Name as it appears on the ballot: Shelia Ann Huggins
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.votesheliahuggins.com
Occupation & employer: Attorney/Shelia A Huggins PLLC
Years lived in Durham: 20+
1) Please identify the three most pressing issues you believe Durham faces and how you believe the city should address them.
I believe that the top three important issues facing Durham are the following: 1) poverty and the consequences of poverty, 2) growth management (which includes property development, both residential and commercial), and 3) local economy and jobs. But they are all interrelated.
I do not believe that we are adequately supporting projects that impact poverty and help people obtain jobs. Thousands of our residents live in poverty and struggle more than they should in a city and county that is rich in opportunities. I believe that our Office of Economic and Workforce Development and Department of Neighborhood Improvement Services are grossly under-supported in this respect.
But support does not always have to come from raising taxes. Support can happen through the reallocation of resources, increased opportunities through appropriate partnerships, and grant funding and funding from private sources. The Transformation in Ten Initiative has a jobs component with key priorities that have helped residents. The Guaranteed Income Program has provided a monetary payment to residents. The key for some residents really is money or access to services that they normally would have had to pay for. It allows them to have an opportunity to do things that some of us take for granted because we have jobs, and we have a stable income.
Durham is growing and as a result, it is experiencing some growing pains. We have a shortage of housing, and council members are often tasked with deciding zoning requests that can completely change the fabric of a neighborhood. As a council member, here are a few considerations that I would take into account in reviewing requests for rezonings (not in order of importance):
- Potential likelihood of resident displacement and impact on resident displacement
- Current infrastructure capacity and the need for additional infrastructure, for example, roads, water and sewer, schools, etc.
- Current and future environmental impacts for the proposed project on the project’s neighbors and at a macro level that considers other projects that are planned or proposed
- Affordability of the proposed project
- The extent of community outreach and engagement conducted by project proposers
- The extent of community support/non-support for the project, both in the immediate vicinity (more important) and the macro community (less important)
- The extent to which a proposal is supportive of working with the small and disadvantaged business community
- Impact on the tax base
Local Economy and Jobs
The economy of any city is dictated to a large extent by its labor force and the ability to provide jobs in an equitable way. This means that we have to actively 1) support our community partners who provide mental and social health programs so that people are ready for job training programs; 2) support job training programs that are based on job market needs for the future, that provide more than a livable wage, and that provide an opportunity for our residents to develop a career path; and 3) develop a cross-departmental entrepreneurship team that works directly with local businesses and community organizations to increase the number and success of new businesses that are owned by people of color.
- For adults, I would focus on developing more partnerships with local businesses and new businesses relocating to the area to identify the skills and experiences that local employers need the most. We can do this by expanding the use of our business contacts already partnering with us on the Workforce Development Board and increasing our collaborations with local job training centers to provide more advanced skill development and training programs.
- For youth, I would work to continue to increase the number of opportunities for jobs provided to youth through the City’s Youth Work Internship Program, a program that I participated in as a city employee by interviewing youth candidates for employment. I would also develop better relationships among resource groups in our community and find ways to build upon the activities that they are already providing to our youth. Sometimes we can do more by supporting others who are in the community already doing the work.
2) 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 possess 1) almost nine years of direct municipal government experience; 2) a history of service, leadership, and commitment to my community; and 3) an educational background that includes a law degree and a Master of Public Administration degree.
During my tenure with the city, I was the real estate manager in the General Services Department, assistant director for community engagement in Neighborhood Improvement Services, and senior administration manager in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. As a result, I gained significant hands-on experience directing the city’s budget process at the departmental level, managing the strategic planning process,responding to residents’ concerns, and providing training opportunities for staff.
My knowledge of city operations provides me with the ability to comprehensively analyze the challenges that council members are asked to consider. During my employment with the City of Durham, I worked on complex issues relating to environmental contamination, construction project management, transportation, and real estate. I was recognized as a Culture of Service Champion, received S.T.A.R. awards for leadership and teamwork, and completed the city’s Management Academy. In 2012, I presented at the Transforming Local Governments Conference in Kansas, Missouri.
In addition to my City of Durham employment, my professional experience as an attorney and former environmental chemist provides a unique opportunity for the residents of Durham to have someone with a well-established understanding of environmental issues and a commitment to building our small business community. As an attorney, I know what it means to advocate on behalf of others and help build local small businesses.
But my experience, strengths, and ideas are nothing without a team-based approach to implementation. As a member of the City Council, I will be committed to serving all of Durham’s residents. I will listen to all voices, challenge traditional assumptions used during decision-making processes, and set high expectations for myself and our community partners.
3) 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.
I believe that the most important thing the city council has done in the past year (or a little over a year) has to do with its willingness to try new things. I’m speaking of the HEART program and ShotSpotter. Both of these were new programs that were piloted as additional tools for the city’s first responders, and both tools have an online dashboard that all residents can use to review program data at their convenience.
Unfortunately, conversations about these programs have often divided the community, and some of our council members have discussed their support or non-support in ways that have made it harder for the community to engage in constructive dialogue about trying new programs. They have led from a place of ego instead of understanding. They have pitted programs, staff, and departments against each other instead of operating from an analysis that asks: what is best for the residents.
Durham is not unique in trying new programs. Doctors learn and try new surgical techniques. Teachers understand that students learn in different ways. And parents understand that their children may have different needs. All programs are going to have advantages and disadvantages, and our council members should have discussions that consider these.
While I do not expect our elected officials to all agree on policies and programs, I do expect them to keep the residents as the primary concern and to consider all programs that are in the best interests of the residents.
4) The city has seen an uptick in shootings since last year, including recent tragic homicides that claimed the lives of children. Gun violence is obviously a multifaceted problem with no simple solution at the local level. But, in your view, what can or should the city be doing to stem the tide of violence that it isn’t doing now?
This is a complex problem that requires the participation of government agencies, family members, the faith community, programmers for youth activities, job training programs, mental health care providers, educational institutions, intervention coordinators, employment centers, substance abuse programs, and more. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive coordinated sustained effort whereby all of these parties work together and understand how they can work together. In other words, we are doing a great deal as a community, but we are not as connected as we could be. We operate in silos or in groups of silos.
One action that the city can take is to operate as the connector that brings it all together. But this can’t be a one-time event, a task force that makes recommendations and then moves on. It can’t be a roundtable of community leaders that comes together quarterly to discuss the issues. It has to be a long-term commitment to build a cohesive and comprehensive system that looks at the end goal of violence reduction and operates backward with a plan that shows how we attack each contributor to violence, the role of our community partners, the resources needed, and with milestones for assessing how well we’re doing and the changes that we need to make. Right now, there is no one comprehensive tool that brings these components together.
The list of the causes of crime and violence is long. It includes poverty, low education attainment, peer pressure, family instability, substance abuse, low self-esteem, mental health conditions, and other contributors. The list of the groups and people working on these causes is also long. But the connective piece that brings it all together with a plan that operates on a long-term basis is missing.
This past weekend was Centerfest. According to the Durham Arts Council website, it has been operating since 1974, with thousands of people attending this annual arts festival. If we can bring people together for arts, we can bring people together to save people’s lives. We’re currently using dashboards to share data about HEART and ShotSpotter. If we can create dashboards to capture and share data, we can find a comprehensive way to share anti-violence strategies and resources to map a plan forward to reduce violence and homicides in the city. But we have to be committed to building a better, more comprehensive plan and sustainable effort that includes all of the necessary community partners. The city should take the lead in this effort.
5) What can or should the city be doing to support people who are not in control of their own housing (including renters, the unhoused, and those whose homes are owned by banks) as costs of living skyrocket?
We know that the city can’t impose rent controls. Therefore, we have to consider 1) helping people have more control by increasing their earning power, 2) having the city use its property to increase the supply of affordable units, and 3) working with other organizations to provide assistance and support to people.
Earning power means a lot when it comes to purchasing a home, paying utilities and expenses, and paying for home repairs. When a person is not in control of their own housing, they live in their home at the will of the owner, usually through a rental contract. For people who have the ability and desire to train and work in higher-paying fields, we should match them with training opportunities that provide higher earnings and put them in control of owning their own house.
We should also support people who love the jobs they have, even though those jobs might not provide a higher earning capacity. The city can help with this by using city property for the development of affordable housing. The city still has ownership of the old police station, and in the past, the city considered the development of the Chapel Hill Street lot and deck in a deal with Greenfire. A new option could be a public-private partnership redevelopment that includes affordable housing on that property or other properties owned by the city. A public-private partnership would provide for both commercial and residential and allow for more affordable units to be built.
Finally, for both housed and unhoused, there are sometimes other issues that impact housing stability. This includes mental health care, eviction assistance, domestic violence, substance abuse, and others. This means needs the city needs to continue to support the HEART program, opportunities for youth through the YouthWorks program, the Eviction Diversion Program, and other programs that address the underlying challenges that renters and the unhoused face.
6) Describe your vision for sustainable growth and development in Durham, including your view of how Expanding Housing Choices has impacted Durham’s communities and built environment since the policy’s passage in 2019; your thoughts on SCAD and the extent to which developers should be involved in shaping the city’s zoning codes; and an example of a municipality you believe has made smart decisions related to growth and development that could be similarly implemented in Durham.
Durham is a desirable city to live and work in. It’s located in the middle of the state with access to beaches and mountains. It’s conveniently located near RTP and RDU and has three educational institutions that provide educational opportunities and jobs. Add DPAC, the Durham Bulls, Hayti Heritage Center, Nasher, Duke Hospital, state historic sites, and the list goes on and on. In other words, the growth is not going to stop. So, we have to find a way to grow in a balanced way that minimizes harm to our neighborhoods, our environment, and our people. This is my vision for Durham.
Expanding Housing Choices was never going to be a panacea for our low housing supply or our affordability issue. While it may indeed help with supply, construction prices have increased, labor has increased; gas prices have increased. The consumer price index is up. The costs to build are what they are, and in many ways, money is going to be the driving force that decides who can afford to build ADUs in their backyards, who gets to take advantage of buying and building on smaller lots, and who gets to pay for and propose changes to our zoning codes.
The concerns expressed regarding growth have included gentrification, a takeover by developers, the undesirability of certain housing styles, the impact on the environment, the changing character of “historic” and “traditional” neighborhoods, and increased traffic. All of these are legitimate concerns. Residents see buyers purchasing lots, subdividing them into smaller lots, and then selling them to builders with little consideration for the neighboring properties and neighborhoods. The new houses are usually market-rate houses at prices that aren’t necessarily affordable.
It’s time for us find a way to work together in an equitable manner to build a better Durham. I have talked about starting over with SCAD, having a re-set. Since then, the Planning Department has issued a report breaking down each amendment, providing the purpose for the change, how it’s different from the current requirements, and the staff’s recommendations. The biggest issue, though for me and many others, concerns the time requirement for the PATH program. Five years is not enough. I think we can do better than that.
7) In August, the city released a report showing lead-contaminated soil in several parks in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Durham. What can or should the city be doing to address existing environmental injustices and prevent further environmental racism as Durham expands?
During my tenure working for the State of North Carolina, I worked in an environmental lab where I performed lead analysis on paint chips, blinds, and even toys, as one of my responsibilities. Because the need for testing was so great, I was often in the lab before 7:30 a.m. I also tested water for petroleum products and air samples for radiation. I moderated a session at a statewide event that focused on site assessment and remediation. I’ve attended EPA trainings and conferences on natural attenuation, advanced well drilling, risk communication, hazardous waste generation, waste minimization, and more.
My education includes a B.S. degree in biological sciences, with a minor in genetics and a specialization in microbiology. I worked at the State Laboratory of Public Health for eight years and also worked as an environmental chemist advising businesses and industries across the state about compliance with federal environmental laws in the Division of Waste Management. I’ve taught an environmental biology lecture and a lab course at Vance-Granville Community College. In other words, I have one of the strongest environmental backgrounds of all of the candidates running, and I understand the impact of environmental contaminants on our bodies and the need to provide transparent and honest information to our residents.
As you know, for each council vote, council members receive an agenda memo, which provides a recommendation from staff, information about the financial impact, an analysis of the issues, and other pertinent information. What it does not provide is an environmental impact statement. I propose that we update our agenda memo process to include an environmental impact statement on every agenda memo, that provides necessary information that the public will have access to. This statement should let us know whether we are moving in the right direction, maintaining the status quo, or going in the wrong direction.
We can’t continue to call ourselves environmental stewards and pat ourselves on the back when we don’t include an environmental assessment in every decision that we make. By making this one significant change, we will know with every single decision whether we are preventing further environmental harm and racism in Durham on a comprehensive scale.
8) What are the city’s most pressing transit needs?
The most pressing transit needs include alleviating highway congestion, providing pedestrian and bicycle safety, and further developing our bus and paratransit services. We’re already tackling some of the easy issues such as bus shelters, free fares, and approving Vision Zero. The harder part is moving from a vision that included light rail to a plan that actually works for our city now and in the future.
Years ago, I was one of 300 stakeholders selected to participate in Reality Check, “a collaborative regional visioning process,” coordinated by Urban Land Institute’s Triangle District Council and Triangle Tomorrow. At the time, it was the first in North Carolina and the ninth in the nation. We used large-scale regional maps to decide on key principles related to growth. It included transportation options, and it serves as a reminder that we have to look at transportation issues on a macro and micro level. This includes 1) building transportation corridors and neighborhoods in ways that connect and minimize congestion across the region and in Durham, 2) continuing to coordinate planning efforts through the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the NCDOT, 3) listening to residents about their needs and the solutions they are proposing, and 4) building complete streets where possible.
Highway congestion is back. Light rail is off the table, but now we have an opportunity to incorporate bus-rapid transit into our transportation plans. Remote work options should be encouraged by our employers, along with flexible work schedules.
On a micro level, we need to build complete streets that incorporate uses by vehicles, bikes, pedestrians, and mobility assistance equipment. This will increase safety and increase transportation options for our residents.
According to the City of Durham website, “The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently announced a $292,500 grant from the Areas of Persistent Poverty program to the City of Durham to fund a draft plan for the new Village Transit Center (VTC) near The Village Shopping Center in East Durham.” This area was selected because it was the route with the second-highest number of riders. I believe that by improving transportation services in areas of high poverty, residents will be better able to travel to jobs, educational and training opportunities, health care, and more. Once we start with VTC, we should also analyze what’s working and determine whether there are other places in the city that could benefit from a similar program. This also means that we work toward keeping a fare-free bus system.
In addition to this, we’ve also heard from residents regarding which routes need higher frequency services, and residents have also expressed concerns about the need to expand the hours of bus services. This is something we should continue to monitor and also look for opportunities to make the necessary changes. Regarding our paratransit services, I have heard complaints regarding the length of time for pickup, issues relating to scheduling changes, and issues related to health care appointments. My priorities would focus on remedying the issues that we’ve already heard about from residents.
9) What can or should the city be doing to uplift low-wage workers? To uplift small businesses?
We frequently talk about uplifting low-wage workers by increasing the minimum wage. We talk about getting them to a livable or thriving wage. But the reality is that these are talking points that sound good but lack a solid action plan, especially at a time when retailers (Walmart, Kroger, and Dollar General) are piloting self-service only stores, and companies like Cruise (now conducting research in Raleigh) are testing driverless vehicles that will compete with gig workers driving for Lyft and Uber. Many of these jobs are not going to exist as we now know them, and therefore, we need to prepare our workers to pivot to jobs that will be available. My suggestion is that we take the following actions.
- The city needs to work with new and existing employers to identify higher-paying jobs and pathways to higher-paying jobs. We need to know the skills, training, and experience that employers expect workers to have.
- Once we’ve identified what’s needed, the city should work with job training programs and our educational institutions to make sure that our residents identify pathways that align with their strengths and goals and work with both to build an identified career.
The two primary city departments that may be the appropriate lead departments are the Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) and Human Resources. They have the expertise and are already involved in workforce development and career opportunities.
But those are external actions that the city can take, and they generally apply to private-sector employers. There are also actions that the city can take with its workers. This year, we’ve heard from our city workers who feel like they have not been supported when it comes to vacancies, worker safety, career progression, and even respect. I’ve listened as workers have stated that they want career progression opportunities to be provided to them by the city. Consequently, the city can take steps internally, similar to the ones listed above. It can provide clear steps, education, training, and experience for a worker to move up within the organization. Currently, the pathway is not clear. Workers do not have clear information regarding additional jobs in the organization that they could qualify for.
For small businesses, the support has gotten better. The city now has a program accessible on its website called, Durham Business 360. It is a comprehensive site that provides small businesses with information that can help them get financing, understand legal issues, and plan out their businesses. But there is room for improvement.
As an attorney, I’ve worked with numerous small businesses, especially women and minority-owned businesses to help them get off the ground and put solid business practices into place. Most of the legal business support I provide is to small businesses in Durham, and they are mostly solopreneurs, trying to build economic stability for their families because the current employment market has left them out. I have provided workshops through Durham Technical Community College’s Small Business Center, served on the NCCU School of Business Board of Visitors, and provided pro bono legal services to entrepreneurs through the North Carolina Bar Association’s former LEAP program. My understanding and work with small businesses include the food industry, transportation services, educational institutions, non-profits, health care, personal services, and more. I have been licensed for over 20 years.
Here are four suggestions on how to uplift small businesses, based on the experiences that I’ve encountered working with small businesses in Durham:
- In order to provide a more inclusive small business website, the city should add video content that presents small business information in bite-sized pieces that our Durham entrepreneurs can more easily understand. This information should also be shared on the city’s social media websites.
- For Durham businesses that weren’t eligible for the Durham Small Business Recovery Program grant funds, the city should continue efforts to support small businesses that face financial hardships by directing businesses to partners that can assist them with becoming grant-eligible. According to sources, DSBR “received 281 applications; 51% were eligible and approved for funding.”
- The city should consider directly working with employers to create business mentor relationships between existing small businesses and new entrepreneurs. While there are organizations such as SCORE that provide mentor assistance, an expanded free Durham business-to-Durham business mentor program would likely be more effective.
- As a part of the city’s YouthWork program, there should also be an entrepreneurial component for youth who want work experience and entrepreneurial experience.
10) How do you currently, or how do you plan to, engage with constituents across all of Durham’s demographics? Building on that response, how do you currently, or how do you plan to, weigh differing insights from constituents, fellow council members, city staff, and advisory committees when coming to a decision on a vote?
I lived in Durham for over 20 years. During that time, I built relationships in many different organizations, with a variety of business owners, and with community organizations. These relationships are spread across political and ideological perspectives, economic strata, educational background, race, gender, and age. As an attorney, I’ve worked with people in need on a daily basis, and I understand that communication and respect are key components in every relationship. Some of the groups that I have memberships or are affiliated with include the following: George White Bar Association, Friends of Durham, Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Peoples Alliance, Coalition on Affordable Housing and Transit, Durham Democratic Party, Durham Senior Democrats, Democratic National Committee, and more.
Since I would be a new addition to the council, one of the things that needs to take place is for me to fully understand my role and authority. Along with that also comes the need to understand the roles of other city council members, administration, staff, and the city departments. This can be accomplished in several ways: by taking advantage of training opportunities, developing mentor relationships with former elected officials who can offer guidance, participating in events with staff (such as recognition ceremonies, staff programs, ride-a-longs, etc.); relying on the expertise of the city attorney for city matters; and understanding the experience and knowledge that other parties bring to the table.
One of the concerns that I consistently hear from residents is that want council members who respond to emails and return calls. They expect council members to listen to concerns and treat them with respect, and not just brush them off or act as if their concerns don’t matter.
I will look for ways to build trust with all parties, seek to understand their issues, work with them, and listen to solutions that they bring forward. I understand that it will take time to build trust and relationships, and I am committed to that.
11) How should Durham’s city council address first responder vacancies?
Like many municipalities, Durham is facing a challenge in hiring and keeping first responders. The key to addressing first responder vacancies is in listening to workers and providing solutions to the challenges that they are presenting. This includes the following: 1) treating workers with respect; 2) paying workers promised pay; 3) requiring career progression pathways that are clearly defined and treat all workers equitably; 4) paying workers rates that are in line with other municipalities; and 5) providing benefits in an equitable manner.
12) If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.
We have talked a lot about providing more affordable housing. However, there’s no house that is affordable if you can’t find a job or don’t have an income to pay for it. Given the changing job market, the influx of artificial intelligence, robots, and ChatGPT, we need to start having honest conversations with our residents about what it’s going to take to get a job, build a career, and afford a house. It is rarely going to be with a minimum-wage job or with a job that is going to be replaced because of innovations in technology. We need to work closely with employers to identify the skills, training, and experience that residents need so that residents can buy homes, provide economic stability for their families and build wealth. Families need to have pathways to economic security. It takes money to pay for housing, medical care, educational opportunities, and transportation.
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