Name as it appears on the ballot: Leonardo “Leo” Williams

Age: 42

Party affiliation: Democrat

Campaign website:

Occupation & employer: Business Owner, Zweli’s

Years lived in Durham: 24 years

1) Please identify the three most pressing issues you believe Durham faces and how you believe the city should address them.

I believe our City Council’s top three priorities should be housing, safety, and transit. 

Housing: We need affordable living (from living wages across the city to workforce development) in Durham which will allow residents to find housing that fits their needs and affordability. We need a versatile housing framework in Durham, promoting multi-use properties, uplifting conditions for public housing residents, and meeting affordable needs for all.

Safety: We need a comprehensive safety approach that incorporates funding for HEART, entities actively combating and preventing crime, and holistic wraparound services and care.

Transit: We need multimodal transit options and expanded connectivity within and beyond the city, coupled with improved infrastructure targeting essential repairs.

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?

Crucial to my track record is my ability to govern and collaborate across differences. I am proud that through my engagement with the community, I recognized and sought support for priorities they uplifted in our upcoming budget. Throughout the budget process, I made significant efforts to advocate for the inclusion of these items. I had more items included in the budget than any other council member, and they garnered unanimous support from all council members. Among these items were the Taskforce on Black Men & Boys to address crime and create interventions, funding for the Durham Symphony Orchestra to uplift the arts, a citywide apprenticeship program to address workforce development and job vacancies, and a community design lab at ReCity to empower community members to engage in solving community issues. My approach to the budget process was guided by a commitment to good governance, community needs, and a determination to address pressing issues effectively. 

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.

While we accomplished much, one of the achievements that stands out to me is the passage of this year’s historic budget. This budget addressed various pressing needs and priorities within the community. We were also able to address every budget request from our council members. Of the budget items, we voted to fund a pay study for city employees which reflects the council’s dedication to equitable compensation, ensuring that city employees are appropriately rewarded for their contributions. We also voted to invest in the Fayetteville Street Corridor which is a significant step toward revitalizing an essential and historic part of the city. We were also able to fund a direct response to vacancy issues in the police and fire department; we now have capacity to hire more officers and it allowed us to enroll the largest firefighter recruit class. The city council’s actions over the past year reflect a commitment to fiscal responsibility, community development, and public safety.

One decision by the council that can be handled differently is our private text amendment submission process. This process allows private entities or organizations to submit policy proposals or text amendments for consideration by the council. For instance, let’s take SCAD, a proposal with potentially beneficial components for our city. However, the main issue with this submission was the sheer size of the document, which became a focal point of discussion rather than the substance of the proposal. The document was so extensive that it made it difficult for both the public and fellow council members to follow and fully understand its contents. One potential alternative approach to improve this process could involve modifying the number of zoning code changes that can be addressed within a single text amendment, regardless of who submits it. Efficient governance not only involves making the right decisions but also effectively communicating those decisions and changes to the public. By setting limits on the number of code changes addressed within a text amendment, the council could potentially make amendments more digestible, ensuring that the focus remains on the substance of the proposals rather than their complexity or length. 

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?

As long as fundamental human rights assets like housing, jobs, food security, mental health support, and education remain inaccessible to certain residents, crime will persist as a symptom of underlying societal issues. We need to focus on comprehensive solutions to crime and gun violence. We as the city government should prioritize addressing the root causes of crime by investing in social programs and initiatives that aim to uplift communities, ensuring access to opportunities and resources for all residents. 

Recently on the City Council, I delved into a pressing problem facing our city – the disproportionately high involvement of Black men and boys, aged 12 to 24, in gun violence. I successfully secured funding in the budget for a task force dedicated to studying and understanding the root causes of this issue. The goal of this task force is to identify and direct resources effectively, with the ultimate aim of reducing and ultimately putting an end to their engagement in gun violence.

I am committed to the HEART program and its mission to add mental health resources to public safety, and I am an advocate to fully staff the program, offer it citywide, and expand its hours. I have been a staunch advocate for the pilot of the HEART program and its recent expansion, and I will continue to support its extension citywide and the expansion of its hours. The early success of the program is encouraging, and I believe in its potential to make a positive impact on our community. However, I also recognize the importance of supplementing the program with other human resources available throughout our community. This includes providing comprehensive care for the whole family, from early childhood education to job placement opportunities for adults and youth. By evolving the HEART program to be more proactive than reactive, we can ensure that people can get connected to long-term care and support that addresses their mental health needs holistically, ultimately reducing potential triggers that result in unfortunate outcomes.

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?

Ensuring livable and affordable housing requires collaborative efforts between the city and individual council members, working hand in hand with landlords. Building strong relationships between all stakeholders is paramount to foster open communication and mutual understanding. To facilitate dialogue and problem-solving, I will re-establish the mayor’s landlord roundtable, providing a platform for landlords, city officials, and community representatives to discuss challenges and explore solutions collaboratively. Additionally, implementing grant programs that subsidize home revitalization can incentivize landlords to invest in their properties, improving living conditions while keeping rents affordable for tenants. These grants can be targeted towards landlords who commit to maintaining affordable rental rates and meeting specific livability standards. To prioritize public housing, expedited processing for applications from landlords who demonstrate their commitment to providing affordable housing options is essential. Streamlining the approval process can encourage more landlords to participate in affordable housing programs and increase the availability of affordable units. I also want to continue the mayor’s deep dive on housing for continuing education to enhance the knowledge and understanding of housing-related issues among council members. 

Durham should continue to invest in a robust Evictions Diversion Program to establish a universal right to counsel for those who are facing evictions. There are also a number of resources and organizations that can support residents with rental assistance; we need to advocate for these programs. We also need to support grassroots coalitions to focus on intersecting issues that include housing but can address other issues like food insecurity, healthcare, and legal aid. As we know, these issues are all connected. 

As mayor, I am committed to addressing the housing needs of low-income residents and unhoused residents by implementing a comprehensive approach that includes wraparound services. Working alongside Commissioner Wendy Jacobs and Councilmember Javiera Caballero, we have already made strides in this direction by supporting Housing for New Hope’s acquisition of Carver Creek. This successful model ensures the preservation of housing as a permanent solution while acquiring surrounding land to provide essential wraparound services for vulnerable populations throughout Durham. I am also currently working with Urban Ministries to redesign their space to incorporate more housing, and they will be partnering with Families Moving Forward. Public-private partnerships for community buyers and renters like the Durham Community Land Trustees can empower community buyers and renters to gain access to affordable housing. These organizations and more are already actively doing this, and I support their work.  It is crucial that we continue to collaborate with community partners that are focused on housing our residents.

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.

Sustainable growth and development: Shared values centered on providing safe and relatively affordable housing for all Durham residents should form the foundation of our relationships with all development and housing entities. Collaboration and communication are essential to achieving this goal in a fast-growing city. When evaluating development and housing plans, I meticulously assess their impact on neighboring communities, as well as the level of resident engagement. I believe that community input and involvement are important in shaping projects that are considerate of local needs and concerns. Density, affordability, and contributions toward the greater public good are also key factors I look for in a development plan. Striking a balance between accommodating growth and maintaining the character of the community is crucial. 

Additionally, we need to differentiate between various types of affordable housing, from workforce housing to public housing, and to have the flexibility to subsidize housing at different levels. This includes a focus on relative cost housing, where the government can adapt and subsidize housing to cater to specific needs. We must recognize that “affordable housing” is a broad term and ensure that our efforts cover not just public housing but also mixed-income options. To maximize impact, we should leverage affordable housing bonds, like we did with public housing; this allowed us to work with entities like DHA to diversify housing options and stretch available funds to extend the reach of housing units offered. Affordability is relative, and understanding this concept will be essential in our pursuit to create and sustain an adequate supply of affordable housing in our community.

Workforce development programs such as the Bulls initiative, Jobs+, and the citywide apprenticeship program, which I successfully secured funding for, will play a crucial role in empowering residents to obtain housing that aligns with their affordability. Additionally, I will explore opportunities to leverage expanded housing choices, utilizing the beneficial policies that can be added, modified, or implemented within our UDO process to build smaller footprint housing along transit corridors. By doing so, we can reduce the reliance on cars and lower transportation costs (I am currently one of the city’s leading representatives on bus rapid transit and intercity networks). Through strategic collaborations, targeted workforce development, and innovative housing choices, we can work towards alleviating the housing challenges for our community members and ensure a more inclusive and sustainable housing.

Expanding Housing Choices  Expanding Housing Choices has marked a positive start for addressing the challenges posed by population growth in Durham. It has allowed us to make progress by promoting infill density through measures like permitting duplexes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs). These steps are important in creating more housing options within existing urban areas, which can reduce urban sprawl and can help with efficient land use. However, I believe we can extend its impact. It is essential to supplement EHC with a new policy that emphasizes tree preservation and runoff mitigation. Durham’s green spaces are integral to our city, and by protecting our tree canopy and minimizing runoff, we can support biodiversity and mitigate the impacts of climate change. While EHC has taken steps towards providing more housing options, we should continue to diversify our housing stock to accommodate residents of all economic backgrounds.

SCAD/developer involvement in shaping city’s zoning codes: SCAD, as a privately initiated text amendment, had some aspects that we could use and some that we could leave behind. However, the sheer size and complexity of the document made it intimidating and difficult for many to comprehend. In my view, it’s crucial to establish guardrails around the extent to which our zoning codes can be modified. The volume and nature of these changes have a profound impact on our community, affecting aspects such as housing, infrastructure, and the environment. Developers can play a role as partners in this process, provided there is transparent and accountable leadership in place. Collaboration between the city and developers can lead to the creation of vibrant, well-planned communities that align with the values and aspirations of residents. It’s crucial to emphasize that developers should not be the sole contributors to shaping our zoning codes. The zoning code should be a reflection of the collective vision and needs of the entire community. As it stands today, allowing anyone to submit text amendments is a democratic approach, but it must be coupled with a robust and multistep due diligence process with appropriate oversight. This process should ensure that any changes align with the overall community standards and priorities.

Smart decisions related to growth and development from another city to be adapted in Durham: In Cary, the public hearing process involves presenting the proposal to the city council first. This initial presentation allows the applicant to receive feedback directly from the city council members as elected representatives of the community. After this initial presentation and feedback, the proposal is then reviewed by the planning commission. The planning commission members are experts in the field of planning and development and also serve as representatives of the community. This two-step process of first presenting to the city council and then to the planning commission before returning to the council for a final vote has several advantages: comprehensive feedback for a well-rounded evaluation, multiple opportunities for public input and community engagement,informed negotiations and better-designed projects, and accountability so that the process isn’t rushed. This could enhance the quality of development decisions, enhance community engagement, and contribute to a more thoughtful process for development in the city. 

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?

The lead contamination in our neighborhoods is a product of historic redlining in our city, not uncommon in cities across the country. It is a fact that environmental racism exists and has a lasting legacy in our city. We must have targeted investment and interventions in these areas. I am committed to prioritizing resources for these areas to enhance their climate resilience, protect against extreme weather events, and ensure that residents have access to vital resources to combat the legacy of injustices in our city.

Engagement: We must engage our communities in the decisions we make. We can’t expect residents to come to us, but we have to meet them where they are. I regularly attend meetings and meet residents at their homes to incorporate their insights and unique needs in our planning.  Beyond awareness and engagement, we have to take concrete steps to remediate the issues at hand. This involves working with experts and residents to further identify solutions. This process should be transparent, with the affected community being kept informed about progress and outcomes. 

Land Use: Land use policies can prevent further damage to our historically Black communities. We can use these policies to encourage green spaces (like canopies), walkable and wheelable spaces (to mitigate carbon emissions), and sustainable infrastructure as well as to deter adding pollution and contaminants in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. We should also ask that soil testing be used as a prerequisite for any new development and continue to assess soil in open spaces. Heat islands in Durham are also a product of environmental racism. I have already collaborated with Trees Durham to maximize tree planting across the city. I have actively supported grants to assess and enhance our tree canopy, with a particular focus on historically marginalized communities impacted by redlining. This not only contributes to climate resilience and reduction of heat islands but also enhances the overall well-being of residents. 

Water: Many of our streams and waterways accumulate waste which then ends up in these same communities downstream. I will collaborate with city workers in our sewage department to address solutions to this issue. I am also committed to working with environmental organizations to reduce the amount of plastic that goes to waste in Durham, which often ends up in our waterway. 

Environmental Crises: Across the country and in our own community, we are seeing the very real impacts of climate change. We have already seen record high temperatures, flooding, and extreme storms affecting our communities this summer. These environmental crises tremendously affect communities of color and low-income communities. We need comprehensive approaches to addressing and responding to these crises. They include increasing and maintaining green infrastructure that are natural buffers for flooding, repairing and maintaining our city systems like stormwater drainage, and intentional zoning and land use.

8) What are the city’s most pressing transit needs?

As a leader in guiding the city’s transportation strategy, I recognize the urgent need to improve mobility within Durham while creating efficient connections to job centers in and beyond Durham. I have worked on initiatives to connect bus stations in regions throughout the city and assess terminal ridership to allow for more efficient and frequent ridership on our buses. I also play an active role as a leading representative for Durham at the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) level. Through my advocacy, I have contributed to evolving the conversation from commuter rail to Bus Rapid Transit and Passenger Rail. This shift in focus aligns with our vision of enhanced connectivity within and outside the city and is worth our funding and expansion.

I have been advocating for a strong focus on multimodal options for our city. For multimodal options, I believe in investing in trails, protected bike lanes, dedicated lanes for rapid bus services, and expanding passenger train services. By creating a comprehensive network of transit choices, we can cater to various commuting preferences and facilitate smooth movement throughout the city and with our neighbors.

9) What can or should the city be doing to uplift low-wage workers? To uplift small businesses?

Low-wage workers: I’m proud to lead a city in which equity is an important practice. Durham imposes a living wage over the state minimum wage. It’s very important that wages are not the only factor that defines working conditions. Every worker in Durham earns a living wage, but in addition, Durham has some of the best available healthcare and benefits that covers our workers’ families. The upcoming pay study will prioritize equity and a market rate compensation for all city workers. 

Small businesses: When Durham was not able to adequately support small businesses during the pandemic, I worked across the city to establish the Durham Small Business Coalition. I then organized $3 million for the Small Business Fund during COVID-19 to support folks in Durham. Today, we are still using that fund and replenished it with $1 million. 

City Contracts: I will work to establish an Ombudsman specifically dedicated to assisting small businesses, particularly those owned by minorities, seeking government contracts. This Ombudsman will provide guidance and support throughout the contract application process, helping these businesses navigate the complexities and increase their chances of success in securing city contracts.

Grants: I will prioritize creating easier access to information and “How To” FAQs for small businesses applying for grants. By streamlining the application process and providing clear guidance, we can remove barriers and ensure that all eligible entities, including minority-owned organizations, have equal opportunities to access grants.
As small businesses struggle with labor, the citywide apprenticeship program can support this.

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 am a bridge builder and a firm believer in consensus building. I understand that effective governance requires collaboration and cooperation, even when differing viewpoints are present. I value diversity of thought and believe that respectful dialogue and open communication are essential in finding common ground and working towards shared goals. I do not need to agree with someone politically to respect them and work with them in a constructive manner. In my role as an elected official, I am committed to ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and considered, regardless of their background or beliefs. As mayor, I am dedicated to representing and advocating for the needs and interests of all constituents, fostering an inclusive and responsive government that serves the entire community.

When faced with contradictory views, as a public servant, my decision-making process is guided by a commitment to selflessness and what is best for the overall community. It is crucial to recognize that my personal beliefs and preferences must sometimes take a backseat to the greater good and the well-being of the people I serve.

I carefully weigh the advice from city staff, advisory committees, and residents, recognizing that multiple perspectives are valuable in shaping well-informed decisions. I strive to qualify and quantify these decisions, taking into account all the impacts they may have on the community. Logic and reason play a significant role in my decision-making process. By analyzing the information presented and evaluating the potential consequences of various choices, I aim to make objective and rational choices that align with the city’s long-term interests.

11) How should Durham’s city council address first responder vacancies? 

Addressing first responder vacancies in Durham’s city council should focus on wages, work culture, and recruitment efforts. Our first responders will be compensated fairly for the challenging and often dangerous nature of their jobs. To attract and retain top talent, Durham should regularly review and adjust wages to remain competitive within our region. This can help maintain a motivated and skilled workforce. This year, we enrolled the largest firefighter class, but continued recruitment efforts are necessary to address vacancies in both the police and fire departments. We are now providing a robust recruitment package that makes Durham an attractive destination for potential recruits. As a former educator, it is important that we build pathways for people to have access to these jobs. Collaboration with local educational institutions and organizations can help create these pathways for individuals interested in pursuing careers as first responders. Additionally, as we continue to support the HEART program in Durham, we must also consider the mental wellness of our own first responders who are enduring high levels of stress and burnout. The city council can explore initiatives that prioritize the mental health and well-being of first responders, offering support and resources to help them cope with the challenges they face on the job.

12) If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here

Durham is undergoing a transformative era, and we must be intentional in our representation both on the council and throughout the state. We can be on the right course if we continue to build relationships and trust within our communities in order to move the city forward in a direction that meets everyone’s needs. We are facing issues of affordable living, increased gun violence, and environmental burdens that are affecting all communities. When deliberating on solutions, we are often divided as a community, but it doesn’t mean we can’t get to a place of mutual understanding. I will be committed to fostering a culture of collegiality and respect, even during difficult and contentious discussions surrounding complex decisions. My driving force will always be what is best for the community. I aim to build stronger relationships and collaborative partnerships that benefit the entire Durham community and to move us in the right direction.

My approach to leadership is based on my commitment to concrete, actionable solutions rather than empty promises. It is easy to make grand gestures in the spotlight, but true leadership involves finding practical, sustainable solutions that improve the lives of both our city’s workers and residents. While this may not always grab headlines, it is the kind of steady, thoughtful governance that our city needs. I believe in delivering results and working collaboratively with all community members to ensure that together, we can all thrive. 

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