Raleigh’s City Council will spend $130 million on its police force, and some taxpayers are asking why their money isn’t instead going to low-income housing, public transportation, or social services. 

The question is one that’s at the heart of budget debates in cities across America. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, calls to “defund the police” rang out nationally. Activists argued that money given to police officers—who today respond to social crises including poverty, substance use, and homelessness—should be reallocated to community services. 

Last week, at Raleigh’s public hearing on the budget for fiscal year 2024, local activists continued their years-long campaign to get the city to divest from police and invest in other departments, which they say will ultimately make the community safer. 

“There are countless studies talking about how to prevent crime … and they talk about how jobs and living wages, how education and housing, all serve to prevent crime in urban areas,” said Angaza Laughinghouse, an activist with the nonprofit Refund Raleigh, in a relentless, rhythmic three-minute speech. 

“I want to believe you’re trying to do your best. But when I look at this city budget, and I see over the past three years you’ve increased the Housing and Neighborhoods budget by just $2 million, but the police budget has gone up $21 million, it makes me question whether you’re really trying or just talking.”

The activists’ pleas had no impact on the city council, which approved the proposed budget unanimously Monday with only a few minor changes. City officials defended their decision, saying the money spent on affordable housing and homelessness is more than is reflected in the budget.

“[Affordable housing] is our number one council priority,” said city manager Marchell Adams-David. “This budget lifts up $32.9 million to address that.”

The nearly $33 million Adams-David quoted includes federal money, local money earmarked for housing, the city’s penny tax for housing, and “partnerships with our nonprofit builders and developers,” the city manager said. But with each type of funding—federal, local, and private—there are still major gaps between how much is allocated to the police and how much to housing. 

At a local level, in the city’s individual departments, the Raleigh Police Department (RPD) is slated to receive about $130.9 million, a roughly $19.3 million increase over its 2020 budget of $111.7 million. Meanwhile, the Housing and Neighborhoods Department, which is tasked with increasing the supply of affordable housing (among other initiatives), is set to receive about $7 million, an increase of about $1.3 million over the fiscal year 2020–21.

The additional expenditure on RPD this year won’t expand the police force, explained Raleigh budget director Sadia Sattar. Instead, it will go mainly toward a 5 percent pay raise for police officers, as well as to purchasing laptops for recruits in the police academy. The money will also cover increasing rental costs for some police buildings. 

Matthew Cooper, president of the Raleigh Police Protective Association, said the 5 percent pay raise is a good step forward, but RPD is still dealing with severe staffing shortages. In October of last year, RPD had 150 vacancies. Cooper, along with other advocates for police officers and firefighters, has continually lobbied for higher pay for public safety workers. 

On the Housing and Neighborhoods side, the money will help fund new employee training and the increasing costs of managing the housing bond voters passed in 2020. In addition, Sattar says, the city is investing nearly $25 million in affordable housing this year from its capital fund, a pot of money that is usually used for long-term projects such as the construction of new buildings. 

In this case, the money will fund the city’s ongoing affordable housing programs, including down payment assistance, preserving existing affordable rental housing, and home repairs and rehabilitation.

“I don’t want people to think we didn’t hear them, because we did,” Sattar says. 

Refund Raleigh activists, however, remain unsatisfied. Despite investments from the city, the amount of money dedicated to affordable housing remains small in comparison to the amount of money dedicated to public safety. 

Overall, funding for public safety—including money for the police, fire, and emergency communications departments, as well as the construction of new police and fire stations—makes up about 25 percent of this year’s total budget of $1.26 billion. Dollars for housing, on the other hand—including the Housing and Neighborhoods Department and the city’s affordable housing initiatives—make up only 3.5 percent of the total budget. 

“Just think about if you had invested $21 million in affordable housing, where would we be right now after three years? If you invested $21 million into mental health, where would be right now?” said Laughinghouse. “This imbalance continues every single year. You cautiously sprinkle money into programs for the people, but you’ll dump money into the police budget.”

Raleigh residents seem to agree that affordable housing and transportation should be the top budget priorities for city council members. 

In an online survey the city conducted, residents also ranked “providing affordable housing,” “reducing traffic accidents,” and “providing a connected, safe, and reliable bus and transit system” as budget priorities. Respondents said they were highly important, but they were dissatisfied with the city’s existing services.

Nearly all respondents said that “responding to community needs (fire, police, 911)” was either extremely or somewhat important (96 percent), but they were also mostly satisfied with the city’s existing services (66 percent were completely or somewhat satisfied).

About 3,100 people responded to the survey, a 275 percent increase over the number of participants last year. Still, the survey results are only a small snapshot of how Raleigh’s nearly 500,000 residents feel.

Despite pressure from the community over the past few years, Raleigh council members have yet to hold a serious discussion about divesting from policing. When asked about residents’ concerns that the RPD doesn’t keep people safe, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin stood firm in her assessment that an investment in the police force is an investment in public safety. 

“We have to invest in public safety. Safety is the number one concern. So we want to make sure that our police officers are fairly compensated and shown appreciation and respect,” Baldwin says. “At this time, we can’t take money away from our police department. When you look at the market, our officers are paid less. So we’re trying to increase their salary and invest more in our police department.” 

Across the country, major fund shifts from local police budgets to community services are still rare. A few cities, like Seattle, have taken steps to divest from policing, but the approach is cautious. In 2021, the city took $12 million from the Seattle Police Department (an 18 percent cut) and $18 million from a community initiative fund (for a total of $30 million), and let the people decide how to spend it. The participatory budget process is ongoing, so the results are not yet known. 

In another example, the Los Angeles school board cut $25 million from its school police budget to help fund a $36.5 million initiative dubbed the Black Student Achievement Plan. The plan included hiring additional social workers and counselors to fight high suspension rates, chronic absenteeism, and low academic achievement. 

A 2022 report showed that the initiative hadn’t increased graduation rates, but it had increased literacy levels and the number of students earning better grades. Likewise, it hadn’t decreased chronic absenteeism but had increased access to mental health resources and decreased out-of-school suspension rates. 

Durham’s HEART vs. Raleigh’s ACORNS

This year, Raleigh activists persisted with their demands that the city make major reforms to its ACORNS unit, a team of social workers and police officers that respond to mental health crises and connect residents with public services. Activists argue the unit should be independent of the police force. Last week, many cited Durham’s HEART program, created in 2022, as an example of what Raleigh should do. 

HEART is composed solely of social workers and mental health clinicians who  respond to “non-violent behavioral health … calls for service” and follow up with people to connect them to resources or programs. Recently, Durham also created a “co-response” section, where clinicians respond to higher-risk calls alongside police officers. 

“I come to the meeting today frustrated because we are behind,” said activist Ajamu Dillahunt at last week’s hearing. “[The Durham City Council] is not just talking about the success of the HEART program, they’re expanding it. What are we doing?”

Baldwin says the city council is considering changes to ACORNS. Recently, council members met with the creators of Denver’s STAR program—a unit activists say is a good model—to examine how it worked. The independently funded program started out as a five-year pilot, according to Baldwin. 

”It’s a very different model with a different funding stream,” Baldwin says. “The city manager is looking at how we can incorporate something that is uniquely Raleigh and serves our needs.”

Low-income housing instead of “affordable housing”

Residents at last week’s meeting were also frustrated with what they consider only small or moderate investments in affordable housing. Jacquie Ayala, the director of advocacy for Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, said the organization is pleased that the city continues to earmark local funding for affordable housing, but this year’s budget “doesn’t go far enough to meet the need in our community.”

“Additional local funding is critically needed to develop more subsidized affordable housing and to create more home affordability options for residents,” Ayala said, adding that the cost of housing will continue to rise in 2024 as Duke Energy rates increase, property taxes increase, and construction costs remain high. 

Baldwin says the city will consider options to increase affordable housing funding in the next few years. As the $80 million housing bond runs out (funds are expected to be spent by 2025), the city will look at putting another bond before voters and how much it should cost. Another option could be to dedicate 2¢ of the property tax to affordable housing, as Durham does, an increase from the 1¢ Raleigh currently dedicates. On Monday, council member Jane Harrison said she supports doubling the roughly $7.8 million raised annually through that tax in 2025. 

“We were very intentional not to raise property taxes except for the voter-approved tax, which was for the parks bond,” Baldwin says. “We’ve got Wake County raising their tax rate and we wanted to make sure there was a balance.”

Fair housing advocate Octavia Rainey, a frequent public commenter, raised an additional concern: existing funds for affordable housing should go to help the people most in need, she said—specifically, those making 30 percent or less of the annual median income (AMI), which is $113,300 currently for a family of four, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (a family of four making 30 percent of the AMI would only earn about $34,000 per year).

Many of the affordable housing projects Raleigh funds are open to people making 60 or 80 percent of the AMI. There’s certainly a need for this kind of housing, but activists argue the city should prioritize housing for its poorest residents, including people experiencing homelessness. 

“You say you are for affordable housing. How do you define affordable? We should be talking about 40 or 30 percent below AMI,” said Leon Cook, a Raleigh resident who spoke during the public hearing. “Developers may throw in a few units at 60 percent and feel good about it. We don’t.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Jacquie Ayala’s first name.

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.   

Support independent local journalism

Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.