In 1974, Raleigh, North Carolina, created a new way for residents to directly influence the direction of their neighborhoods.
The city had just elected its first black mayor, Clarence Lightner—a historic milestone in this majority-white Southern city. Lightner was ushered into office by a coalition of voters concerned about the city’s rapid growth, and his administration responded with a novel means of giving voters a bigger say in future development. Called Citizen Advisory Councils, their mandate was to work on three broad problems—housing, transportation, and governmental accountability. City records from 1974 proclaim that CACs were “designed to involve all areas of the City in a formal citizen participation structure … whereby City government might use this avenue as one means of involving citizens in the decision-making process.” Instituting the CACs would also help the city win federal community block grants, Lightner believed.
The city never got those grants. But the network of 18 neighborhood CACs became “entrenched in Raleigh’s political landscape,” as local newspaper Indy Week reports. A more institutional form of community meeting, the councils are assigned to geographic regions and led by chairs chosen by the CAC members. At monthly gatherings, police officers show up to offer crime reports, the parks and recreation department announces new initiatives, transportation planners give presentations, and community garden plans are unveiled. The CACs real power lies, however, in zoning decisions: When developers or neighbors come in to present construction plans, the group votes on whether to approve them. Though the opinions shared in CAC meetings are non-binding, they do carry weight: Raleigh’s planning commission looks to the CACs to inform their own zoning suggestions. So does the city council.
Supporters of the councils say that CACs offer valuable opportunities to share public information, defend against over-development, and engage diverse swaths of the community in municipal decision-making. But critics have long complained that the councils function largely as a stronghold for Raleigh’s NIMBYs—throwing up not-in-my-backyard impediments to the city’s efforts to build affordable housing. Two mayoral administrations have attempted to overhaul or revise the system in the past decade, only to come up against immovable opposition.
But a new crop of progressive lawmakers swept into power in Raleigh’s last election, and these reformers have found an opening: In a tense meeting this week, city council members signaled they wanted to move to legalize denser housing development in some districts, and voted 6-2 to dismantle the CAC system entirely.
“As we start a new decade and look to tackle the most difficult challenges our city has ever faced, it is ever apparent to me that we must reinvent and reinvest in where we show up, how we show up, and for whom we show up,” said Saige Martin, a council member elected in 2019 who is now leading the charge against CACs. “Further, we must actually build processes and commit to systems that work for all of our residents. We need a city where all are able to participate.”
Martin introduced a series of measures aimed at razing the CAC system. One repeals the 1974 decision that created it, cutting off city funding to the community groups and mandating that no more zoning cases will be heard at a CAC after 45 days. Other measures require the city to hire a consultant to help create an Office of Community Engagement to develop new forms of participatory democracy. The city’s Planning Commission will continue its role in approving new development, and the city was instructed to add an additional public hearing for bigger rezoning votes.
Several local CAC chairs were blindsided by the vote. Martin’s measures weren’t included on the public city council agenda, and while all but one of the city councilors were informed of the vote, city residents had not been briefed. “I’m beyond furious,” Robert Rice, chair of the Glenwood CAC, told CityLab. “It was a secret vote, embargo on the press, no room for any kind of comment. This isn’t how government should be working at all.”
It’s ironic that a measure meant to preserve community engagement happened without any community engagement at all, said Ana Pardo, who was elected chair of the Hillsborough-Wade CAC during her senior year of college and led the group for six years, until 2011. “They made the decision not only in near-secrecy, but they did it without a plan for how to proceed,” she said. “They have this vague promise for how to replace the city’s only explicit method for citizen engagement.”
Martin says that the city tried for years to include the public in CAC reform, without success, and while he understands the frustration, desperate times call for desperate measures. “We’re in this moment when the most critical choices, the most challenging issues we face as a city—affordable housing, increased rapid growth, gentrification—are happening more or less overnight,” Martin said. “We have a system in place that perpetuates that, and we don’t have the luxury of waiting for another year or two for a consultant to tell us what we already know.“ He says the city needs to free up the resources the CACs took up—$1,000 a year to each of the 18 councils, and a dozen-odd city employees dedicated to helping them run—to build something else.
“The bottom line is, we know we can do better,” Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin told CityLab before the vote. “The system that we currently have now dates back to 1974—a lot has changed since 1974.”
Many neighborhood community boards like Raleigh’s were created in the immediate wake of the “urban renewal” era, in an effort to atone for the development sins of the past, says Katherine Levine-Einstein, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University who’s done research on community meetings. “We gave way too much power to developers to do whatever they wanted, and they bulldozed over existing neighborhoods, often working-class and communities of color,” she said. The federal government made more funding contingent on official neighborhood planning processes, and cities worked to readjust that power imbalance. Places like Raleigh delivered.
“In a lot of cities there was this movement to say, ‘Let’s empower our neighborhoods,’ which sounds really good,” Levine-Einstein said. “And then they say, ‘Let’s empower our neighborhoods by empowering these neighborhood councils’—which turn out to be empowering a very specific subset of the neighborhood.”
At a typical CAC monthly meeting, turnout is low, says Joshua Gill, one of Raleigh’s youngest CAC chairs and the vice chair of the Raleigh CAC, the broader governing body that oversees the 18 neighborhood councils. The biggest district covered by one council is 80,000 to 90,000 people; of that population, maybe 10 or 20 people will attend each gathering, he said.
Glenwood CAC chair Rice disagrees: He’s seen 100 to 200 people show up to his meetings when discussing high-profile zoning cases. ”This idea that the power resides in only a few people that show up to the CAC meetings is disingenuous,” he said. “Anybody that wants to come is welcome to come, and they do.”
To boost turnout, Pardo says she spent her years in charge of the Hillsborough-Wade CAC knocking on doors, starting listservs, and speaking to community leaders—and she found some success. Both she and Rice agree, though, that the city could do more to extend outreach. “Most people who live in Raleigh aren’t even aware that the CACs exist, and the city does absolutely nothing to go out and spread the word,” said Rice.
Indeed, a 2018 Community Survey found that nearly 70 percent of Raleigh residents surveyed had never attended a CAC meeting in the past year; another 6 percent said they didn’t know if they had.
Diversity among participants is another sticking point. Gill says that CACs attendance skews towards older, white homeowners who are free in the evenings and have an interest in advancing their perspectives. Rice says that while his CAC reflects the demographics of his district, so, too, do the six CACs that cover predominantly African-American Southeast Raleigh, and other parts of the city that were historically segregated. Pardo, a Latina woman who was in her mid-20s at the time she was in leadership, said her biggest outreach was to tenants organizations and local renters.
Nationally, researchers like Levine-Einstein have found that those who speak at community decision-making convenings tend to look less diverse than the full electorate, and they are more likely to be homeowners. “The really thorny issue with direct democracy when it comes to land use planning … is we have seen time and time again that it’s way more advantageous to opponents of new housing than supporters of new housing,” she said. “Because if you’re an opponent, you have this more intense incentive to show up.”
Though it pales in comparison to some other coastal metros, Raleigh has its own burgeoning housing affordability problem: Prices climbed 4.2 percent in the last year, according to Zillow. The city is also dealing with gentrification and its unequal impact on historically black neighborhoods, along with the rise of speculative home-flippers. The city is weighing an affordable housing bond for November’s election, which proponents say would inject between $50 and $75 million into things like homeowner assistance, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit gap financing, and transit-oriented development. But current zoning rules mean that building a townhome is illegal in 80 percent of the city, Baldwin says; without the go-ahead to get things built, such efforts are unlikely to be as effective.
Gill says concerns about speeding and traffic undergird many CAC votes against new housing. “A lot of the language ends up being, ‘Preserve what we have and not welcome new people,’” he said. Other decisions are more subjective: A developer with a slick presentation managed to get CAC approval, Gill recalled, while a Latina woman who wanted to build a duplex in her backyard for her sons was rejected. “That broke my heart,” he said. “We want our neighbors taking ownership of the land they live on.”
In a city where voter turnout is low, CAC vetoes are taken seriously by the city council. “Their main power lies in the voice that they’re given,” says Zainab Baloch, a 28-year old Raleigh community organizer who ran for mayor in 2019 and city council in 2017. “Because people don’t engage in local government as much, these are the main people that councils will hear from. … They’re the ones who will be most likely to vote in the next election.” (Baloch is also the founder of an app called Young Americans Protest, or YAP, which aims to get young people involved in community actions.)
Mayor Baldwin says that she’s not afraid of political blowback, though she knows it’s coming; she’s more excited about legalizing duplexes and triplexes. “We have to change the way we think about housing and housing affordability, and how we provide a spectrum of housing so there’s something for everyone,” she said.
In this goal, she has lots of company nationwide. Raleigh’s effort to reimagine CACs is part of an often painful conversation about how community meetings enable restrictive policies, and what should take their place. Two other cities with similar networks of powerful neighborhood organizations, Seattle and Minneapolis, have taken steps in recent years to prevent institutionalized committees of vocal homeowners to make broad development decisions. Seattle’s system of volunteer Neighborhood District Councils was defunded in 2016, Minneapolis started a slower process of transforming its 70 neighborhood organizations last winter, requiring the groups to meet “minimum performance standards” for outreach, or lose city money.
Those two cities also happen to be at the forefront of zoning reform efforts: Seattle loosened the zoning code in some transit-oriented districts and started prodding developers with incentives to build affordable housing in 2019; Minneapolis became the first city to abolish single-family zoning after Mayor Jacob Frey proposed a desegregation and densifying measure in 2018.
“This isn’t just a Seattle issue or a Minneapolis issue or a Raleigh issue,” said Baldwin. “This is a national crisis. I think that people are finally waking up and saying, ‘Wait a minute, we have to do things differently.’”
Instead of unilaterally deciding to eliminate the CACs, the city council could have pursued a more measured reform of the city’s approach to community engagement, defenders of the system say.
Two city councilors who opposed the measure at Tuesday’s meeting, Corey Branch and David Cox, raised concerns that the disadvantaged communities first protected by Lightner’s 1974 mandate would be most threatened by its repeal. They also worried that there wasn’t a clear plan to fill the gap in community engagement left when the CACs disappear. “The universe does not allow a void,” Branch said.
Already, changes were in the pipeline: With the help of the Raleigh CAC, chairs are hoping to redistrict the 18 regions, making their populations more equal, for example. “The CACs aren’t perfect, sure. We’re happy to work on making this better,” said Rice. “But doing it this way is not productive.”
To reach a broader share of residents in his CAC district, West, Gill says he’s tried to livestream meetings. He’s also planning to use city funds to buy ads on Facebook and has considered more online surveying. But technical difficulties plague him and other members of the group. His goal of meeting people where they’re at is starting to feel incompatible with the CAC structure, and he supports starting over.
“You can only keep doing something the same way for so long if you’re not getting the results,” he said. ”It is difficult to see an institution I love and support disappear in a day, but if a hard restart is what it takes to to improve citizen engagement, I think it is necessary,” he added in a text after the vote.
This weekend, the leaders of Raleigh’s CACs will be going on a (previously scheduled) weekend retreat; Rice says they’ll spend that time strategizing a comeback plan. “My goal would be to get this asinine decision completely reversed,” Rice said. At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that 40 people stood in support of the CACs; one attendee reportedly “compared the council to President Donald Trump and the impeachment process.”
Even those that oppose CACs agree that what happens next will be critical. “I don’t think you have to cause a fire or a conflict purposely without having a means to put it out,” Baloch said. “Our goal is to engage more people, [not fewer.]”
Martin says it’s incumbent on the city council to “fill that void,” and stop leaning on self-appointed chairs. And Levine-Einstein suggests that existing citizen engagement mechanisms should be enough to hold officials accountable and shape public policy. One of the strongest community engagement processes, for example, is voting.
But Baldwin says Raleigh’s outreach will be more innovative. Starting now, she says they’ll be bringing community engagement to the people—at the dog park, the playground, the bars; outside their front doors.
“This isn’t about taking things away—this is about doing it better,” said Baldwin. “While change is scary for people, we are committed to inclusion. That’s how I hope they see it.”