Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Forum rundown: Wilmington council candidates on housing, transportation, homelessness

Jon Evans moderated the Wilmington City Council candidates forum Monday night, hosted by Port City Daily, WHQR and WECT. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Seven candidates shared their thoughts on a host of issues facing Wilmingtonians at a media-hosted forum Monday evening.

READ MORE: Here is where to go for early voting in the tri-county region

Port City Daily, WHQR and WECT held a town hall with Wilmington City Council candidates — two of which are incumbents — ahead of Election Day, Nov. 7. A broad range of topics, from affordable housing, public transportation and homelessness, to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and public safety, were discussed to help inform voters how candidates view the issues.

Though a nonpartisan race, Neil Anderson, Kathryn Bruner and John Lennon are registered Republicans backed by the New Hanover County GOP, while Kevin Spears, Marlowe Foster, Salette Andrews and David Joyner are Democrats. The local left-wing chapter is supporting Spears, Andrews and Joyner, according to a straw poll, as reported on by WHQR.

Here is a breakdown on the forum, which can be watched in full here.

“We need to build up in areas where we have transit and extend transit to areas where growth is concentrated,” Salette Andrews said of ways to improve affordable housing. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Affordable housing

Taking into consideration traffic, infrastructure and increased housing prices, candidates shared their visions for growth in the city. Many focused on a community where all demographics can thrive.

“We need to create an environment where our children can move back and afford to live in their hometown,” Lennon said. 

He thought improvements in the city’s land development code could be made to focus on increasing density and vertical builds. Lennon was clear he voted for all affordable housing projects while serving on the Wilmington Planning Commission and vowed to continue that streak if elected to council.

Andrews pointed to transit-oriented solutions.

“We need to build up in areas where we have transit and extend transit to areas where growth is concentrated,” Andrews said.

She posited transit-oriented development reduces traffic by minimizing the number of vehicles on the roads and has referenced the Triangle’s plan as an example in her campaign. The goal is to create urban transit hubs that connect various modes of transportation along with housing, office space and neighborhood amenities. 

Raleigh, which has three times the population as Wilmington, passed a half-cent sales tax to expand public transit options in 2016. Wilmington voters did not support a quarter-cent sales tax on last year’s ballot. The question posed to Andrews was how she would approach the transit-oriented housing strategy, considering the former sales tax failed.

“I was disappointed the quarter-cent sales tax failed,” she said. “I do think a sales tax is regressive; it hurts the people least able to afford it.”

She suggested an alternative to funding future public transit endeavors in the next transportation bond floated by the city.

“If you work here, you oughta be able to afford to live here,” Andrews said.

According to the county’s 2022 housing assessment, 68% of homeowners earn $60,000 or more; yet more than 10% of owners pay more than 50% of their income toward housing. 

She also pointed to incentives as being the primary tool of council for encouraging and supporting affordable housing. City council has already approved an increase in density allowance for any projects including 10% of units marked affordable.

“That means the developer, with the density bonus, is going to keep their profit margin and give something back to the community,” Andrews said.

Foster pointed to the city’s down payment assistance program, providing gap financing to first-time home buyers, as the council’s role in easing the crisis. He echoed Lennon’s suggestion on vertical growth and mixed-use development, with a variety of price points as a way to address affordability.

“We need to have good partnerships with developers and construction companies,” Foster said. 

Joyner, the youngest candidate running for council, said his vision would be for infill townhomes and row homes that preserve the character of existing neighborhoods, without having to construct taller buildings.

His vision would be to restrict the high-density developments to the downtown and commercial areas.

Incumbent Anderson’s vision was similar. He was a proponent of trying to mesh the need for high-density developments with current single-family neighborhoods.

Spears said “true mixed-income development” was needed and council should be more stringent with following its land development code.

“Council can’t keep talking out both sides of its mouth,” he said.

Cutting down on bureaucratic red tape with “less hoops to jump through” was Bruner’s suggestion for developers to more easily move forward with affordable housing construction. She also said NCDOT needs to keep up with local building. The state agency must review development that will add more than 300 peak trips and require certain road improvements to keep pace.

“We have a developer come in and adding a u-turn in front of the development, but a lot of times it’s not sufficient,” she said.

Marlowe Foster said council has to be willing to be visionary and said his goal would be to construct “an Eden Village on steroids” to support the homeless popultion. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Homelessness

Another hot topic of late is the growing population of unsheltered individuals in Wilmington. 

Joyner and Andrews were advocates of a housing-first approach, which places individuals into a residence as a top priority before tackling underlying issues, such as mental health or substance abuse issues.

“We get people into housing because, number one, it’s the right thing to do and, number two, it’s cost effective,” Andrews said.

It can be more costly to taxpayers when the unsheltered population either winds up in jail or in the emergency room, she added. 

For example, it costs the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office $120 per day to cover one inmate and Novant said it sees roughly 30 patients per month who self-report as homeless, as noted in a five-part series regarding homelessness that Port City Daily published earlier in the year. The hospital doled out $71 million in charity care — supporting households earning 300% of the current federal poverty guidelines — though it’s unclear how many of them were unsheltered.

Joyner and Spears were clear that criminalizing behavior is not the answer. This comes as ordinances have been put in place preventing homeless people from camping out on public property and last week Wilmington Police Department began enforcing no trespassing on a plot of state-owned and privately owned land at Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Kerr Avenue.

“We can’t arrest our way out,” Spears said. “We can’t put people in the situation where they end up in the custody of law enforcement.”

He added that the unsheltered should not be “forced out” of areas where they reside.

Joyner listed the county’s recovery and veterans’ treatment courts as a pathway for many who are unhoused to get back on their feet. People who are charged with crimes often can work toward a reduced sentence by agreeing to counseling, treatment, drug screenings and sober living.

Foster said council has to be willing to be visionary and said his goal would be to construct “an Eden Village on steroids.” Eden Village is a nonprofit tiny home community, founded by a local doctor along with 30 homeless advocates, that provides residences for the chronically homeless. They pay a fixed rate in perpetuity and have access to needed resources, such as volunteer support and relationship building, with access to city and county organizations providing additional help.

Eden Village currently has 30 homes with plans for a phase II; Foster’s goal would be to build 100 to 200 units, he said. Though not associated with the nonprofit, Foster admires the concept and wants to capitalize on it for transformative change.

Lennon and Anderson focused more on the council’s role. While the city doesn’t offer mental health and substance use services, it does invest in and support organizations and nonprofits that do.

To Lennon, the city’s responsibility is to help “connect the dots,” meaning linking people up with the appropriate resources, as the city and county’s Getting Home initiative does. Council spent $1.3 million to launch Getting Home in December. 

Anderson, who also praised the program, said he was in favor of the no trespassing efforts since the population at MLK/Kerr was growing, adding to increased calls for service, trash build-up and attracting more out-of-towners.

Shelters are at capacity currently, some of which have closed, such as the Salvation Army.

“I hope they submitted an application to the [New Hanover Community] Endowment to get them over the hurdle to get the new facility started,” he said.

The Salvation Army sold its downtown location to the city and shuttered its shelter for the foreseeable future as it builds a larger campus along MLK Parkway. It’s fundraising to bring in enough money to build the campus, and the endowment provides financing to projects that support affordable housing.

Kevin Spears is not an advocate of replacing the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and instead thinks the area needs another crossing, while John Lennon (left) said the responsibility needs to fall on NCDOT. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Transportation

While Wave Transit is a private entity, it receives annual supplemental funding from the city and county. Wave officials have indicated the entity is approaching a fiscal cliff as its $12-million federal pandemic money runs out. Its 2023-2024 budget is $11.7 million, with $1.7 million coming from the city and $1.2 million in Covid-19 related funds. 

While some candidates said they support the continued funding of Wave, others needed to see more ridership to justify the need.

Overall, Wave ridership is up roughly 7% from last year — though some routes have seen a spike of nearly 60% — and the organization is working on a short-range plan to tackle efficiencies in its system.

Spears expressed disappointment in the quarter-cent sales tax failing by voter referendum last November. It would have provided $65 million to Wave over a decade.

“We missed a great opportunity with the quarter-cent sales tax,” Spears said. “It’s not a tax on the people, it’s on people purchasing things, people coming through spending money, those that come here daily and may not live here. … We missed a great opportunity to set Wave up to have its own funding source.”

Andrews called it the “chicken and the egg” problem.

“If we don’t put money into increasing routes and frequencies, we’re not going to get the ridership,” she said. “People can’t get where they need to go with a system that is being run on a shoestring.”

Foster said his support for Wave is a “delicate balance” of ensuring routes are in place where the greatest need is but also making sure ridership is in place.

Anderson and Bruner wanted additional information about what taxpayers would support and how to increase ridership.

Bruner also mistakenly said NCDOT provided $45 million to Wave last year. While the state agency provided $45 million statewide to transit agencies in June, Wave only received $2.86 million to buy low-emission buses.

Lennon was not in favor of putting more money toward Wave without a proven ridership record. He was also against another attempt at a sales tax referendum, saying the city has a “terrible track record” with bond referendums and accomplishing tasks on deadline (more on that below).

One thing all candidates did agree on when it comes to transportation was not implementing a toll as an option to fund the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge replacement.

“For us to be receiving a new bridge now, someone had to be forward-thinking 25 years ago,” Spears said. “The option now is to go north or south.”

He supports retaining the current bridge instead of replacing it and adding another crossing. Anderson, who also sits on the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, agreed with that approach and was against adding a toll to an existing roadway.

“No to the toll,” he said. “Creating a southern crossing, I can live with that, but the state replaces roads in Raleigh and Charlotte and they’re not tolled. There’s no reason we should be.” 

Joyner, Lennon, Bruner and Foster all stated the responsibility falls on the state. NCDOT owns the bridge and determines through a data-driven formula which projects will get funded in its long-range plan. However, the bridge has not scored high enough to be considered for funding due to its expense.

Joyner said the taxpayers are already paying for the bridge with gas taxes — 40.5 cents per gallon — to fund NCDOT; however, NCDOT has noted the revenue is not enough to support all statewide projects.

Andrews pointed out if a toll was to be implemented, it would herd additional traffic over the Isabel Holmes Bridge and increase traffic elsewhere.

Kathryn Bruner said her job as a realtor is a benefit for serving on council, as the role she plays networking in her career would translate well to an elected position. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

More realtors on the council?

Lennon, director of operations at River Bluffs Development, was asked about campaign financing. He has raised the most of any candidate, $95,000, and received just over $27,000, according to WHQR, from developers and real estate community members. 

“If I made widgets and ran for city council and no other widget-maker donated a dollar to my campaign, what does that tell you?” he asked.

He defended the funds and also said he would recuse himself from a vote if there was a deal he was involved with. 

Lennon addressed a growing concern from the public over lack of diversity on council, as currently four (including Mayor Bill Saffo) are involved in real estate. If Lennon and Bruner, also a realtor representing military families, were elected, it would make five.

“I don’t know; why aren’t there other people in politics?” Lennon asked.

Bruner said her career is an advantage for public office.  

“I network for a living to make connections,” Bruner said. “I don’t just help them get houses. I help them make friends, understand the school system, get jobs — that role translates directly to city council and I see it as a huge benefit.”

Anderson, Spears and Clifford Barnett are the only current members that work in other fields — the furniture industry, IT and as a pastor, respectively. Spears, elected in 2019, touted his ability to be the voice for community members who often get overlooked and underrepresented.

“A lot of people accuse the current sitting council of being developer-friendly,” he said. “I am more so of the mindset to helping people, help drive crime down, create better living within the community and close the gap of disparity.”

“I think it would be devastating to our economy and devastating to people who want to relocate here and devastating to people who have children living in their home and want to get their own place,” John Lennon said on whether he would support a moratorium on building citywide. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Environment, public safety, referendum projects

An assistant district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, Joyner advocated for climate-friendly development, such as more EV chargers and transitioning away from fossil fuels. He also pushed for a more bikeable and pedestrian-friendly city.

“Right now transit is oriented on private passenger vehicles, but that doesn’t have to be the case in a decade or two decades,” he said. “We need to tackle infrastructure problems as we pump the breaks on overdevelopment.”

Lennon addressed overdevelopment via a question submitted by the public: Would he support a moratorium on building in city limits?

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I think it would be devastating to our economy and devastating to people who want to relocate here and devastating to people who have children living in their home and want to get their own place, so no I would not.”

As far as the economy goes, Andrews said the city should engage in “big game hunting,” or recruiting large companies to Wilmington to create jobs.

“I also believe in economic gardening, supporting small- to medium-sized businesses already here,” she said, referencing UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and CFCC’s skilled trades and apprenticeship program.

Foster — with a background in nonprofits, as well as corporate and government affairs — is also an advocate for trade skills and supporting small businesses, the backbone of the local economy. Though, he is focusing his campaign as well on juvenile public safety.

His motto “no time for crime” advocates for more investment into community organizations that provide teens with activities and a productive outlet to reduce crime.

“I want to be sure every child has the same opportunity,” he said.

Bruner also addressed public safety, with concerns around the Wilmington Police Department lacking a full staff. She brought up the idea of social districts — specific areas city council would have to agree to allow visitors to walk freely with alcoholic beverages outside of businesses — that would need more police presence.

“Making sure public safety comes first before we do the beautifications and exciting things in Wilmington, that’s how we keep our citizens safe,” said Bruner, a U.S. Coast Guard vet.

“My short answer would be not to play politics in the future with a referendum,” Neil Anderson said when asked how he would approach future bonds differently, given the extended timeline of many unfinished projects from 2014 and 2016.  (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

While improvements are always necessary in a growing town, Anderson addressed how the city could approach referendum projects more fruitfully moving forward. Voters approved a 2014 transportation bond packed with 38 projects; more than half are still incomplete.

The 2016 parks and recreation bond included 21 projects, with 10 still in the works.

“My short answer would be not to play politics in the future with a referendum,” he said. 

As council typically finds needed projects in all areas of town to garner citywide support, Anderson recommends scaling back on the number of investments in the future.

“My experience, since I’ve been on council, you try to find something in every part of town to get enough votes to pass it,” he said.

He called the last referendum “too big”: “I don’t know if we should be blamed, it goes back from where it started.”

Anderson was on the council when the 2016 referendum was recommended and passed by council unanimously.

He said other factors played into delays — rising costs and supply chain shortages from the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the projects now making headway is a gym expansion at the MLK Center — an undertaking Spears has championed. He has consistently grilled staff at council meetings about its progress.

MLK was approved in 2016 and delayed twice over the years. In March, city staff estimated it would break ground in September, yet a contractor was just approved by council last week, leading to a third delay.

Spears noted the recently signed contract to begin work as an example of his advocacy that impacts the community-at-large. 

Lennon also called out the city’s extensive timeline for completing projects, specifically MLK Center.

“I intend to ask, at the first meeting I go to, for a list of city programs that were cut from the budget because of the PPD building,” he said. “And why the MLK Center is not done.”

The $68 million purchase of the former PPD building by the city to consolidate staff was accepted by most candidates. They agreed the city’s surplus properties and vacant tracts of land adjacent should be sold to pay down the debt. 

When asked if candidates would have done anything differently in the transaction, Lennon answered “a lot.” For one, he said the amount of information given to the public was “woefully inadequate” and residents should have been educated on the financial breakdown. 

“You’re taking an asset off the tax rolls by the city purchasing it and supposedly adding surplus properties back on tax rolls,” he said. “What’s the difference?”

Bruner also questioned its impact on taxpayers in the long-term.

“By 2030, it will cost Wilmington taxpayers significantly more to be in the penthouse,” she said. “Our responsibility when we approve things, we need to not just stop at the vote, but recruit the people that need to be in there to create the highest and best use and maximize profits to keep tax dollars low.”

Joyner agreed the city should have taken an active role in ensuring the space was filled with tenants; currently, only Thermo Fisher is renting two floors. He was concerned additional tenants were not already lined up.

In addition to watching the full forum, the candidates’ questionnaires have been published by Port City Daily and can be found here so voters can learn more about their platforms ahead of Election Day.

“Right now transit is oriented on private passenger vehicles, but that doesn’t have to be the case in a decade or two decades,” said David Joyner, whose campaign strongly supports protecting the environment. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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