It’s the height of campaign season, and Terrance Ruth, a mayoral candidate who has been campaigning for nearly two years now, is calm and collected as he answers questions about housing, community outreach, and social justice.

“My vision for the city starts [with community engagement],” he says, determined. “I think before we get to concrete policy … we have to seriously [address] the deficit of trust. That starts with allowing residents to be seen and heard again.”

Ruth, 39, a lecturer in NC State University’s School of Social Work, is the primary opponent of Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin in the race for the city’s top seat. DaQuanta Copeland, a single mom and public health advocate, is also running for mayor. (Look for an interview with Copeland in the INDY next week). 

Baldwin, the incumbent, seems to have the most support so far, having raised about $700,000 with 592 individual contributors to her campaign. Ruth comes second, with about $40,000 in campaign donations, about 6 percent of Baldwin’s total haul. Copeland has raised less than $100, according to campaign finance reports.

Ruth, like all challengers, is promising change. Baldwin and her coalition of supporters have dominated the city council since 2020, when three newcomers replaced development-skeptical incumbents. Since then, a bloc of six, sometimes seven, city council members has typically supported Baldwin on issues ranging from affordable housing to community outreach.

The 2022 election gives slow-growth candidates who are proponents of the city’s officially disbanded citizen advisory councils (CACs) the chance to retake the city council, with neighborhoods and CAC advocates, in addition to grassroots social justice activists, running in all five districts and at large. With three incumbents declining to run for reelection, Raleigh residents will see at least two new faces on the council come January, some of whom would likely push back on Baldwin’s pro-growth agenda.

But do the majority of voters agree the city needs new leadership? Baldwin has amassed her fair share of critics, but she’s also ushered in some significant successes and made strong efforts to address the main challenge facing the city today: the massive influx of people moving to the metro area coupled with the city’s shortage of housing.

Affordable housing

It’s no secret that one of the biggest issues facing residents today is housing prices.

From the INDY’s reporting in the last year, Tina Love-Hinton, a mother of five, spent eight months looking for her first home, outbid again and again by out-of-state transplants willing to put down $30,000 or $40,000 in cash. Francisco Ceron-Sagastume, a renter near Dix Park, was forced out of his home after it was sold to a developer planning to build a high-end apartment complex.

Stories like these aren’t unusual in Raleigh nowadays, and they speak to a common theme: a shortage of homes that middle-class workers can afford to rent or buy.

Baldwin argues the solution to Raleigh’s housing crisis is reforming zoning rules to allow more houses to be built, meeting increased demand. In some ways, that strategy has worked. Since last year, the number of homes for sale in Wake County has doubled, going from 1,234 in August of 2020 to 2,562 in August of this year, according to Triangle MLS, a website that tracks home listings and other market trends.

The number of months it would take for Raleigh to sell out of homes has also increased, from about two weeks to six weeks.

Baldwin touts the city’s $80 million housing bond. The city is now on track to build 5,700 affordable housing units by 2026. The running total is currently 3,910, and the bond is also helping fund a homebuyer assistance program and a home repair program.

“We have probably done more on housing affordability than any council has done in the past,” Baldwin says. “We now allow for the construction of [accessory dwelling units]. We got rid of exclusionary zoning and we now allow missing middle housing, which gives people more of a choice in homes. The partnership with Campbell Law to prevent evictions, that’s never been done before. We’ve really stepped it up in terms of looking at housing affordability and choice.”

“Raleigh is growing,” Baldwin continues. “We’re the third-fastest-growing city in the country. And I know there are people who want to stop growth, but we can’t stop growth. We have to plan for it.”

Baldwin’s critics—namely the neighborhood advocacy group Livable Raleigh—argue her development-friendly agenda hasn’t created more affordable housing, just more unaffordable “luxury” apartments and skyscrapers. Livable Raleigh and other community groups also accuse Baldwin of being in the pocket of developers.

During her first year in office, Baldwin went to work as the director of business development for Barnhill Contracting, one of the largest builders in the Triangle, drawing criticism until she resigned a little over a year later. Before that, Baldwin worked for Holt Brothers Construction and as executive director of the company’s foundation. Currently she is the vice president of a nonprofit that helps children learn skills through golf.

Some of Baldwin’s top donors are executives of contracting and real estate development companies, but she has denied any connection between campaign contributions and policy decisions. Baldwin has also received $5,600 from the NC Homebuilders Association PAC, a political action committee advocating for “pro-housing candidates,” according to its website.

The city has made a strong effort to build more affordable housing but hasn’t been able to keep up with escalating demand. Despite Baldwin’s efforts, housing prices continue to soar and much of Raleigh’s existing affordable housing has disappeared. Even as the city builds thousands of new homes, nearly 9,000 affordable apartments have been lost since 2019. This year, Raleigh had a deficit of nearly 20,000 affordable apartments, according to a report by United Way of the National Capital Area.

In some ways, Ruth’s approach to housing is similar to Baldwin’s. Like the incumbent mayor, he says he supports buying land for future affordable housing projects by the city, arguing the city can’t control rent prices unless it controls the land. He supports investing more money in permanent supportive housing for the homeless and other vulnerable populations.

But he also wants the city to be more aggressive in controlling where and what developers build. Ruth says he wants to create affordable housing overlay districts, which provide additional incentives to developers to build affordable housing in certain areas.

“Affordable housing overlay is critical, especially in areas where there’s high demand, high interest, [like where there’s] Bus Rapid Transit,” Ruth says. “New Bern and Method are two historically Black communities. How do we demonstrate that the council is representing those voters?”

Ruth also thinks the city should follow Wake County’s lead in creating an affordable housing department and use a new tracking system to see what existing housing may be going on the market. Finally, he wants to work more closely with developers and landlords who are willing to take on affordable housing projects, creating a database or pipeline to draw on.

Community engagement and transparency

“Community engagement” isn’t just a buzz-phrase in this year’s election; it’s a central issue. Ever since the Raleigh City Council voted 6-2 to defund CACs—neighborhood groups that met monthly to discuss community issues, but also a format residents used to oppose new development projects—in 2020, many Raleighites say they have felt ignored.

For the last two years, the most direct way to communicate with city council members has been through public comment at council meetings, which comes with strict rules and a one- to three-minute time limit on speaking. The city council disbanded CACs, it appeared, but didn’t seem in a rush to replace them with a new system of public outreach.

After a year of inaction—also the year of the COVID pandemic—the city created the Office of Community Engagement in 2021, led by manager Tiesha Hinton. This year, the community engagement board has started meeting, and communication between the city government and residents seems to be improving. The city council recently added an option to leave public comments via voicemail, addressing concerns about people unable to attend meetings in person.

But the limited means of engaging with the city council since 2020 have fostered feelings of distrust among residents. Many continue to assert that their voices aren’t being heard, and candidates are making community outreach a central campaign issue. Ruth is leading the charge.

“Right now, as I’m going around the city, it feels like the weight of engagement is on the voter,” he says. “If the voter doesn’t attend the [city council] meeting, they’re unheard and unseen. That weight should be on the council and the mayor.”

Ruth says engagement for the past few years has been primarily meeting-based. He wants to expand outreach to meet people in their communities. City staff should attend neighborhood gatherings and work with community leaders, he says. Staff should reach out to residents online and know whom to call if they need to hear the concerns of people in a particular area.

Some city council candidates take a stronger stance, saying CACs should be refunded. Mary Black, running in District A for the seat currently held by Patrick Buffkin, who declined to run again, says CACs, some of which are still operating, need to be heard by the city council.

“You don’t get rid of an almost 50-year institution because there are some flaws in the way things work,” she says. “Not having that engagement is going to increase the issues that we’ve already had here with unaffordability and overdevelopment in ways that don’t work for the communities here and the people who live in them.”

According to Baldwin, however, CACs are a thing of the past.

“In one survey we did, 90 percent of people in Raleigh had never heard of a CAC or attended a CAC. So it really was not an effective way of doing outreach,” Baldwin says. She added that the city council made several attempts to reform CACs before defunding them, saying, “We had two studies done on how we could enhance the CACs and we got very strong pushback both times from the CACs.”

“Our decision to no longer fund the CACs was made because we believed we could do something better, and that’s the path we’re on right now,” Baldwin continued. “Obviously COVID got in our way, but what we’re looking at right now is more outreach in the community.”

Baldwin went on to describe a kind of place-based outreach that matches Ruth’s philosophy of “meeting people where they are.” Hinton has plans for mobile “community engagement” vehicles that will go into neighborhoods, according to the mayor. The vehicles will come equipped with computers and city staff to spread awareness about the activities of local government and get input from people.

“The other thing we’re talking about is literally door-to-door communication, door knocking, going where people live and the places they frequent,” Baldwin says. “So having meetings in dog parks, community centers, senior centers. It’s really about getting out and engaging in a personal way. And that’s what Tiesha [Hinton] is passionate about.”

Ultimately, most candidates running for office say they want the same things when it comes to community engagement—comprehensive outreach programs that don’t put additional burdens on residents and ensure the voices of minority populations are heard. But the unceremonious demise of CACs and frustration with how long it has taken to take even the smallest steps forward has resulted in disagreements on the best ways to achieve community engagement.

When it comes to building trust in the political process, the council has made its share of missteps, too. In the past three years, the council disbanded the CACs without notice, moved a city election in a closed-door meeting, and voted through new city districts opposed by local community groups based on U.S. census data.

The bill with election changes, Senate Bill 722, was passed by the state legislature last June. And while rescheduling the election to an even-numbered year to coincide with a midterm wasn’t necessarily a bad policy move, it gave city council incumbents a bonus year in office, an outcome that outraged some citizens. Likewise, allowing candidates to win future elections by plurality rather than majority may be more efficient, but it gives incumbents an edge, critics say.

The nonpartisan good government advocacy nonprofit Democracy North Carolina (along with some local state lawmakers and Governor Roy Cooper) took issue with the move.

“Democracy North Carolina took an official opposition to [SB 722] because of that permanent change to how Raleigh was going to elect its local officials,” says Joselle Torres, the communications manager for the nonprofit. “[They] basically gave themselves 12 more months in office without any public comment, without appropriate public notice either.”

Social justice

When George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in 2020, Raleigh residents took to the streets for days to protest police violence and call for reform. Two years later, however, not much has changed.

“We never had a conversation about community and policing in our city,” Ruth says. “We never reconciled that at all, we just moved forward. We need to build coalition and conversation about community and safety right now. We don’t need to wait for another George Floyd; we need to reconcile the concerns of 2020, which we have not done.”

Following the protests in 2020, the city did replace its police chief. The former police chief, Cassandra Deck-Brown (who was in charge when police officers and sheriff’s deputies fired tear gas and nonlethal ammunition into crowds of protesters) retired last year to make way for Estella Patterson. The former city manager, Ruffin Hall, resigned at the end of 2020 following the protests as well.

Ruth and Baldwin agree that Patterson is passionate about community outreach.

“She’s everywhere,” Ruth says.

“One thing I love about Chief [Patterson] is that she is great with community relations and building trust,” Baldwin says. “She is out there, and I think that has helped make a difference. [October 5] was National Coffee with a Cop Day, so we had our officers out at six locations meeting with the community. [Patterson] was at the McDonald’s on Poole Road, and she said it was packed.”

The city council has also expanded the ACORNS unit, a group of police officers and social workers who respond to mental health crises, Baldwin says. The council is also working with the NAACP and Moms Demand Action to reduce gun violence.

But Black Lives Matter activists remain frustrated with the city council’s overall policing policies, as well as the police department’s nearly $8 million budget increase over the last fiscal year. A campaign earlier this year by community group Refund Raleigh to divest from the police force and invest in social services and nonpolice response units was essentially ignored by the city council.

And police violence hasn’t slowed. In the last two years, Raleigh police have shot and killed five people. Refund Raleigh is asking this year’s city council candidates to vote against a 2023 budget that increases police spending and is working with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office to cut ties with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“The police cannot be a container for the things we need in order for our communities to thrive,” says local social justice activist Ajamu Dillahunt. “The de-escalation that has supposedly been attempted is just not adequate. The institution is deeply flawed and has a history of racist and brutalizing tactics.”

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