Here are ten questions to ask candidates, based on a recent column in the Strong Town Journal.
1. How do you propose improving housing affordability?
Cities can increase lower- and moderate-priced housing supply by removing barriers to development of lower-cost housing types (secondary suites, townhouses and apartments), reducing parking requirements, reducing or eliminating development fees for lower-priced units, and imposing inclusionary zoning (a portion of housing units must be rented or sold at affordable rates). Be skeptical of candidates who support just one affordability strategy designed to benefit a narrow group, such a seniors or homeless people; affordable housing needs are diverse, and so require diverse and integrated solutions.
2. If you could change one thing in our zoning code, what would it be and why?
What To Listen For: Many cities are reforming their zoning codes to allow more affordable and compact development. Your candidate should demonstrate an awareness that greater zoning flexibility will allow for profitable development, business success and a broadened tax base.
3. What’s more important for our region: urban fringe development or more compact, infill?
What To Listen For: More compact, infill development can provide many economic, social and environmental benefits. Most communities can accommodate more people and jobs by allowing more compact housing types (secondary units, townhouses and apartments), reducing parking requirements and reusing existing buildings. Be skeptical of plans to expand infrastructure (roads, water, sewage, etc.), or in other ways encourage and subsidize urban fringe development.
4. How do you feel about currently available transportation options? Do we have enough options? If not, what will you do to increase them?
What To Listen For: Keep an ear out for a candidate who demonstrates familiarity with challenges facing bus riders, cyclists and pedestrians, and has specific ideas for improving affordable transport options. Ask about plans to improve conditions within their city, and non-auto connections to other communities.
5. Some people in our community say that we have traffic problems. What do you think? How would you mitigate those concerns or change the situation?
What To Listen For: Look for win-win solutions: congestion reduction strategies that help achieve other community goals. For example, more multimodal planning (improving walking, bicycling and public transit, and the connections among these modes) and commute trip reduction programs help reduce traffic and parking congestion, plus they improve mobility for non-drivers, increase traffic safety and reduce pollution emissions. Similarly, increasing public parking fees and road tolls can reduce congestion and generate revenue to finance public services or reduce general taxes.
Chances are, your community’s congestion problems are modest. In fact, congestion is often a good thing because it means more people passing by local businesses. For more information, check out this article on the causes of congestion.
6. Do you think our downtown and main streets are healthy and successful? If not, what would you do to change that?
What To Listen For: First ask yourself what you think could be improved. Is it safe to walk in commercial centers? Are businesses thriving? Do people spend time there? If so, then this might be an easy question for your candidate to answer. If not, then think about the small steps that could be taken to make Main Street safer: narrowing lanes of traffic, installing benches, planting trees, hosting pop-up shops in empty storefronts to encourage business activity, etc. Does the candidate mention these sorts of initiatives and understand the importance of a healthy downtown, or does he/she just talk about financial incentives to attract new businesses?
7. How do you plan to involve young and lower-income residents in the decision making process in our town?
What To Listen For: Your candidate should be able to genuinely answer this question with specific plans for engaging all residents and listening to their concerns, not just platitudes about how “decisions are made by those who show up.”
8. How should our city support local economic development?
What To Listen For: Responses should include a variety of incremental and affordable tactics that make your community attractive to businesses, residents and visitors. Be skeptical of financial incentives and mega projects intended to attract a particular type of business, particularly those that rely on public subsidies.
9. How will you advocate for lower-income residents?
What To Listen For: Is your candidate familiar with the needs of low- and moderate income residents, young people, and people with disabilities, including affordable housing and transportation options, quality schools and accessible healthcare? Will they challenge current policies that favor rural over urban voters (such as larger ridings in urban areas), and which favor automobile transportation over more affordable modes (such as minimum parking requirements, and inadequate funding for transit)?
10. What neighborhood do you live in? Why? Where are your favorite places to spend time in our town?
What To Listen For: Is your candidate deeply familiar with the whole town and its needs? Where he or she lives might tell you that. If the candidate lives far on the edge of town and doesn’t spend much time in the community’s parks, downtown, local businesses, etc. that suggests a lack of knowledge about the whole community. Conversely, if the candidate spends all of his or her time in just one neighborhood and doesn’t seem familiar with other parts of the city, that’s a red flag too.