Name: Rich Lee
Profession: Socially-responsible financial planner
In up to two words, describe your political affiliation: Progressive Democrat
In one brief sentence, describe yourself and why you’re running: I believe my experience as a community organizer, working to make local government more transparent and responsive to its people, makes me the right choice for the big decisions the city needs to make.
These questions are about problems, challenges or topics facing city government and how you will try to deal with them if elected.
1. Of the current top city officials that answer directly to City Council — City Attorney, City Manager and City Clerk — which ones would you favor retaining or firing? Why?
I’m for keeping City Clerk Maggie Burleson, whatever it takes. As for the rest, I don’t think it’s responsible to go in planning to fire someone. Clearly we need city management that’s aligned with the public’s priorities and a city legal department that’s strategic and daring, not – as is too frequently the case – an easy bulwark against new ideas. The city’s resistance to moving a nondiscrimination ordinance like Charlotte’s in the run-up to HB2 comes to mind. I support a one-year public audit and review for both offices aimed at really accounting for how they move or fail to move city priorities. After that, we can start a real process with a paper trail. More generally, I think new council members need to be ready to push back against resistance from city staff. The city is a $150 million professionalized bureaucracy and council is more, for lack of a better term, a supervisory board of well intentioned hobbyists. It’s easy to get snowed, to begin to mistake a cautious study or symbolic resolution for needed action, for example. I believe my experience pushing big public goals through this bureaucracy and following the city closely as head of the 6,200 member Asheville Politics group prepares me better for that challenge than most. If I can get big moves on affordable housing, transportation equity, nondiscrimination and other items with the current management, fine. If not, we’ll get the management we need.
2. The powers granted to the planning and zoning commission are a key point of debate in how Asheville should deal with growth and how much of a direct role elected officials should play. Do you think those powers should change, If so, how?
I’m for recent moves like bringing hotel review back under council, but only as a stopgap measure. The fact of the matter is the city needs a clear and de-politicized set of guidelines for developers. Restrictions on hotels should be laid out in the rules. Zoning should be tailored with overlays for different neighborhoods according to their character and infrastructure, and should allow for creative solutions to housing problems, like backyard apartments (ADUs) and a pilot experiment with inclusionary zoning in high gentrification-risk neighborhoods. Putting individual development decisions to council is fine when we like the council. But the entire body is two years, a district bill, and mysterious high-dollar donations from turning over completely. Do we want to take the risk that a pro-development council elected in a low-turnout district election wields the same political power? These next two years are the time to get community ideas about growth, development, and equity codified into a total zoning rewrite. Otherwise we’ll be back in the same place, or worse.
3. Some Pisgah Legal Services attorneys recently criticized city staff’s enforcement of tenant protections, asserting that they don’t sufficiently enforce the written ordinance and place additional burdens on tenants dealing with bad landlords. How would you change or reinforce the city’s tenant protections and their enforcement?
I was interested to learn from that conversation that county tenants are more likely than city tenants to call in safety concerns, and less likely to fear repercussions as a consequence. It seems like fear of losing a lease and being unable to find another rental in the same price range in the city is suppressing complaints about slum landlords. And we have a lot of problems here.
The 2015 Bowen report found hundreds of rental units with “incomplete plumbing” or heating
or other serious maintenance problems. As a Council member, I would order a review of the
breakdown in complaints and enforcement. But the problem really seems to be stemming from
the lack of low-rent housing and fears about finding another place. I would use city affordable housing funds to start a lending bank for backyard and basement apartments, and give tax credits like those offered to big developers for any small landlord who keeps his rents below market. Any city dollar would be tied to periodic inspections and other tenant protections. Second, I would secure funding for an emergency eviction-relief pool to cover situations where an unexpected expense puts someone in danger of missing a payment and eviction. The easiest way to fight homelessness is before people lose their home.
4. In response to a community push that cited the de facto segregation shown in reports like the State of Black Asheville, the Buncombe County Commissioners recently supported taking funds intended for a jail expansion and instead putting them towards community support and rehabilitation. Do you favor a similar shifting of Asheville’s law enforcement funds? If so, to what extent and to what kind of programs?
To the first question, an unqualified yes. The police department doesn’t have a large item like the jail in its budget like the Sheriff’s office does, but to any extent possible, replacing man- hours spent on responding to homeless trespassing or camps with social programs seems like a good investment.
5. What course of action do you favor in dealing with Asheville’s Confederate regime and segregation-
I think they’ll have to be removed or renamed. State law, of course, bans cities and counties from altering monuments without the approval of a state body. We should explore legal avenues to act anyway. Since, nationwide, such monuments have become rallying points for violent white supremacist groups like the KKK and Neo-Nazis, resulting in at least one death, there’s a solid argument that ours are a potential public-safety hazard, legally movable under state law. In any event, the city has a lot of work to do to make Asheville a sustaining and welcoming place for our declining, embattled black population. The monument debate is important, but it shouldn’t overshadow the bigger economic and social picture.
These questions are about specific proposals Asheville City Council has or may consider, and how you would vote on them. The first word of each answer must be Yes or No. An explanation of one’s position — or an alternative proposal — may follow. Answers in this section that do not begin with “Yes” or “No” will not be published.
6. Earlier this year, the local NAACP — backed by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice — called for several reforms in an attempt to address racial disparities in the APD’s traffic stops. Those reforms included: ending regulatory stops for minor issues like expired registration or a busted headlight, written consent for a driver agreeing to allow a vehicle search and a transparent investigation into why full stop numbers may not have been reported to the SBI. Do you favor the full and immediate adoption of these reforms?
Yes. The department has made some nods toward these recommendations, which hedging on others – pointing out, for example, that other NC cities haven’t fully adopted these recommendations either. I’m not persuaded. Asheville has particular racial inequities unlike any other city in the state, and we should aim to be a national model for equitable policing, not a lowest common denominator, anyway.
7. Do you favor extending the ban on whole home/apartment Airbnb-style rentals to areas where the practice is currently allowed, such as downtown and the River Arts District?
Yes. Ultimately, I believe there’s a balance to be struck that eases some Airbnb restrictions while imposing others. For example: On outside investment consortiums buying multiple properties to operate as absentee landlords. But it’s inconceivable to me that the city won’t treat downtown and RAD the same as residential areas – they are – while simultaneously pouring tens of millions of dollars into affordable housing and resident-friendly infrastructure in those same areas.
8. Do you favor the city establishing a rental crisis fund that would give direct monetary assistance to those in danger of being pushed out by rapidly rising rents, with priority given to those in the most marginalized and rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods?
Yes. We have a housing policy almost solely oriented to put funds in the hands of large
commercial developers. In any way possible, those funds would be better used in the hands of
local landlords and tenants.
9. Lambda Legal and other civil rights groups have dubbed HB142 a “fake repeal” of the HB2 legislation that discriminates against LGBT (especially trans) people and sued to= overturn it. Should the city of Asheville formally condemn HB142, pass a non discrimination ordinance in defiance of it and prepare to defend that ordinance in court?
Yes. I would add, the law’s intent is to enshrine trans discrimination and second-class status as official state positions. We should absolutely and in every way register our opposition to that. Does that mean blindly stumbling into a losing lawsuit? I don’t think so. There are good legal groups working on strategies to get around HB142, including a working paper suggesting the city could go ahead and pass= a nondiscrimination ordinance on legal grounds, and we should heed their advice. I want to win, not just take a futile, symbolic stand.
10. Should the city of Asheville declare itself a sanctuary city, as some social justice and immigrants rights’ advocates have called for?
Yes. As far as I’m aware, in every important sense, we already are. The city has a Civil Rights Ordinance that bars police from cooperating on INS holds or searches. The Sheriff’s Office has a similar policy, I believe. As importantly, state conservatives have already marked us as a target sanctuary city, meaning we can go ahead and prepare for loss of funding and petty vengeance. I do think the city needs to have an honest conversation with the public about what our principled stand costs us, and how we’re preparing to maintain public services in the face of it.
And if there’s a chance to join a legal strategy to protect cities’ sovereignty and immigrants rights, we absolutely should. Sanctuary is good public policy, it allows undocumented immigrants to approach the police on matters like domestic violence and gang and drug violence without fear of deportation. It saves us money on detention holds, an unfunded mandate. And it’s the law as spelled out in the Posse Comitatus Act. Reneging on it only makes us less safe, poorer, and in violation of our principles as Americans.