Raleigh City Councilman Russ Stephenson has a good idea. And it is literally that: Be good.
There’s nothing new about that. It’s as old as morality and ethics. But it’s part of something new in city government. Enterprising and growing cities are increasingly aware that economic development is about more than rising property values. It’s about expanding human values of fairness, equality and compassion.
Last week, Stephenson asked the council to consider how its laws and policies will affect equity just as it considers how its actions will affect the city budget, the tax base, traffic flow or infrastructure demands. The council agreed to consider the idea at a work session, but whether it will have any effect will depend on the extent that council members accept equity as a guiding value and allow it to shape the way they vote and the way the city grows.
In his request, Stephenson said, “I believe this represents an important opportunity for Council to begin exploring what other peer cities are doing to take a more systematic, intentional and data-driven approach to incorporating equity into our policies and decisions, especially in ways that promote equity as an economic driver, and help us reach our ... goals for prosperity for all of our citizens.”
Equity is fuzzy in theory, but it’s starkly real in fast-changing Raleigh and across the nation where economic and social forces are widening income inequality and shrinking the middle class. In downtown Raleigh, for instance, property values have soared in recent years. That’s good for real-estate investors, but bad for middle- and low-income people looking for housing they can afford.
The stresses are showing. Longtime Southeast Raleigh residents are being bought out or pushed out as that traditionally African-American section of the city has rapidly gained value because of its proximity to the booming downtown. Raleigh police and firefighters are feeling the city become too expensive for their salaries. They’re asking for a substantial pay increase. (Meanwhile, the Capital City’s many state employees are feeling the pinch of little or no pay increases from the state legislature.)
A Harvard study of economic opportunity for low-income children released in January ranked Raleigh 95th out of 100 cities. (Indeed, four of the bottom six cities were in North Carolina.) A Financial Times analysis of a Pew Research Center study released in May found that Raleigh’s median income has fallen and its middle class has shrunk since 1999 even as its population grew by more than two thirds.
There’s much the city already does to help the poor and the elderly, to provide benefits to its employees and to support affordable housing. But Stephenson says those efforts are reactive and done out of a sense of justice and compassion rather than as part of developing a healthy and economically vibrant city.
That approach and perspective need to be adjusted, he says. He notes that environmental protections and public support for the arts and culture were once considered as elements apart from economic development. Now most cities see that environmental quality and a thriving arts culture are as important to economic development as tax breaks, infrastructure, zoning and financing. He says being a city that sees development “through the lens of equity” – a city that shares its wealth and makes room for everyone – develops a strong appeal for businesses and a healthy climate for developing the local economy.
“We’re not going to do it just because it feels good,” Stephenson says. “It’s an economic driver not to have a large part of the population that is uneducated or unhealthy.”
Seattle, Boston, St. Paul, Minnesota and Tacoma, Washington, are among cities that see equity as enhancing a city’s appeal. Raleigh, however, has yet to catch on. That lapse is aggravating inequity, and the city is passing up chances to improve equity in the future. Now, when the real estate market is hot and the city is growing is the time to reap the resources to improve pay for government employees, to help keep schools racially and economically diverse and to broaden access to health care and housing.
Raleigh, eager to encourage and channel development, is approving higher building heights downtown and denser development near residential neighborhoods. But as zoning changes increase property values, the city should be asking the beneficiaries to contribute to the community’s value.
For instance, if a downtown property owner has the allowable height on a building on that property increased from 10 to 40 stories, he should pay something for that increased value. Such payments should go toward a land bank for new schools, support for community health care centers and affordable housing. Instead, the city is working indirectly by assuming that increases in taxable value alone will enable the city to meet educational, health and social needs.
As Raleigh grows, it needs to grow together, not apart. That’s where a conscious emphasis on equity comes in. Stephenson has a good idea.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com