Housing, development and city diversity at forefront of mayoral race in Concord

Mayoral candidates Byron Champlin (left), George Jack, and Kate West at the Candidate Forum at Concord High School on Tuesday night.

Mayoral candidates Byron Champlin (left), George Jack, and Kate West at the Candidate Forum at Concord High School on Tuesday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Kate West talks about her experiences about being unhoused with a child at the Mayoral Candidate Forum at Concord High School on Tuesday, October 24, 2023.

Kate West talks about her experiences about being unhoused with a child at the Mayoral Candidate Forum at Concord High School on Tuesday, October 24, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 10-26-2023 5:11 PM

When Kate West’s landlord sold her apartment building, she and her child were forced to stay with friends until they found another place to rent.

Byron Champlin has watched his 34-year-old daughter try to call Concord home again. She’s working two jobs and currently lives with her parents to make that happen.

George Jack rented in Concord for nearly two decades before his family purchased a home in the city.

The three candidates to become the city’s next mayor agree that more housing is not only needed, but necessary. With vacancy rates below one percent, renters have few options, and when an apartment is available, it usually comes with a hefty price tag.

To provide more housing options, the city should continue to focus on partnerships with developers to support projects, while working to preserve Concord’s character.

“We have a great bones in the city. We have great historic architecture, and we need to cherish it and preserve it,” he said.

Champlin previously led an ad-hoc committee that focused on development fees here and elsewhere. Concord falls in the middle compared to neighboring cities when it comes to development costs, he said. Honing in on these expenses and promoting the city as an area for business growth and development will continue to add housing to the community while expanding the tax base with commercial development.

“We really need to look closely at any obstacles that we have to business growth in the city, whether it’s in terms of our ordinances or whether it’s in terms of our internal policies, the way that we handle development projects,” he said.

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Yet another way to invigorate the local economy would be to ensure that all residents of Concord, including those that are unhoused, are able to engage with their community, said West.

Solving homelessness in the city goes hand in hand with the need for more affordable housing, she said. But there’s also a business component.

“One of the ways that it is often overlooked when it comes to expanding our tax bases, again, is investing in those individuals who need help now in the short term,” she said. “Once they are out of the situation that they’re in, they will be able to participate in the local economy. Investing in our homeless population would come back to us in terms of our collective success.”

This investment takes shape in a number of ways. First, it means identifying the needs of people experiencing homelessness on an individual level. Someone who is camping in the woods may have differing needs than West did when she was unhoused. she said.

Second, city services need to be in place to support all community members. If it means the city provides housing itself, that’s one solution West would back. But these services also include hiring a new social worker approved within the police department and ways to rethink public safety, she said.

When West visits Riverbend, she said she sees police called to respond to people with mental health needs that could be better supported by other forms of contact with the department, like a social worker, than officers.

Recently, the city council unanimously approved a half million dollars for police retention as the department reported it has multiple vacant positions. Until the department can fill current vacancies, the city should not budget for more officers, said Champlin.

In the current budget, public safety accounts for roughly two-thirds of the city’s expenses in the $78 million general fund.

Unless residents want to see a cut to services, there’s little appetite to cut expenses in future budgets, said Champlin.

To offset spending, the city needs to continue to bring in commercial revenue to offset property taxes, like the redevelopment of Steeplegate Mall, he said.

“The reality is that city government is experiencing the same stresses that everyone else has in their household,” he said.

To stimulate commercial activity, city leaders should evaluate empty lots in Concord as prime sites for development, said Jack.

With development underway in all corners of the city, transportation and accessibility to downtown and city services should also be at the forefront of leaders’ minds, said West.

West relies on the bus system as her current form of transportation. Just attending City Council meetings is currently inaccessible through the bus system since it doesn’t run during meeting times.

Non-native English speakers in Concord also face barriers to participation at city council meetings, she said. Without a translator present, the city inherently excludes a subset of the community that should have a voice in public engagement.

These are small changes that would improve access and representation for residents, she said.

“In order to have people serving and participating, we first have to listen, understand what’s keeping folks from being able to participate and actively do work to solve those barriers,” she said.

In a sense, Champlin’s candidacy is a testament to the legacy left behind by outgoing Mayor Jim Bouley, who has held the position for 16 years. With a decade of experience working with Bouley on the city council, Champlin would continue the progress currently underway – like focusing on diversity in hiring for government positions and collaboration among homeless service providers, he said.

For the other two candidates, Jack offers the same approach to leadership as he would at the helm of a business. He has never held city office, but if Concord is thought of as a product, city officials should be doing what they can to ensure residents are positive consumers.

“I’ve had as much at stake as anybody,” Jack said. “I love Concord. I’m not a lifelong resident of Concord but Concord took me in. I met my wife and we got married, moved here, had kids. I know the pain points that people have and I know there are tangible, measurable ways to help with those things.”

West previously sat on the Concord School Board, but was removed when she no longer lived in the district after losing her housing.

With her candidacy, she offers a perspective that is often not heard in city government, she said. And that’s one of a renter, parent to a child in the school district, a public transportation user and someone who has put community engagement, steered towards positive change in Concord, at the forefront of her work.

“Representation matters,” said West. “Those are truths about me that I believe will help inform my role as Mayor.”