Housing a major issue at Salem candidate's forum

Julie Manganis/Staff photoThe 11 candidates vying for four at-large seats on the Salem City Council on the debate stage Friday night at Salem Academy Charter School.

SALEM — Nearly all of the 11 candidates seeking at-large seats on Salem’s City Council this fall agree that the city is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. 

They offered a variety of ideas on how to deal with it, ranging from local solutions like zoning changes, tapping Community Preservation Act funds, and working with developers to get federal and state funding. 

The suggestions came during a nearly two-hour forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters Salem chapter, the Latino Leadership Coalition, and The Salem Gazette, and which was held Friday night at Salem Academy Charter School.

A preliminary election on Sept. 17 will narrow the field of candidates from 11 to eight, who will then compete for the four at-large seats on the council in the general election on Nov. 5. 

The incumbents are Domingo Dominguez, Elaine Milo and Arthur Sargent. 

The other eight candidates seeking to join the council are: Jeff Cohen, Gary Gill, Melissa Faulker, Ty Hapworth, George McCabe, Alice Merkl, Conrad Prosniewski and Maribel Steadman.

Moderator Lori Ehrlich posed a question submitted by an audience member that asked panelists to define what the term “housing crisis” meant to each of them and what they would do about it.

“We need to learn from our mistakes,” said Dominguez. He went on to suggest that the current administration hasn’t done enough to address the issues. “We need to use all the tools possible because this is a human crisis.”

Milo suggested that the solution has to be a regional one. 

“It’s not particular to Salem,” said Milo. “In order to address it we have to do it regionally.”

Merkl agreed, saying that councilors “need to hit it from several directions,” both regionally as well as locally, with inclusionary zoning, accessory dwelling permits, and by working with the North Shore Community Development Coalition and Harborlight.

Sargent suggested that the city look to repurpose older schools, as well as a significant increase in the amount of CPA funds to develop solutions. McCabe, who previously served as a ward councilor, said he also wants to see supports for older residents that would allow them to stay in their homes. 

McCabe also said that while he is open to doing whatever the city can do legally to support subsidized housing, most of it is controlled by federal and state regulations. 

Faulkner spoke emotionally about her own brush with homelessness, saying she struggled to find a place in Salem and spent a year in a 600-square-foot apartment with five kids. “I know this fight first hand,” she said. 

Asked what role the council could play in creating housing, Gill, who lives in the subsidized Salem Heights complex and cited his own experiences in getting improvements there, said it’s going to be a big job that will involve listening to the concerns of residents. 

Cohen said he believes the council must do something quickly. 

“Salem is changing in ways that ... exclude low-income people. We need tenants’ rights,” said Cohen — such as a 90-day notice requirement for landlords to ask tenants to leave. “We also need serious condo regulations. Many people who work here are unable to live here and that is just not good for the character of our city.”

“Our identity as a working class city needs to be preserved, our identity as a diverse community needs to be preserved,” said Hapworth. “The free market will bring more luxury housing.” He suggested zoning and permitting changes. “Twenty years from now we’re going to look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we protect our people?’”

Prosniewski said he’s seen “big changes” to the city. “We’ve gone from a blue collar community to, to use Jeff’s word, gentrification. It has impacted our community.”

Steadman said she sees the election as being about livability and affordability. 

“The reality is there are a lot of people who worry about keeping their homes,” said Steadman.

The candidates also discussed other issues, including traffic and the city’s recent efforts to address it, including a bike lane that drew some criticism for the loss of approximately 150 parking spaces, and scooters that some are concerned are not being driven responsibly. 

The panel also discussed climate change and the council’s role in preparing for rising sea levels. 

In a related question, several candidates appeared caught off-guard when asked about the city’s natural hazard mitigation plan, which deals with natural disasters like hurricanes and floods. 

The full forum is expected to be available on SATV’s website by Tuesday.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.

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