quality of life so that as we grow we continue to be a healthy and attractive city for all of our current residents as well as our future residents.
That means we must place greater emphasis on our Unified Development Ordinance’s Residential Infill regulations so that the stated intent of our Residential Infill Compatibility is realized: “The intent of the residential infill compatibility standards is to accommodate and encourage compatible development in existing neighborhoods, while reinforcing the established character of the neighborhood and mitigating adverse impacts on adjacent homes.”
Consequently, we need development that is environmentally sensitive so that we protect our tree canopy and mitigate the impacts of increased storm water runoff.
We need to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing and there are many older, affordable homes and apartment complexes throughout District E that are vulnerable to gentrification.
We need to manage traffic appropriately and ensure that our District shares equally in transit improvements.
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 have introduced a number of successful measures to increase transparency and engagement.
There is now free parking in the municipal lot for meeting attendees.
In addition to regular City Council meetings, City Council work sessions now also are televised.
I have been an effective advocate for stronger storm water regulations.
I helped move forward decisions on two items (Accessory Dwelling Units and Short Term Rentals) that previously Councils had stalemated on for years.
As a member of both the Growth & Natural Resources Committee (GNR) and the Healthy Neighborhoods Committee (HNC), I advanced numerous text changes in support of compatible and sustainable development, including ongoing work on Residential Infill Compatibility Standards.
I worked with City staff, NCDOT, and neighborhood groups to facilitate communication and opportunities for dialogue about plans to revamp the interchange at I-440, Glenwood Avenue, and Ridge Road. NCDOT has subsequently announced a delay in the project as requested by area residents. Additionally, I successfully led the effort for Council to unanimously vote to recommend to NCDOT that there be no connectivity from Ridge Road to Crabtree Valley Avenue and to request that NCDOT submit any future plans that would impact the Ridge Road neighborhood to City Council for review.
I have increased opportunities for community engagement through regular email and social media updates and monthly town hall meetings.
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?
I had very much hoped to put an Affordable Housing bond on the ballot in 2019, but community support was lacking. The City must rely on outside support to market and advocate for the bond and no groups were willing to step up to do that in 2019. It would have been a mistake to risk putting a bond on the ballot and having it fail. I am working with others to ensure we have appropriate support for a 2020 bond.
5) Assuming the council places a bond referendum on the 2020 ballot, how much money to 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?
I think we need to be bold and ask for somewhere between $50M — $100M. The money should fund land banking, particularly along transit corridors, public-private partnerships, low income housing tax credit gap financing, homeowner rehabilitation, and down payment assistance.
I am particularly interested in what we can do to preserve existing, naturally occurring affordable housing as existing housing is the least expensive to provide. I support offering incentives to preserve this type of housing, including modifying zoning rules to discourage tear-downs and replacement of affordable housing with more expensive properties.
In addition to a bond, we should explore other options with developers and other community members. Council recently appointed an affordable housing expert to our Planning Commission and she has some ideas from her experience in other states worth exploring.
In the interest of fairness, I believe that developers ought to give back to the community when they profit from their endeavors. Council recently provided a way for developers to offer voluntary conditions that include commitments to affordable housing.
I support investigating reducing the development fees charged by the City and expediting the City’s plan reviews for affordable housing developments.
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?
It is critical that as we make room to accommodate our growth, we respect and protect the individuals who are longterm residents. I would seek to do this through property tax relief for older, longterm residents all across our City.
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?
Most NCODs that I am familiar with in Raleigh were adopted by neighborhoods in an effort to prevent gentrification. People saw moderately priced homes being torn down, lots clear cut, and much larger, more expensive homes being built in their neighborhoods. NCODs offered them a way to try to limit that.
NCODs are being used because the stated intent of our UDO’s Residential Infill Compatibility Standards (“The intent of the residential infill compatibility standards is to accommodate and encourage compatible development in existing neighborhoods, while reinforcing the established character of the neighborhood and mitigating adverse impacts on adjacent homes.”) is not backed up by our zoning regulations.
I, along with several other Council members, requested staff conduct a study on Infill. The results of the study will be presented to Council in early 2020 and I hope it will allow us to put in place more regulations to address gentrification and prevent the destruction of our tree canopy.
8) If you could change anything about the city’s unified development ordinance, what would it be and why?
Stricter regulations to enforce the stated intent of the Residential Infill Compatibility, which would help prevent gentrification, preserve our tree canopy, and strengthen storm water management rules.
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.
Our ADU regulations are too new to evaluate effectively. If they prove to be unsuccessful, I support looking at other approaches, however I do not believe ADUs should be allowed by right everywhere.
The purpose of our zoning rules is to provide some predictability and people who bought property with the understanding that it was zoned R-4, R-6, R-10, or whatever, should not be expected to accept a doubling of density in their neighborhoods without any input.
There are serious environmental impacts to increased density, including potential loss of tree canopy and increase in impervious surface leading to storm water runoff issues.
I am also concerned about the impact on our ability to have an effective mass transit system if density is increased all over the city rather than along transit corridors.
Additionally there are numerous neighborhoods and subdivisions whose HOAs or restrictive covenants would not allow anything but single-family detached homes, so it’s my understanding that ADUs would only be possible in about 30% of the city.
Finally, there is a growing consensus by national experts that ADUs largely benefit wealthy white homeowners. A “pro-ADU by right anywhere group” took council members on a tour of ADUs in Cameron Park. They all were renting at market rates and none were being used to house family members. Because NC does not allow inclusionary zoning, the City would not be able to require that ADUs be made available to homeless and/or low income individuals.
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?
Automobile traffic and parking concerns are going to be with us for many years as we try to transition to a less car-centric way of life. We are faced with balancing today’s needs with tomorrow’s promises of a more public transit focused lifestyle.
While some believe we should constrain roads and parking now in order to force people to choose options other than cars, at this point and in the near term we do not have realistic viable alternatives.
That’s why Council has required, and Mr. Kane has agreed to, a Traffic Impact Analysis for his 40-story tower.
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?
As with any zoning request, for me the criteria for evaluation include environmental impact, adequate infrastructure support, and compatibility with surroundings.
Height and density along a transit corridor make sense, but it is critical that the density include affordability.
When we grant additional height to a development, thereby enriching the developer, I believe it is only fair that the developer share some of the increased proceeds by giving back to the community in some fashion.
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?
Once again we need to balance the competing interests of various groups in a fair and efficient manner. We need to be respectful of the multitude of opinions on the topic. I’ve seen too many people, on both sides of these issues, be dismissive of the other’s point of view.
As a City Council member, I was contacted by people who love e-scooters and feel that the City shouldn’t regulate so many things about them. They contend that scooters are fun, that they help with transit options, that they’re beneficial for the environment, and that they provide extra income for folks who sign up to be “chargers.”
I also was contacted by people who had serious reservations about e-scooters. They operate in the City right-of-way without paying anything to the City, they didn’t bother to go through any kind of process to secure the right to operate in the City, they are left in the right-of-way and block access for people (especially those with limited mobility), they are unsafe when ridden by children and people without helmets, they are being ridden on sidewalks instead of in the street, etc. Furthermore, many people cited a Portland survey that found that most scooter riders would have walked, biked, or taken public transit if a scooter had not been available. So they may not be replacing car-generated pollution as much as is claimed. Additionally, the claim that scooters are advantageous to the environment has been questioned because their lithium ion batteries don’t last long, and, according to a recent New York Times article, the scooters themselves have a shelf-life ranging from three to ten months.
Consequently I supported the City putting out a request for proposals and evaluating vendors, taking into account criteria including safety, reliability, and accessibility, as well as plans to help low-income residents utilize scooters.
I don’t want to treat these vendors any differently from other entities who wish to operate in the City right-of-way.
As far as bike lanes, the City is making more of an effort to provide protected bike lanes, but once again there are trade-offs between automobiles, bus transit, and bicycles that we must grapple with and we have limited resources with which to do so.
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 proud that I was part of a group that engineered a successful compromise on short-term rentals where previous Councils had been stalemated for years. Our short-term rental rules allow a homeowner to rent out one or two rooms in their home, which helps preserve housing stock for Raleigh residents and prevents residential neighborhoods from being turned into commercial zones. I would favor increasing the number of adults allowed under these circumstances.
We continue to work on options for whole house rentals that would allow some short-term rentals, but not enough to encourage investors to buy up properties for the sole purpose of renting them out on a short-term basis.
Our City Attorney helped devise our regulations so that they do not conflict with State law. It is important that every municipality have the right to regulate short-term rentals in a way that makes sense for their community.
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 have been an advocate for more support for our Citizen Advisory Councils – to publicize them and make meetings easier to attend in a variety of ways – in person, virtually, with childcare, etc. I have been working closely with some CAC leaders on this objective and helped successfully advocate for equipment to facilitate live-streaming of meetings.
I regularly attend Citizen Advisory Council meetings so that I can learn first-hand about issues and concerns. It would be helpful if we could coordinate CAC geographic boundaries and CAC meeting schedules to make it possible for District representatives to more easily attend CAC meetings in their District.
I, along with several other Council members, have advocated for greater clarity about the role of our CACs, especially with regard to the RCAC and City staff.
My professional background is in communications so I know you can never do enough to engage your stakeholders and there are numerous opportunities in addition to CACs that warrant consideration.
Before I was elected to Council, I began compiling and circulating a weekly email listing various City meetings with agenda topics. I have continued that practice as an elected Council member and receive very positive feedback. I asked the City’s communications department to consider providing a similar service, but they didn’t feel it was a high priority.
I hold regular monthly town halls for my constituents that are open to anyone. I would like to coordinate these types of meetings across the City with my fellow Council members so that regardless of your City Council district, residents would have similar opportunities to interact with Council members.
I respond quickly and personally to all emails, phone calls, and meeting requests because I believe it’s important for constituents to know that they are being heard. That builds trust and fosters engagement. Again, different Council members handle these communications differently and I would like to find a way for all Raleigh residents to be treated similarly. This could involve creating an ombudsman or troubleshooter office where residents could ask questions and get problems resolved.
While I try to publicize opportunities to volunteer on our various City Boards and Commissions, we need a more objective and rigorous process to ensure diversity of thought and representation on these bodies.
I want to meet people where they are, so I support increased use of NextDoor and other social media platforms, holding City Council meetings in various locations throughout the City, and scheduling more meetings outside of working hours.
It is difficult to get through to people in this age of information overload, so let’s ask our constituents what would work for them.
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?
I am one of the four current council members, along with David Cox, Kay Crowder, and Russ Stephenson, who believe Raleigh should join the lawsuit or file our own lawsuit over the RDU Airport Authority’s quarry lease. Mayoral candidate Charles Francis and District A candidate Sam Hershey also support taking action.
Our City Attorney has confirmed that because we are on the deed, we do have standing to take legal action. I believe we are setting a dangerous precedent by not getting involved. And in the past when Raleigh has taken the lead on similar issues, the other three municipalities have followed suit.
The RDU Airport Authority’s decision-making process has not been transparent or inclusive.
Shortly after I began serving on the Raleigh City Council in December 2017, we began discussing holding a work session with RDU to discuss a number of items, including the issue of the potential expansion of the quarry. That meeting never happened and instead we were invited out to the airport in September 2018 for what was essentially a “dog and pony show.” Several of us continued to try to schedule a more substantive meeting to no avail.
In January 2018 I attended a celebration of the new shops opening in Terminal 2 and asked several Board members about the quarry, noting that I had been contacted by citizens who had concerns and seemed to think that some action was imminent. I was repeatedly assured that nothing was in the works.
A few weeks later, on February 27th, the RDU Airport Authority called a meeting for March 1st and voted to lease the land for a quarry. Council member Dickie Thompson, one of our representatives on the RDU Airport Authority, called me on February 27th to tell me that this was the first he had heard of the deal.
Furthermore, this deal does not actually appear to be a lease. When the lease is over, we will be left with a hole in the ground. And the quarry owners will have sold off the “contents” at a profit. Several years ago when RDU sold off timber rights, the four municipalities did have to approve the sale.
It’s also not clear that RDU has made the best decision for the Airport or for the community. Financial analysis of the deal calls that into question.
During my professional career, I regularly flew in and out of RDU. In fact, American Airlines has recognized me as a Lifetime Platinum member of their frequent flyer club based on my accumulating more than 2 million air miles during this time.
I very much recognize and appreciate how RDU contributes to business and I want to work with them to understand how we can find mutually beneficial ways to fund the airport’s needs without endangering the environment.
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?
The current Raleigh City Council has been very effective in moving the City forward. An NCSU professor analyzed our votes and found that of the many resolutions considered at all of the council meetings from January to June of this year, more than 90% were approved unanimously. It’s particularly noteworthy that we unanimously passed our latest budget (without a tax increase) and unanimously passed the Dix Park Master Plan. We also moved forward on two issues (ADUs and Short-term rentals) that previous councils had stalemated on for years.
It has not always been a collegial atmosphere serving on this Council, but I think the Mayor bears much of the responsibility for that being the case. Given that she is not running for re-election, I am hopeful that the atmosphere will improve after she is gone.
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?
I support a police oversight board, but want to hear more from the community and the police about what kind of board they think would best help build trust. We need to think carefully about what types of representation would be appropriate on such a board – community members, mental health professionals, retired police officers, education professionals. Adequate orientation and training to understand what it is like to serve as a police officer should be a prerequisite for service on any proposed board.
18) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.