Name as it appears on the ballot: Russ Stephenson
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.RussForRaleigh.com
Occupation & employer: Architect and Urban Design Consultant / self employed
Years lived in Raleigh: 36
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?
The data indicate we have done many things very well and a few things need more work.
The positive data is all the top national rankings Raleigh continues to receive for things like being a great place to live, work, start a job or a business, raise a family and retire. Likewise, an citywide survey indicates 9 of 10 Raleigh residents rate their quality of life to be very good or excellent, well above national peers.
Troubling data include income immobility and Raleigh’s 2015 ranking one of the worst cities in the nation to be born into poverty and ever hope of achieving the American dream. That is why I have introduced a strategic Equity and Opportunity initiative to Council every year since 2016 (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rlxsR8EqaxiUjAA15IqAvkI_ydntCsWV/view?usp=sharing). I am encouraged that this year, for the first time, Council has agreed to take the first steps toward confronting majority biases and eliminating ingrained disparities in our existing policies. The initiative will include an Equity Assessment Tool so that future decisions – like where to place moloks or if a proposed sports and entertainment complex should be built at taxpayer expense – will ensure that the impacts and benefits of growth will be shared equitably among all citizens.
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.
#1 EQUITY – Raleigh cannot become a great city until it becomes an equitable city. The most progressive and competitive cites all understand that the most important investment in their sustained economic prosperity is their people, their human capital. Based on Raleigh’s income immobility statistics and my own personal view from Council, Raleigh is becoming increasingly a city of winners and losers. Instead, we have an opportunity to frame equity as an economic driver of Raleigh’s sustained economic prosperity and take bold actions to make Raleigh a great and equitable city.
#2 HOUSING AFFORDABILITY – Housing affordability is an important and highly visible component of becoming an equitable city, along with education, healthcare, transportation, jobs and criminal justice. Understanding this, my Council committee has worked over the last year to bring forward a broad range of solutions to increase Raleigh’s supply of affordable housing: (1) We amended our zoning rules for townhomes and cottage courts to add density, affordability and neighborhood compatibility. (2) We reduced minimum parking requirements (and therefore unit costs) for multi-family housing and recommended eliminating parking minimums downtown. (3) We are studying fee reductions and expedited reviews for affordable projects. Finally, (4) we are studying compatible infill within what has been a 50 ft no-build zone between mixed use projects and residences.
These solutions are in addition to other Raleigh initiatives already underway: (5) Raleigh’s Affordable Housing and Location Plans, (6) the dedicated ‘Penny For Housing’ property tax commitment, (7) the initiation of citywide voluntary affordable housing zoning conditions and guidelines, and (8) a substantial affordable housing bond will be placed on the March 2020 primary ballot. The bond will fund 5 programs: 1. Homeownership, 2. Land Banking along transit routes, 3. gap funding for Low Income Tax Credit projects, 4. Rehabilitation and 5. Public-Private Partnerships.
#3 GROWTH MANAGEMENT – The Triangle Business Journal reports that Raleigh is in a building boom and is being flooded with billions of global investor dollars. The question for Council is: will we focus on quality or quantity? Will Council give away height and density entitlements the way it did up and down Capital Boulevard decades ago, without negotiating any community benefits? Or will we look to our adopted Comprehensive Plan policies to guide sustainable and equitable growth and to ensure Raleigh grows Better, Not Just Bigger – in ways that protect the quality of life we have worked so hard to create over the past 14 years? During that time, we’ve weathered a previous boom, a 100-year drought, the great recession and now an even bigger boom. During the recession years, Council took a less active role in defining a vision for Raleigh’s future, but now it is time for Council to pull together as a team to produce a stronger vision for Raleigh’s growth that focuses on quality and protects the sustained and equitable quality of life for all Raleigh residents.
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?
My Council qualifications are uniquely broad and deep, including professional training in sustainable city design, a record of success in bringing Raleigh to the top of national rankings, policy leadership in environmental and sustainable growth initiatives, and the strongest vision in action for affordable housing production and citywide equity planning.
Qualifications in Detail:
My Council resume includes the strongest combination of qualifications needed to extend and improve Raleigh’s unprecedented record of sustained prosperity – making sure Raleigh Grows Better, Not Just Bigger.
(1) Professional Training: Credentials in Environmental Design, LEED-Accredited Architecture and award winning Urban Design Consulting.
(2) Record of Success: An active member of Council teams that have brought Raleigh to the top of many national rankings. 9 of 10 residents rank Raleigh’s quality of life as good to excellent.
(3) Policy Leadership: A long record of Council leadership in:
• Environmental Policy – I co-signed the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2007, committing Raleigh for the first time ever to renewable energy sources and greenhouse gas reductions. I’ve also led efforts to create new Low Impact Development rules to reduce stormwater runoff impacts, while increasing on-site capture and reuse. I have been endorsed by the Sierra Club in eight elections.
• Sustainable Growth Policy – as the leading Council contributor to Raleigh’s Comprehensive Plan and UDO regulations – establishing the foundation to ensure that Raleigh grows better and not just bigger.
(4) Vision in Action: The strongest vision for Raleigh’s future, with work in progress on:
• Affordable Housing production – combining regulatory reform to increase ‘missing middle’ housing, reducing parking requirements citywide, initiating voluntary affordable housing conditions so developers have skin in the game and leading Council efforts to hold the largest-ever affordable housing bond in the Spring.
• A citywide ‘Equity and Opportunity for All Plan’ in the works to eliminate ingrained disparities so that all Raleigh residents have the same opportunities to work hard, achieve their goals in life and contribute to Raleigh’s sustained prosperity.
Taken together, I have an unmatched record of expertise, of solid success on the job, and a strong vision in action for Raleigh’s sustained prosperity.
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 began discussing an affordable housing bond with Council and staff in January of 2018. If there had been stronger support, the bond could have been held this fall. We need to fund all five bond programs as soon as possible: Homeownership, Land Banking along transit routes to facilitate the construction of denser, affordable projects, gap funding for Low Income Tax Credit projects, Rehabilitation of existing affordable units and Public-Private Partnerships. But we especially need to fund land banking along transit routes now to minimize the costs of escalating land values along those routes.
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?
While I support a bond of about $100M, the ultimate amount will be determined by a Council majority. The key is to move forward as soon as possible, knowing we can schedule another bond as need dictates. Other steps: see my answer to question 2, under Housing Affordability.
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?
Protecting neighborhood character at the core: See my answer to question 7.
Adding Density at the core: The greatest benefits of adding density and affordability in Raleigh will be as defined in our adopted Comprehensive Plan: downtown, along transit corridors and at mixed-use centers.
Preventing gentrification: I led efforts to refocus Raleigh’s Bus Rapid Transit planning efforts to strengthen nearby businesses and neighborhoods by incorporating anti-gentrification and dislocation elements.
City’s role in strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods: Strong, diverse neighborhoods are the foundation of our city. My ‘Equity and Opportunity for All Plan’ will expand financial tools such as forgivable home improvement loans to help build homeownership and financial equity. But the plan will go further, to increase incomes via job training for residents of vulnerable neighborhoods so they can improve and strengthen their own neighborhoods organically.
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?
Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts (NCODs) were originally designed to protect vulnerable African American neighborhoods from gentrification. They still serve that purpose today and also protect a broader range of affordable neighborhoods from gentrification teardowns and McMansion rebuilds. If we accept that Raleigh’s goal is to promote gentle density and affordability in existing neighborhoods, modify NCOD rules to protect existing affordable homes and permit accessory dwelling units.
8) If you could change anything about the city’s unified development ordinance, what would it be and why?
My Healthy Neighborhoods Committee has recommended a series of UDO changes to increase affordable housing production. All of these recommended changes should be made including (1) new UDO rules for townhomes and cottage courts to add density, affordability and neighborhood compatibility. (2) UDO reductions in minimum parking requirements (and therefore unit costs) for multi-family housing and elimination of parking minimums downtown. (3) new fee reductions and expedited reviews for affordable projects. and (4) new compatible infill within what has been a 50 ft no-build zone between mixed use projects and residences.
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.
In 2012 my Comprehensive Planning Committee spent 6 months developing a citywide national best practices ADU ordinance. Unfortunately there were always at least four Councilors who said it was either too restrictive or too permissive. As a result, Council has been stalemated until this year, when four other Councilors proposed a compromise that would allow neighborhoods to opt in to having ADUs. Like any compromise, it is not anyone’s idea of perfection, but it could be the pilot program that leads to citywide adoption. There is currently a neighborhood moving forward with staff presentations about becoming the first ADU neighborhood.
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?
I would love to see downtown development proposals come forward without little or no off-street park included. Unfortunately, development financers still require 2+ parking spaces per unit (Kane’s project estimates eight floors of parking). Council will continue to build and promote mobility alternatives, but we cannot ignore the car impacts that new developments will add to our streets for the foreseeable future. The solution for Kane’s project was – and the solution for others in the future – is to limit car trips generated (and therefore building size) to a level that maintains adequate street performance for cars and other modes.
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?
Height and density are not goals in themselves. Instead, they are means to accomplishing our city’s goals for sustainable and equitable development. Those goals include environmental and climate protection, maintaining adequate ‘complete streets’ capacity, infrastructure and energy efficiency, a high quality public realm, and enhanced walkability, diversity and affordability with a mix of incomes and uses – especially near transit.
Therefore, the key to appropriate height and density is a function of how well a project balances development economics with its unique context and its consistency with community values, informed by our adopted goals for sustainable and equitable development.
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?
Alternative transportation options downtown: Change is hard when the infrastructure, the professional mobility training and the dominant mobility mode (cars) have been so intertwined and exclusive in our nation’s imagination.
E-scooters: I am a huge fan of e-scooters and have likely ridden more miles than the rest of the Council combined. As such, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. What I see staff doing is what every city is doing: trying to maximize the good while minimizing the bad and the ugly. While it is normal for ardent supporters and detractors on any issue to expect quick solutions, this is new territory where it would be easy to create unexpected problems. As a former software developer, I know that beta testing (aka failing often) is a way to quickly ferret out bugs, but when people’s lives are at stake, patience is a virtue and failing often is not an option.
Protected bike lanes: Traveling in northern European cities, it is amazing to see the sophistication of bicycle infrastructure, interwoven with other mobility modes. Progress in building protected bike lanes in Raleigh continues to lag for the reasons described above, as well as the siloed approach to designing each downtown mode, including BRT. In addition, there is often little support from Council leadership and staff to undertake a thorough update of street standards to provide separated facilities. Instead, those kinds of improvements get designed as exceptions to outdated standards. There is much work to be done.
13) Earlier this year, the city extended 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?
State law conflict? Council relies on our excellent City Attorney to advise us on the legality of our ordinances. So far, we are fine, but the legislature could change that.
Is our STR ordinance the best? As with every issue where there is a range of legitimate opinions, there is no single best solution, only a solution that attempts to optimize the range of stakeholder goals and relevant policy goals. The Homestay ordinance seeks to balance the following goals: (1) To provide safe, inclusive and accountable short term rental housing in Raleigh. (2) To preserve and increase Raleigh’s affordable housing supply. (3) To strengthen rather than weaken neighborhood character, so that neighbors and long-term residents are not replaced by absentee investors and their transient clientele.
As an expansion of the Homestay ordinance, I have brought forward a proposal to Council that would permit whole house STRs in residentially zoned areas for a maximum of 60 days per year. The intent is to expand STR options consistent with the goals listed above.
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?
The CAC system has been a valuable forum for fostering community information sharing and for interacting with the City Staff and Council, both at CAC meetings, when undertaking important rezoning deliberations, and in less formal conversations with CAC leaders. Recent changes undertaken by the RCAC to standardize bylaws and expand opportunities to engage more constituents speaks well of the organization’s ability to change and improve as a largely independent, grass-roots organization serving a key role in the exchange of information between the community, the City and the Council.
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?
Council’s best legal advice is that Raleigh has legal standing and legal grounds for intervening to halt the quarry lease that was signed without public input or consulting Raleigh and the three other local government owners. Instead, we should negotiate an outcome that is better for the airport, better for the environment and better for Umstead State Park. Long term, we need to establish a more collaborative working relationship with the Airport Authority.
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?
As one who has served longest among recent Councils, I have seen Council working relationships deteriorate over the past three years and there is culpability to go around. While I had some fundamental policy disagreements with Mayor Meeker over the years (the proposed downtown Public Safety Tower was the most difficult), the fundamental strength and clarity of his working method is that he never let his personal feelings cloud a vigorous policy debate or cloud his commitment to govern from the middle. In order to move the city forward, Meeker always put a 5-vote majority position ahead of a minority position. If a difficult compromise didn’t quite go his way, Charles never complained or harbored ill will in the next debate. Instead, he always said the thing to do was to claim victory and move on. That is the true spirit of democratic governance rarely seen these days. I hope the next Council can find that level of dispassionate professionalism.
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?
Yes, with strong protections as framed by the courts for Newark NJ (https://www.njtvonline.org/news/uncategorized/courtfavors-newark-in-police-challenge-to-civilian-board/) and with powers similar to Charlotte, Greensboro and Durham, including non-disclosure requirements, limited access to personnel records and court oversight of other document releases.
The overarching goal is not to duplicate the justice system, but to improve police training, equipment and policies so that everyone is safer – citizens and police officers.
18) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
The Raleigh South Opportunity Zone’s tax-sheltered investments should be focused on inclusive community benefits first, rather than private profits. An example would be an Innovation District with Wake Tech training for 21st century jobs and generating start-up opportunities in the community. Focus economic development incentives on local talent development rather than tax abatements used to import talent from elsewhere. Here is the Brookings Institution’s perspective on an inclusive vision for a Raleigh South Innovation District:
Innovation districts are beginning to play a critical role in challenging long-standing economic and social divides. Their collective shift toward inclusivity is a necessary one, and represents a fundamental change in how we both conceptualize and create economic prosperity in the changing global economy.
“Inclusive innovation” seeks to create pathways to labor market participation with specialized education and customized job training. It strives to build wealth via expanding the ownership of homes and businesses. And it tries to create a new model of responsible neighborhood regeneration, where improvements can occur without displacement. For example, Philadelphia shows how innovation districts can use the economic power of anchor institutions to drive job growth in areas of deprivation and catalyze the formation of community businesses, minority-owned businesses, and social enterprises.
We should work with the Raleigh Chamber’s new Triangle Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity Alliance and other community stakeholders to make this happen. If there is to be a sports and entertainment complex in Raleigh, we should invest in our existing Blue Ridge Corridor vision for sports (PNC Arena, Carter Finley Stadium), entertainment, culture (Art Museum) and healthcare (Rex Hospital).