Nicole Stewart | Candidate Questionnaires - Wake County | Indy Week
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Nicole Stewart 

Raleigh City Council (At-Large)

Nicole Stewart
Occupation: Development Director, NC Conservation Network
Phone Number: 919.576.0482
Email Address:
Years Lived in Raleigh: 14. I grew up in Apex where I attended public school in Wake County

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?

First, I think the city is on the right track to recognize this as a problem and work to combat it. It’s obvious that we need to do more and here are a few ideas I would bring:

● Work to prevent demolition: I would direct staff to work with our community to track housing affordability, including where privately owned multi-family stock is vulnerable to demolition or conversion from subsidized to market rate. The City of Raleigh should be able to predict where subsidized housing is going to expire, or apartment complexes are for sale and at risk of demolition, and put our resources towards preventing the loss of that housing stock. Also, Council and the Planning Commission should consider impacts to affordability when approving rezonings. For example, if an applicant wants to upzone an existing apartment community from three to five stories they are likely planning to redevelop the site. We should carefully consider whether to approve that rezoning, or if conditions could be added to preserve affordability.

● Protect low and moderate income citizens: Partner with community groups, such as the Friends Committee, to ensure that residents know their housing rights and that homeowners understand the value of their properties so that if they decide to sell they are not taken advantage of by developers. We must also remember that housing is just one piece of the puzzle. We need to search for ways that we can alleviate cost burdens, such as improved transit, and ways to increase families’ incomes, such as job training programs, and broadened our use of economic development funds to recruit companies that pay fair wages to working class citizens.

● Explore new models for housing development: Where are the bright spots locally, regionally, and nationally where progress has been made? What can we learn from their success to help us focus our limited resources? For example, the land bank model could offer opportunities to use resources and regulatory structures to purchase land for permanent and self-sustaining affordable housing development. We should also consider allowing the development of “missing middle” housing in appropriate locations, such as small scale multi-unit buildings, accessory dwelling units, and tiny homes. We must also work regionally since rising housing prices are pushing families outside of Raleigh’s city limits. This collaborative spirit could also lead to advocacy for changes in restrictive state laws that limit municipalities’ ability to require private sector development of affordable housing.

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 work to build an integrated transportation system that is multimodal, regional, and equitable, which provides riders with choice and dignity. I support the Wake Transit referendum, city funded local projects that closely link land use and transportation, and Triangle-wide initiatives with interlocal funding. Ridership programs could include reduced or free rates for low income families, senior citizens, and students, as well as strengthened parking “cash out” programs that employers use to incent transit ridership.
For a transit system to be successful and useful, it must be part of a coordinated transportation and land use strategy. The City of Raleigh must redouble efforts to install sidewalks and bike lanes, and create pedestrian friendly development patterns near transit lines. This can connect more people to transit, and make sure that the benefit of transit investments reach beyond the high-value land adjacent to the routes and into the nearby neighborhoods of people with more modest means.
We also must invest in creating transit stops that are both functional and beautiful. Many of our current bus stops are little more than a sign on the side of the road. Our transit riders are an important part of the Raleigh community and are choosing sustainability and economy; they deserve safe routes to their stops, shelter from the weather, and real-time information on bus arrivals.
Our transit system must also be flexible and respond to the shifting location of transit-dependent populations. As those riders move to seek affordable housing, our transit system must shift with them to ensure that they continue to have access to transit options.

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?

Raleigh, as a community, has made it clear that we welcome all and that we are not ok with discrimination, but we need to go further. I think our city is generally out of touch with both the successes and struggles of our communities of color. While many people in Raleigh have a positive relationship with our city government, there are areas throughout our city where relationships are more strained. Much of that is due to the realities that many in these communities live with day-in and day-out.
Many in Raleigh view quality of life as clean water, clean air, and plentiful parks. While people in these other communities value these things, they also know that their communities are disproportionately affected by a need for access to affordable housing, jobs, transit, and healthy foods. It’s time our leaders recognize the different needs that exist across our city and address them thoughtfully to take care of ALL of Raleigh’s people. We need to move beyond a one-size-fits-all notion of equality and focus on equity.
Our outreach strategies must focus on building sustained two-way communication, and rebuild trust where it has been broken. Just as we must communicate effectively, we also must listen deeply. For example, as we grapple with the question of police body cameras, we must listen to communities of color, and take action based on the responses.
Moving forward, Raleigh should work to diversify our leadership and those who have access to decision-making tables with an aim to make these spaces representative of our city’s demographics. Our city would benefit from having diverse viewpoints on all issues.

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?

Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs) have been an invaluable resource to our community for decades and are an effective way for neighbors to connect to one another, learn about issues and opportunities, and advocate for their needs. As the city has grown rapidly, CACs have been strained by the volume of development requests to review and the increasing size of CAC territories outside of the beltline. The City of Raleigh must support the CACs so that they can build on their successes, adapt to changing environments, and welcome new members to the table.
When appropriate, additional CACs could be created so that their territories aren’t unwieldy and reflect local communities. CACs must also be adequately equipped with staff who is knowledgeable and empowered to serve as an effective liaison to community members.
We must also welcome new members to the table, whether that is in-person or online. We need improved communication about citizen engagement opportunities and we should explore meeting formats that could increase the ability of families to participate such as providing childcare or meals. We should also carefully consider how technology could be used to augment CAC participation, such as online message boards, live streaming meetings, text voting, and other engagement options.
Finally, we must remember that there isn’t one solution for community engagement. The city can have standards and procedures, but also allow for flexibility to build from the individual CACs’ legacies and unique ways of communicating with their neighbors. I support a robust citizen engagement strategy that facilitates strong two-way communication between City and citizen.

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 has made great strides over the past decade to uphold our strong quality of life in the midst of rapid change. Our downtown has transformed, we have passed strong affordable housing and transit bonds, enacted early voting, secured the purchase of Dorothea Dix Park, and raised the minimum wage for city employees.
But there is always room for improvement. The political climate at the state and national level is increasingly leaving cities without the resources (financial and regulatory) to support our communities. We must counter that by adjusting funding priorities to protect vulnerable programs and communities, and use our voices to advocate for the city’s needs and protect our people.
At the same time, we also should study whether the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) is delivering the results that we want. Is our growth making us better, and if not what regulatory changes do we need to make to ensure that we maintain our high quality of life while protecting the environment?
All of these improvements should arise from a foundation of authentic citizen engagement. As Raleigh grows and technology evolves we must ensure that our government is transparent and participatory, and that we represent the will of the people in all of our decisions.

6) If you are a candidate for a district seat, please identify 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.

● Growth: Given the rapid rate of growth in Raleigh, it is critical that we focus on the effectiveness of our development-related ordinances and examine whether the UDO is delivering the desired results. Are our tree conservation and stormwater ordinances working effectively? Are our urban frontages and parking ratios creating environments where people choose to bike, walk, and take transit? Now that annexation rules in North Carolina have changed to limit our ever-outward growth, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that all new development serves our desire to become the city we aspire to be. I will support efforts to further strengthen development regulations and careful consideration of proposed rezonings, as well as a holistic look at whether the city’s long list of road widenings and UDO regulations are helping us build a more just and sustainable city.
● Environment: Growth in Raleigh is straining our natural resources. We see the effects daily, including polluted stormwater runoff, more regular flooding, and increased air pollution from idling cars and buses. In addition, our state and national governments continue to attack our environment and public health, making it critical that our local government stands up to protect our quality of life. I'm ready to work to make sure those plans are put in place, protecting our Falls Lake drinking water, cleaning up our air, and championing our greenways. I have spent my career advocating for our natural resources and public health across the state, and I intend to continue that role if elected to City Council.
● Citizen engagement: Raleigh is a diverse and growing city, and government leadership should reflect not just who we are, but also where we're going. I support a robust citizen engagement program that respectfully and efficiently elevates neighborhood voices to the decision-making table. Not every area has the same challenges, and not every person communicates the same way. That means we need different approaches to engage residents and create a sustained two-way dialogue. I will work to bring people together across our communities so that we hear from diverse voices and create more engaged residents.

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?

My work with the NC Conservation Network has provided me with 14 years of experience that would allow me to be an effective City Council member. In my role as a statewide organizer, I spent years facilitating large coalitions and collaborative efforts of diverse organizations. I also managed issue campaigns and carried projects forward behind-the-scenes, which often meant I was responsible for making sure all aspects of the work kept moving forward.
In my role as Development Director, I’ve deepened my ability to see how connections and assets one person may have could benefit another’s project. I also have spent a lot of time lifting other individual’s and organization’s projects up rather than solely focusing on my own priorities. In addition to a career built on working collaboratively and engaging the public, I also have a deep understanding of environmental and environmental justice issues.
As a co-founder of The Beehive Collective, a local giving circle, I have experience inspiring individuals to come together to serve our community. Our work focuses on building young leaders, and collectively working to raise funds in innovative ways for the good of our city. This work has also given me direct experience with local nonprofits working on affordable housing, transit, food access, and more.
As a working mom with two children in public schools, I understand the constraints put on families as well as their priorities. I also see how technology could allow families to engage in our city’s decisions in a way that fits their schedules. My husband is a co-owner of Trophy Brewing, so I also understand the stresses and challenges of our small business community.
Threaded throughout my professional and personal life is the theme of service. I want to bring my collaborative and results-focused working style to the Council so that we can more effectively serve all of Raleigh’s people.

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?

The Citizen Engagement Task Force is a process that was enacted by Council in good faith, but procedurally and substantively should have been handled differently. When an engagement task force leaves citizens feeling disenfranchised we must step back and examine what went wrong and how we can avoid these missteps in the future. The task force did not adequately represent existing community advocates and neighborhood institutions, had an unclear scope, did not authentically seek public input, and while many of their recommendations (such as expanding rezoning notification requirements) were supportive of communities they did not clearly communicate their desire to build on a successful existing model (CACs) rather than replace it. We have the chance to make that right with the creation of the Community Engagement Board.
While the process was flawed, the desire of Council to work on the issue of citizen engagement is a major accomplishment. Past Councils have not made serious efforts to this end, and we are now studying the issue, using technology to broaden our reach, and have new staff in the public affairs department that is helping the city communicate more effectively.
The city is also wrapping up a multi-year study of staff compensation and is now paying all of our staff a living wage, That is the right and smart thing to do, and helps us retain the talent to put all of our progressive ideals into action. I look forward to furthering these efforts on City Council, and redoubling our efforts towards authentic citizen engagement and paying our community helpers a fair wage for their hard work.

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 identify as a progressive, and seek to embody progressive values in my actions both professional and personal. Whether that’s enrolling my kids in our neighborhood Title 1 school, devoting my career to environmental justice, starting and supporting local businesses, or rallying our community to support our nonprofits, I believe in and act towards progressive ideals and will continue to do so at the City Council table.

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?

The purchase and creation of Dorothea Dix park is a major opportunity for the City of Raleigh and the result of many years of hard work by our Mayor and City Council. The final design must take into account Dorothea Dix’s legacy of open space as a way to heal the body and soul, the history of the communities that have used the site (including those that precede the site’s use as a hospital), environmental sustainability, and social justice. Dorothea Dix Park can be a place for quiet reflection and community celebration on a scale that inspires a sense of wonder. The park must be an equalizer, where all users are welcomed and inspired, and one whose impact on the surrounding community is positive. Care must be taken to reknit the park into the surrounding neighborhoods through greenway, transit, and bike/pedestrian connections, and we must ensure that our park investment doesn’t spark a wave of gentrification in the low-income and people of color neighborhoods on its edge.
As we embark on this paradigm-shifting work at Dorothea Dix, we also should seize the opportunity to improve our whole parks system through those efforts. Our parks system is already incredible, and includes important cultural sites such as Chavis Park, sites of great natural beauty like Horseshoe Park, and our robust network of greenways. Successes we have during the Dix Park design process can be replicated to further strengthen that system - whether that’s community engagement strategies, ways to open parks to community events, ensuring that our parks system serves all communities, sustainable design strategies, or even new funding mechanisms.


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