Donna Bell | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week
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Donna Bell 

Chapel Hill Town Council

Name as it appears on the ballot: Donna Bell
Party affiliation, if any: Democrat
Campaign website:
Occupation & employer: Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Self Employed
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 1989-1995; 2002-current

1. Given the current direction of the Chapel Hill city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

Yes, I believe strongly that we are on the right course. The Chapel Hill Town Council has sought to continue to improve the lives of Chapel Hill's citizens while remaining socially, environmentally, and fiscally responsible. Although disagreement exists in the community about some of Council's choices, I believe the major policy initiatives championed by the current Council have been and will be positive for Chapel Hill.

This November will mark my 6th year as a town council member. One of the things that I have learned is that major changes do not happen quickly. The council must have a longer view of current issues, which requires a commitment to data gathering, analysis and community involvement. I believe it is important for Council to act with the best available data to ensure we are meeting the our changing environment of in a forward thinking way that allows to has flexibility to accommodate new information. I believe there is great danger in governing in way that puts Council in a reactive position.

I will continue to advocate for innovative approaches to affordable housing and neighborhood conservation. The town adopted a predictable income stream for affordable housing with our Penny for Housing program. The public /private partnership with Durham Housing Investent Corporation (DHIC) will create 140 affordable housing units serving seniors and families at 60% AMI or below. Glenn Lennox, Obey Creek, and the Graduate are providing the town with innovative affordable rental provisions in a state legislative environment that does not support rent control mechanisms.

We have created a powerful and valuable asset in the Internet fiber installed through out the town during necessary stoplight improvements. We have been able to leverage this asset to attract Google and AT&T to our market. There is a pilot program to provide free Internet access citizens who live in our public housing. Graduates of this program are provided individual laptops through a partnership with the Kramden Institute. With the recent decisions made by the FCC, we may be able to leverage this asset even more. Providing the Citizens with increased access to the information and resources provided by Internet access can be a value to all of our citizens.

Some of these choices impact individual people, and areas of Chapel Hill, more than others. Overall, however, I believe Council has done an admiral job pursuing policies that seek to benefit, not only all of Chapel Hill, but the generations of students, residents, and future town leaders long after this Council is gone.

2. Please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them.

Affordable housing in Chapel Hill, like most communities, remains a critical policy issue. The town has shown its commitment to creating affordable housing through initiatives like the inclusionary housing ordinance, negotiated affordable rentals, the Penny for Housing, and the public/private partnership with DHIC. Though we have these tools to create affordable, we do not have limitless resources. In the end, how we use our available resources most effectively will require both qualitative and quantitative information. Information on transit cost and local economic metrics, for example, offers an important lens through which to examine how we define affordable housing in Chapel Hill. I believe Chapel Hill’s next step should be creating goals for affordable housing across the spectrum using tools that help show us how to most effectively meet this important need.

Chapel Hill Transit has stated it would need 45 million dollars in funds to replace existing transit buses. Funding transit, and ensuring its sustainability, is one of the most critical elements of keeping Chapel Hill affordable. Free transit, connected to neighborhoods, the University, and our commercial centers, reduces the cost of living for citizens and provides significant traffic mitigation. The staff has already identified cost savings through the possibility of leasing vehicles instead purchasing. The process has begun but there will need to be continued conversation between CHT and our partners UNC and Carrboro to come up with a final solution.

Rethinking the Living Wage. Although Chapel Hill's efforts to promote a living wage have been laudable, the wage index currently utilized does not create a wage that meets the local housing needs of our employees. I believe Chapel Hill should move away from the living wage model and towards a housing wage model.

A housing wage is generated by determining what would be needed to afford average rental costs, in a local community, at 30% of income for a full time employee at a forty hour work week. The current benchmark wage for the Town of Chapel Hill is 13.35 and is indexed at 7.5% above Federal Poverty Guidelines. Using a standard forty hour work week, subtracting taxes, it would be next to impossible to find a unit a individual unit at this rate. The rough rent rate a person living on this wage could afford would be 640.00 USD a month. I believe our workers should be paid a wage that allows them to live and work independently in the Town of Chapel Hill. I believe the National Low Income

Housing Coalition offers a useful index that could help guide this conversation. I am not married to a particular model or index but the current model does not meet the desire that there be the opportunity to live, work and play in Chapel Hill.

3. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as mayor or as a member of the Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

During my tenure as a Council member, I have been seen by my colleagues as someone who is able to hear multiple voices and help build consensus. I have served on several committees including the Community Home Trust, Mayor's Committee on Affordable Rental, and the Compass Committee for Obey Creek, amongst others.

I am proudest of the work I have done as an advocate for affordable housing. I have been a champion of the need for affordable housing across the spectrum of need through my support for IFC's Community House, the Northside Neighborhood Conservation District, my work on the Mayor's Committee for Affordable Rental, the "Penny for Housing.

My efforts, in coordination with the excellent service of Sally Greene and the citizens who comprised the Mayor’s Committee for Affordable Rental, resulted in a consistent source of income for Affordable Housing in the Town of Chapel Hill. Although I work on numerous issues, I have been a consistent advocate for affordable housing, Of all my accomplishments as a Council Member, I believe the "Penny for Housing" speaks most directly to the question of following through in my stated position through effort and advocacy.

4. Please give one specific example of something you think the Town Council has
done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.

I think Council could improve on its communication and public participation tools. While this issue is currently in the limelight due to recent development discussions, this is an issue that has occurred during many contentious policy debates. Communication is a process that takes intention and I believe we can be more intentional in our process.

As a social worker, I am very aware of group dynamics and how systems work. I see the impact to individuals as they come before a dais of eight council members and the mayor. Even the most seasoned of speakers find themselves defensive, overwhelmed and unheard. The Council is not spared feelings of dissonance as they try to speak to an empty podium. Although it may seem arbitrary, the three minute speech limit was enacted by Council because longer speaking times had created extremely long meetings that did not encourage citizen engagement except for the most tenacious. Citizens feel the limit as they wonder if their hurried words have made and impact been heard.

You cannot treat every interaction the same, but I believe there are structural changes that could be made to the public dialogue process that can alleviate some of the challenges both citizens and Council feel. Identifying what tools work for different communication needs is important. From changes to environment to using technology for wider communication, there are ways to create more effective and productive communication processes. I believe it is important to continue to examine other municipalities and best democratic process practices nationwide to ensure we are using the tools we have most effectively to foster citizen engagement while also seeking new technologies and strategies to ensure robust public participation.

5. 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 consider myself a progressive. Though I am a fiscally moderate, I believe in ensuring we remain realistic with government expenditures without giving up our goals. Spending on social programs such as affordable housing, transit, and public spaces such as greenways and bikeways is important to ensure a healthy community. In achieving solutions, it is important to listen to all voices at the table in order to ensure you understand the needs and values of various stakeholders.

6. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

One of the most pressing social justice issues in Chapel Hill is the issue of affordable housing. There are few issues more important than ensuring every citizen has the ability to live safely with dignity. I have been a champion for affordable housing during my tenure on the Council. Consistent with my answer to previous questions regarding affordable housing, my advocacy and Council's work on this issue has produced positive programs and policies including Penny for Housing, affordable rental units, and DHIC partnership. There is still lots more work to be done, and I am committed to continuing to be a leading voice for affordable housing on Council.

Additionally I believe it is important to note the unique perspective I offer as an African American. My race does not make me a good Council Member. The service I have done for my community demonstrates that. I provide a valuable perspective that needs to be visible and vocal in government. Justice is not just about resource allocation and progressive policies it is ensuring every member of our community feels like they have a voice.

7. Small businesses, particularly those on Franklin Street, continue to open and close at an alarming rate. Please give one new idea that you believe will help small business owners steady their operations.

Downtown Chapel Hill has one of the highest occupancy rates in the state. Businesses do turn over, but that is often part of natural market attrition. The strategy Council has pursued in the past is to get people living and working downtown to ensure business in the area will have a steady stream of customers. Since my reelection in 2011, citizens have voiced a desire for a grocery store downtown. Since the addition of 140 West and Greenbridge, one of our local business owners, Jamil Kadoura of Med Deli, expanded his business by opening a small grocery store.

Businesses thrive in an environment where their goods and services are in demand. The Graduate apartments will create more living units downtown. 123 West Franklin will also add new commercial and residential space. These changes will increase the number of people living and shopping downtown. We are supporting development and policies that work to support our local economy.

8. Between the Ephesus-Fordham district redevelopment and the newly approved Obey Creek development, Chapel Hill has seen a bevy of high-density, mixed-use proposals move forward in recent years. How do you balance such development with lingering environmental concerns such as protecting local creeks and limiting storm water runoff?

High-density development does not mean the Town has lowered its standards with respect to storm water control or environmental protections. Ephesus Fordham has the highest storm water regulations in North Carolina. The centerpiece of the project was a storm water utility that would be partially paid for by a district tax. Ephesus Fordham not only got us improvements on individual parcels, but through the district tax, allowed for comprehensive and coordinated district wide improvements.

Obey Creek has 80 acres of land that will be preserved as green space due to Council's choice to pursue a development agreement. The requirements for Obey Creek are stronger than the requirements for the Jordan Lake watershed. Citizen feedback and engagement was crucial in establishing the protections at Obey Creek. Kimberly Brewer, a member of AICP, and a member of the compass committee for Obey Creek, provided invaluable information about storm water issues at the Obey Creek site that staff then incorporated into final agreement between the Town and East West Partners.

9. Affordable housing is likely among the top priorities for any candidate in Chapel Hill. We've seen a lot of proposals, task forces and campaign speeches, but middling results. Please give your fresh ideas for tackling this decades-old problem.

I think many communities would be impressed by the success Chapel Hill has been able to accomplish. Affordability and Affordable Housing is a significant priority for me. As a member of the Mayor's Committee on Affordable Rental, I was able to work with staff and stakeholders from across the spectrum of housing in Chapel Hill. From the work of this committee, we were able to present a strategic plan that was accepted by the Council which included: long term and short term goals, clear objectives for role of Affordable Housing Committee, and a strong commitment to a predictable income stream for affordable housing. The "Penny for Housing" program is a success of that process.

As the market has taken a shift from developing units for homeownership to rental units, we have had to create innovative programs to generate affordable rentals. The creation of these programs within the legislative restrictions at the state level makes their existence even stronger indication of the Council's commitment to affordable housing.

I support continuing our enforcement of the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, looking for new incentives for developers to help add affordable stock, and continuing to be mindful of best practices nationwide while developing and refining the work we have set off to accomplish in our Affordable Housing Strategy.

As I mentioned in question #2, I also include transportation and adequate wages in any discussion of affordable housing. I will continue to be involved in the conversations had as we create a plan for transit sustainability. I will continue to raise the issue of how we calculate an adequate wage for our employees.

10. In Chapel Hill, the university provides a prosperous retail base, fuel for a feisty cultural scene and a pipeline for local leadership. But its presence also contributes a great deal to Chapel Hill's housing problem. What could the university do better with regard to local housing needs? How would you work to foster such agreements?

The University's impact on local housing markets is complicated. Part of the
affordable housing impact that UNC creates is a desirable community based upon its reputation as a research facility, its strong academic programs and the vitality of the student life. The University made a large gesture recently by providing a 3 million dollar, interest free loan for ten years, to support affordable housing programs like land banking, acquisition, and living-in-place programs within the Northside Neighborhood.

However it is important to recognize the University currently has an excess of units on its campus. In the past the concern has been that the UNC did not have enough units on campus and thus and an increased pressure on Chapel Hill's local housing market. Now, the University seems to be experiencing difficulty matching off campus student living in quality or price. Along with other interventions to address this issue, the Town, through Mayor Kleinschmidt, is pursuing conversations at the highest levels of Town/Gown relations. I believe we should continue this dialogue in order to clarify and identify the key issues and solutions to help address the issue of demand and on campus student housing.

As I mentioned in question #2, I believe that a working wage is a way to create a stable and prosperous workforce. UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Chapel Hill Hospitals are two of the largest employers in Chapel Hill. A large number of UNC and UNC hospital employees use the low-income housing programs such as Town of Chapel Hill Public Housing, Habitat for Humanity, & Orange County Home Trust.

11. Certain Chapel Hill neighborhoods have objected to the light rail line that is currently being planned. They are concerned that the rail line will create dangerous traffic problems and otherwise disrupt their quality of life. What do you believe the city can or should do to address their concerns?

Changes in or near existing neighborhoods are always difficult. It is the responsibility of the town and its partners in public transit to provide as much information as possible to address concerns of the neighbors. In the face of current patterns of growth and the mitigations we seek to impact regional traffic and growth.

I believe the Orange/Durham Light Rail system is a necessity for our town It is simply responding to natural growth that is already on its way. Getting ahead of this growth and its impact, while enforcing our progressive values designed to address economic disparity and access to service, is the best strategy. We will continue to see traffic on 15-501 at levels that frustrate some. Investment in transportation, bikeways, walkability, and localizing services with density is the best tool local government has to keep people out of their cars. We have the expertise of the Triangle Transit Authority the Federal Transit Authority and our own Department of Transportation to ensure that this development meets a high level of execution. Final drafts have not been completed. This is a conversation needs to continue. My hope is that all the stakeholders will be able to not only come, but to share and listen.

Any new infrastructure we create will have an impact. We pursue these projects understanding these impacts while trying to balance them with a view toward the public good at the end of the road.

12. Chapel Hill touts itself for its diversity. Yet, its population is among the most homogeneous in North Carolina. How do you encourage diversity in the town and create policies that increase the town's accessibility?

Chapel Hill Town Council's advocacy for affordable rental, and our commitment to passing a living wage speaks to Chapel Hill's promotion of socio-economic diversity. The Northside Neighborhood Initiative reflects our commitment to preserving a traditional African-American neighborhood. After years of committees and discussion, Chapel Hill is fulfilling a commitment to provide water and sewer to the Roger's Road neighborhood recognizing years of environmental racism. Chapel Hill is a sanctuary city for undocumented persons. It also has the distinction of having two openly gay municipal officials making it in a minority of in the nation. That having been said, Chapel Hill could do much more.

One issue that Chapel Hill faces is the state of its African-American community. Other cities in our region, like Raleigh and Durham, have traditionally had larger to African American communities. The presence of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the Black Wall Street, and the general visibility of African American in these communities has engendered a welcoming environment that Chapel Hill can learn from. The number, and thus visibility, of African Americans, in Chapel Hill, is stagnating or declining. If we can create a more welcoming environment, by encouraging public participation and intention decision making, I have no doubt we will a more vibrant and diverse Chapel Hill grow and develop as a result. 
  • Chapel Hill Town Council

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