Name: Stef Mendell
Occupation: Retired international communications executive
Phone Number: 919-412-2635
Email Address: StefMendell@gmail.com
Years Lived in Raleigh: 49 years (1964 – 1980, 1984 – present)
1) Between gentrification in historic neighborhoods and expensive rentals downtown, Raleigh has struggled with questions of affordable and workforce housing. In June, the city council set a goal of fifty-seven hundred more affordable units over the next decade. With burgeoning growth and rising housing prices, what additional steps should Raleigh take to create more affordable housing?
Rising costs overwhelm more Raleigh households than ever before – despite the city’s adoption of an Affordable Housing Improvement Plan in late 2015. As part of that plan, Raleigh now allocates $5.9M per year specifically for affordable housing, but it’s not enough to meet the need.
So, let’s dedicate some proceeds from the sale of city property to add to the affordable housing budget. Let’s use tax incentives and tax credits to increase the supply. And let’s consider tax abatements to help longtime residents stay in their homes. Soaring property values are advantageous in the long term, but here and now they do great harm to those who want to stay in their communities but can’t afford the increased property taxes.
We are a city open to innovation. We’re not too proud to learn from the successes and failures of other municipalities. We, as city staff and officials, can listen harder to those directly impacted by the lack of affordable housing. We can work more closely with organizations that are passionate about affordable housing to make progress in this area.
2) Related to affordable housing (and affordability in general) is viable public transportation. What steps can the city take to improve mass transit throughout the city? County voters approved a transit referendum last fall that will eventually create a bus rapid transit system and commuter rail line. What more should be done?
Raleigh must boost Wake County and the NC DOT’s ongoing improvements to mass transit through passage of the transportation bond that is on the October ballot. To leverage the upcoming improvements to Bus Rapid Transit, we need more bus shelters and safe pedestrian access to bus stops. As in most great cities, here in Raleigh we know a virtuous cycle can take hold: transit hubs can foster smart development, which fosters ever more effective and popular transit hubs. And all of this can happen in ways that stay true to our commitment to pedestrians and bike riders.
I support councilor Kay Crowder’s plan to provide free bus access to high school students. This would allow young people to more easily remain after school for extra-curricular activities and study groups. It would also facilitate their transportation to and from part-time jobs. And it would get them in the habit of bus ridership from an early age, which has been shown to lead to regular bus ridership as an adult.
For funding, let’s not forget the wisdom of assessing impact fees on developers so that they pay their fair share of the cost of infrastructure improvements needed to keep pace with the development that they profit from. If developers pay their fair share, then citizens don’t have to bear an unreasonable burden by way of increased property taxes, sales taxes, and bond packages.
3.) Given the inflamed racial tensions after the recent events in Charlottesville, what steps should Raleigh take to position itself as a guardian of social justice? How would you characterize city leaders’ relationship with Raleigh’s communities of color, and what should be done to improve that relationship going forward?
Without social justice, all of our other successes are illusions. But Raleigh has a fairly decent history in this regard. We have built a reservoir of trust among our diverse communities and that is a good basis for further progress. There is clear evidence of this: After Akiel Denkins was shot and killed by a Raleigh police officer in 2016, swift outreach to the community by city officials, in conjunction with swift action on the part of community leaders, meant that Raleigh did not erupt in further violence. Instead, lawful protest and discussion helped us learn from the tragedy and find ways to make future shootings less likely. Raleigh has recently instituted “consent to search” procedures that are an important step in continuing to build trust between police officers and members of the community. And Raleigh’s Police Department recently held a series of public meetings to get citizen input about body-worn cameras.
Raleigh needs to seek more opportunities for two-way conversations between city staff/officials and members of the public. Citizens Advisory Councils play an important role here by providing a venue for such interaction at regular, predictable intervals. All members of council need to find multiple ways to reach out to their constituents and ensure lines of communication are open and are easily accessible.
4.) Given the recent creation of the community engagement board, what do you believe the role of citizens advisory councils should be? What features and levels of involvement do you want to see incorporated into the new structure?
The Citizen Engagement Task Force recommended weakening the role of the CACS, thereby weakening the lines of communication between residents and council members, and between neighborhoods and their district representatives.
The importance of CACs needs to be reasserted, especially when it comes to rezoning requests. The more clearly city councilors hear the voices of their constituents, the more likely the city will achieve balance between citizen groups and the influences of special interest groups, especially on rezoning issues. On a larger scale, we need more robust resident input as we work toward a comprehensive community engagement plan.
The Citizen Engagement Task Force sent a message that many interpreted to mean that citizen input, especially through the CACs, isn’t wanted or valued. We need to correct that mistake quickly.
It is time for Raleigh to undergo a formal, holistic communications audit. Such audits are a time-tested way for complex organizations – like city government – to quantify and evaluate the various engagement tools in place.
An audit will identify new opportunities for engagement and point the way toward improving the tools already in place, including CAC meetings, the city’s web site, council meetings, public hearings, and individual interactions with council members and city staff.
5) Thinking about the current direction of Raleigh city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific changes you will advocate if elected?
Raleigh’s great progress to-date means that any significant missteps could be especially disappointing and painful.
As Raleigh grows, we must take care not to destroy what is attractive about our community. We must preserve our tree canopy, protect our water sources, promote renewable energy, implement responsible transit options, and help ensure that all members of our community have access to good jobs and to affordable housing. To the extent that an issue is ours to deal with, we must deal with it well. To the extent that it is outside our purview, we must exert all the influence we can muster to steer county, state, and federal groups in the right direction.
Developers and special interest groups have too much influence on city decisions, especially development decisions. We need an equal partnership among developers, residents, and city staff and officials in support of responsible development that is compatible with existing neighborhoods, respects the environment, and provides adequate infrastructure (e.g., transit, storm water controls) in support of Smart Growth. That will be possible only when residents and not special interest groups have better representation on city council, the Planning Commission, and other municipal boards and committees.
We must build on the progress that Raleigh has made in revitalizing its urban core, with special attention to neglected neighborhoods. We must ensure that we do not drive out lower-income residents. We must work to preserve and increase the amount of affordable workforce housing (through tax credits, incentives, and abatements) throughout the city. Currently city council decisions favor density in the form of luxury condominiums and apartments. Add to that the gentrification caused by teardowns in older neighborhoods and the result is an alarming scarcity of affordable workforce housing. Many city employees, including most firefighters and police officers, can’t afford to live in the city they protect. If our first responders, teachers, healthcare workers, and other service personnel must commute to their jobs in the city, sprawl keeps sprawling and quality of life is all the more diminished.
We must work to attract more and better jobs through appropriate incentives. We must support local entrepreneurs as they seek to grow businesses and improve their communities. We must support mentoring programs for local youth to help them develop good job skills.
We must also address the issue of “food deserts” in low-income communities. We can work with those communities to incentivize location of healthier grocery stores and to promote more community gardens. Not everything is within the city’s power, but we must influence whenever and wherever we can.
6) If you are a candidate for a district seat, please identity your priorities for improvements in the district if you’re elected. If you are an at-large or mayoral candidate, please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.
Like many others throughout Raleigh, residents in District E are concerned about quality of life issues – access to affordable housing, gentrification, infrastructure including transit and storm water systems, the environment, and irresponsible development.
Irresponsible development is a root cause that negatively impacts many of these aspects of our quality of life.
A huge problem across the city, and especially in District E, is the increasing practice of tearing down small houses, clear-cutting lots, and building huge houses with huge driveways that overwhelm their lots and tower over nearby houses. They contribute not only to storm water runoff, but also divert increased waste to landfills when entire houses and huge trees are scrapped.
This kind of irresponsible development aggravates sprawl and traffic congestion. When $300,000 to $500,000 homes are torn down, many developers insist they must replace them with $1 million homes in order to make a profit. So pretty soon only multi-millionaires will be able to afford homes or apartments within easy reach of the city center. Our teachers, sanitation workers, restaurant staff and other middle-class workers will be forced further out into the suburbs. They will experience longer, more frustrating commutes. And frustrated drivers start cutting through neighborhood streets that were never designed for that kind of traffic or for that volume of traffic. The Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) is a living document that needs to be evaluated continuously and updated to respond to the needs of a growing city. The UDO provides a particularly powerful focal point for all groups in the city to hammer out their differences of opinion about Raleigh’s future and find common ground.
With good will on all sides, we can put teeth into the stated intent of the UDO’s “Infill Compatibility Standards” so that together we minimize irresponsible development.
I will work to expand and improve opportunities for citizen engagement in District E because many residents find our current representative to be unresponsive. I will immediately implement regular meetings with constituents to share information from the city and to respond to residents’ concerns and questions. I will listen to understand what residents want and need and I will be responsive to those wants and needs. I am committed to giving everyone an opportunity to be heard, to respond to everyone in a timely fashion, and to get answers to everyone’s questions in a timely fashion.
I am ready and able to serve as a full-time District E representative. And because I don’t represent any special interest groups, I won’t have to recuse myself due to conflicts of interest.
7) What in your public or professional career shows your ability to be an effective member of the city council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to deal with them?
I’m a neighborhood advocate with a track record of successfully opposing a high-rise apartment complex at a neighborhood shopping center and of spearheading the adoption of storm water regulations for infill development. This required working together with residents, developers, and city staff/officials to reach a solution. And, at my suggestion, a small group of us are continuing to work together to make further improvements to storm water regulations.
Throughout my career I’ve used my expertise to bring together diverse groups to find mutually satisfactory outcomes.
I’ve developed effective engagement strategies that I will use to make it easier for citizens to interact with the city and participate in decisions that affect their communities. I produce a weekly compendium of important city meetings that I email to a wide range of residents and post online at communityscale.com
8) Please give an example of an action by the city council in the past year that went wrong or should have been handled differently. Also, what was the city’s biggest accomplishment during that period?
I was very dissatisfied with the city council vote to accept the recommendations of the Citizen Engagement Task Force. I strongly disagreed with the recommendations that seemed designed to disempower, if not eliminate, the CACs, and I was uneasy with the false sense of urgency that formed around the issue, short-circuiting measured council debate. Fortunately the public outcry in favor of CACs has led the city council to commit to further study of these issues.
I think one of the biggest accomplishments in the past year was the adoption of storm water controls for infill development, which is an important step toward helping to ameliorate storm water damage whenever Raleigh has to deal with torrential rainfall. While Raleigh is not as vulnerable geographically as Houston, we already experience significant problems from flooding and storm water runoff as irresponsible development paves over our city in the name of “progress.” Those of us who advocate for reasonable limitations on impermeable surface are often chided for our supposed “anti-development” stance. Despite intense lobbying by some developers, I led a successful effort to implement storm water regulations on infill development late last year.
9) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?
I am a progressive. My priorities are justice and equality and I work diligently to help groups reach compromises on controversial issues.
10) Now that the city is moving ahead with plans for the 306-acre Dorothea Dix Park, what are some specific features or focuses you’d work to see as part of final design?
We are just beginning to define our goals for Dix Park. This will be a long-term project that will benefit Raleigh residents in future generations.
Dix Park has the potential to become a source of pride for all Raleigh residents – a flexible venue for everything from picnics to soapbox derbies, opera to rock concerts, cultural festivals to sporting events, and everything in-between – a true people’s park.
Consequently, we must be sensitive to the concerns of surrounding residential communities. We should consider reinforcing existing zoning to shield neighborhoods from a potential Central Park effect. We should ensure easy access, with adequate parking and public transportation infrastructure seamlessly built in.
This park will bear a special burden – it has been costly so far and will cost more going forward. We need to find ways to direct tourism revenues to maintenance and upkeep, and we must remain sensitive to the environment with sustainable, cost-effective design.
We need to be sure the park is so good that we can justify its expense, given the many other projects important to Raleigh’s future.
11) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
I am running for Raleigh city council because I want to ensure that citizen input on important decisions is given equal consideration to the input of special interest groups. The balance of power is currently out of whack and I want to work with other like-minded public servants on the city council to change that. While welcoming Smart Growth, Raleigh must remain alert to the unforeseen consequences of uncontrolled and irresponsible development on our quality of life.