The Raleigh City Council saw a major power shift on Election Day, with four political newcomers voted into office. But while these women may want to move the council in a slightly different direction, they’re all prepared to tackle the city’s biggest issues right away, from affordable housing to community engagement.

The new council, now 6-2 majority women, is set to start the work of governing next year, following the induction of the new members next month. Broadly speaking, there are two main factions: the incumbents, who campaigned to stay the course, and the newcomers, who pushed for a more transparent council with better engagement with residents.

The council is now evenly split between these two groups, meaning that, despite winning a bid for reelection, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin is likely to face more pushback in the coming months.

The council is also likely to divide more on some issues; some votes could depend on a single outlying member. On one hand, there are incumbents Baldwin, Stormie Forte, Jonathan Melton, and Corey Branch, who remain on the city council, with Forte taking an at-large seat. On the other, there are newcomers Mary Black-Branch (representing District A), Megan Patton (District B), Jane Harrison (District D), and Christina Jones (District E).

The new cohort is one of the youngest in history, a group of professional women who say they want to change things for the better. The first time they saw each other after Election Day, at an INDY Week photo shoot in Brentwood Park, shouts of congratulations filled the air and hugs were shared all around. Their conversation was like any among a group of friends: exchanges about the best calendar app to use, an unlucky car accident, and midnight phone calls from reporters. Black-Branch was finishing up a video chat on her phone when she stepped out of her car.

“We’ve been supporting each other for months,” Black-Branch says, adding that her fellow newly elected council members feel like family now.

Community engagement

One major trait the newbies have in common is their attitude toward community engagement. During the election cycle, each said that the city needs to do better engaging residents and responding to their concerns. Clearly, the message resonated with voters.

The debate over community engagement began when the city council abruptly dismantled Citizens Advisory Councils (CACs) in 2020, arguing they were an archaic and ineffective system for communicating residents’ concerns. The city’s 18 CACs varied widely, with some representing tens of thousands of households across large geographic areas and some representing just a few thousand in a handful of neighborhoods.

Baldwin and other council members argued CACs were not representative of the city’s diverse population. In-person meetings often occurred on weekday evenings, which meant not everyone could participate. People who attended CAC meetings also held a wide variety of concerns, from zoning and development to worries about food deserts, education, and crime, noted Mickey Fearn, the consultant hired to study community engagement for the city.

But the role CACs played in guiding development was likely the overarching factor in the city’s decision to abolish them. The groups didn’t meet just to discuss community issues; residents could use them to loudly oppose, and sometimes stall, new proposed development projects. Before defunding, CACs could cast votes on proposed rezonings. The Raleigh Planning Commission then considered these votes before making a nonbinding recommendation to the council.

Since CACs dissolved, the city has been slow to create a new system of public outreach, and many Raleighites say they feel ignored. Now, we may see the return of CACs, albeit in a modified form. Harrison and Jones each say they want to see the groups re-funded and re-formed, with changes to promote citywide engagement and improve representation of Raleigh’s diverse population.

Jones, the current (and longest-serving) chairperson of the overseeing Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council (RCAC), says she doesn’t feel bitter or frustrated about the way CACs were sidelined. The results of the election speak for themselves, she says.

“It’s really going to be impressed upon the incumbent council and mayor to say, ‘Are you open for the change? Are you open for the discussion?’” Jones says. “Because we all know Raleigh is changing and growing, and no one wants to stop that. I just want to make sure that we’re all a part of it.”

Jones says she’s willing to deny CACs the power to vote on new development projects if it will help bring back regular community meetings.

“One concern I heard on the campaign trail was ‘Oh, [the CACs are] voting on residents’ property rights.’ And while I vehemently disagree, because their vote was never binding, I understand that we have to compromise,” Jones says.

“[So] if the vote is what makes people not want to participate in CACs, then take the vote. We haven’t had [one] for three years. Take it away, but bring the developers in to give the information. Give us a path to understand where [our] feedback goes … so we know our voice is heard.”

Jones, Harrison, and Patton propose creating more groups that represent smaller areas, potentially using the city’s 28 community centers as bases of operation. Black-Branch wants to see other changes to community engagement, she says, namely using a hybrid model for meetings so people can attend virtually, an idea Harrison also supports.

In addition, Harrison wants to provide better outreach and communication tools to CACs, so they can reach more people.

“I want CAC leaders to have access to leadership training, as well as term limits to encourage new leaders, including young people and renters. Meeting facilitation, agenda setting, having a structured process of engagement—those are skills that we need,” Harrison says. “I’d even like to encourage groups to meet that go beyond a specific neighborhood. For example, communities like the unhoused or homeless, who also would benefit from regular interaction with city staff and leaders.”

“My guess is that everyone on council in this next term believes Raleigh is better off when neighbors communicate, organize, and advocate to address issues of common concern,” Harrison adds.

Patton takes a softer stance on CACs, saying she does support “reconstituting some form of a neighborhood meeting” but that CACs aren’t the be-all and end-all. The city can learn from politicians who are already doing well with community engagement, such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who regularly hosts “Ask Me Anything” live discussions on Reddit and Instagram.

Most people Patton encountered along the campaign trail weren’t involved in the firestorm over land use, she says. They simply wanted to know how to get speed bumps on their road and when the city was going to fix that stoplight on the corner.

“I was a person who wasn’t served by CACs. I recognize their limitations,” Patton says. “We should view CACs as what they are, which is one component of community engagement.”

Affordable housing

With CACs maybe on their way back, many Raleigh residents are worried that the city council will reverse course to the past, when it was more difficult for the city to enact zoning changes. For years, critics say, the council’s approach to zoning privileged traditional neighborhoods and left renters and lower-income families with no place to live.

Jones objects to that characterization and says she’s not serving on the council to stop growth, “just [to] open the door to have more people at the table.” In her view, the conversation around affordable housing needs to include residents’ voices more prominently.

As the city grows and builds more densely, Jones says there is “real room” to ask developers to include more affordable housing. While inclusionary zoning is not permitted under state law, the city could more proactively lobby for change. Council members could also start more conversations with developers about including affordable housing, Jones says, adding that she’s seen developers compromise with the council on projects that were initially market-rate.

“I see the bending. How far can we go in asking [developers] to bend a little bit more? I think there is room for that, especially when you have a council who is there to support that cause,” Jones says. “For the last three years, it’s been rubber-stamping and allowing developers to do whatever they want. I want a council that’s going to ask those questions [about affordable housing].”

While Jones campaigned on keeping developers in check, Harrison, Patton, and Black-Branch took a less confrontational stance. Each of them agrees, in part, with the current city council’s approach to addressing the affordable housing shortage. But in their view, the city council could do much more.

“Raleigh needs a bold, comprehensive housing affordability plan that engages those directly impacted by rapidly rising costs of living,” Harrison says. “We ought to craft a plan in conversation with residents across the city that considers policies like property tax abatement, utility relief for low-income homeowners, [and] preservation of naturally occurring affordable housing.”

During their campaigns, Harrison and others promised to address citizen concerns about the disappearance of naturally occurring affordable housing, displacement and gentrification, and rising property taxes.

Harrison also says she wants to do more to stabilize rents, preventing huge annual increases that often force people out of their homes. She says the city should take a harder look at inclusionary zoning, as well as “tenant protections to prevent evictions and provide relocation assistance.”

The current city council has already embraced some of these policies. With the $80 million affordable housing bond approved in 2020, the council has funded initiatives including land purchases along transit corridors, affordable housing construction in partnership with nonprofits, and down payment assistance. But incoming council members say these projects could use more funding and support.

“There are some strategies in light rotation that I’d like to put in heavy rotation,” Patton says. “We need to double down on preserving existing affordable housing. Property tax relief for tax-burdened residents [has been] ticking along in Wake County, [but] I want our residents to feel the benefits of that.”

The environment

With two professional environmentalists now taking seats on the city council—Mary Black-Branch, an environmental activist, and Jane Harrison, a coastal economics specialist—plans to address climate change could be at the forefront next year. Baldwin has asked Harrison to chair the Growth and Natural Resources Committee for the city council, Harrison says.

“The first issue I want to tackle is stronger tree protections for Raleigh,” she says. “Raleigh should institute protections for native species of a certain size and create a tree fund when protection isn’t feasible.”

“Trees help clean and cool the air, clean stormwater, reduce erosion, and add immense value to our city and our neighborhoods,” Harrison adds. “We need those safeguards in place to protect our tree canopy. So it’s something relatively simple, but it actually takes care of a lot of different issues.”

Black-Branch also plans to push the city council forward on climate change, she says. She wants to take a look at ways local government can intercede to reduce carbon emissions as well as regulate development.

“I have been meeting with climate advocates and climate scientists … about the ways that we can put some teeth and grit into how we’re focusing on emissions and reductions,” Black-Branch says. “I’m trying to figure out ways … we can actually do climate action, on a real fundamental and proactive level, and not something that’s in text.”

Moreover, Black-Branch wants to mitigate negative impacts development can have on the environment, as well as reduce environmental injustice, she says. Raleigh’s massive growth, which sometimes involves clear-cutting trees, can exacerbate flashflooding and stormwater runoff. Often, these impacts are felt most by historically marginalized people and minorities.

“That heavy rain we had over the weekend? Oh man, so many parts of Six Forks flooded, and it only rained hard here for an hour,” Black-Branch says. “Imagine if we got a really bad storm like we’ve had in the past. It’s completely possible, and we’re just not well equipped for that.”

Black-Branch plans to look at ways to incentivize developers to build green, as well as invest in community solar.

Patton is also looking forward to tackling sustainability, she says. Her priorities speak to the desires of many younger Raleighites who want to do their part to protect the environment but often can’t afford to buy an electric car or install solar panels on the roof, for example. Patton says she wants to look at ways to incentivize landlords to operate more sustainably and that transit is also a “huge component” of sustainability.

“Big projects [like commuter rail] are already ticking along but have a timeline of a decade,” she says. “We don’t have time for them to move along at a glacial pace. I don’t say that lightly because I know interagency cooperation is a slow process. But residents want to see public transportation now.” 

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