Come next January, the North Side 3rd District will have a new Richmond City Council representative for the first time in 15 years.
Outgoing Councilman Chris Hilbert, who has represented the district since 2005, is not seeking re-election to the council. Three candidates — Willie Edward Hilliard Jr., Ann-Frances Lambert and Elaine Summerfield — are vying to succeed him.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch asked each candidate to answer five questions in 600 words or fewer in this third installment of weekly questionnaires with council and school board hopefuls. Responses are below in alphabetical order by last name, along with biographical information.
Answers were edited for length and clarity.
QUESTION: What is the most important issue facing residents of the 3rd District, and what do you plan to do about it if elected?
Hilliard: First and foremost is housing affordability. On the City Council, I will advocate for reforms to our zoning code and transportation system, which have downstream effects on housing affordability. For the former, I support more mixed-use and inclusionary upzoning, especially along commercial and transit corridors, to increase the overall supply of housing while increasing the city’s tax base. For the latter, I support significant expansion of GRTC service throughout North Side.
Lambert: The most important issue we are facing in the 3rd District is COVID-19. Let’s face it: The pandemic has completely changed what we thought was a priority. As a result of the pandemic, we are faced with numerous social issues, such as job insecurity, mental health and hundreds of evictions for the 3rd District alone.
I plan on not increasing our property taxes so there is less of a burden on our seniors and those on fixed incomes. I plan on making sure we have full funding for mental health services. My why is because of the rise in anxiety and trauma due to the civil unrest, the violence that occurs in our poorer communities, and we all are grieving in one way or another. We have to focus on making sure our essential workers, hospitals, schools and businesses are safe and protected so we can reopen safely.
Summerfield: Speaking with 3rd District residents, I continue to hear the same concerns: frustration with city services, funding for Richmond Public Schools, and housing. Whether it is a building permit or getting a utility bill fixed, we need greater efficiency and transparency in City Hall. I will seek accountability based on measurable goals and performance management plans.
People are also concerned about our schools and, as the mother of a fifth-grader at Holton Elementary, I share that sentiment. I will advocate for resources so that all students have an excellent educational experience in RPS.
To address housing affordability, I will promote available tax exemptions for people on fixed incomes, support the continuation of the Eviction Diversion Program, and identify sustainable funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
QUESTION: Do you support raising the city’s real estate tax rate to fund improvements to Richmond Public Schools? Why or why not?
Hilliard: The city undoubtedly needs to raise more revenue to fully fund RPS. To do so, I support a property tax reform known as split-rate taxation, which would have the effect of raising real estate taxes on the wealthiest Richmonders and lowering it for the rest of us when implemented with the proper guardrails. It is the rare tax reform that can raise more revenue in a more equitable way while actually being less harmful to the economy than the status quo.
Split-rate taxation would lower the taxes levied on buildings on a given lot of land, and raise the rate applied to the unimproved value of the underlying land. This has the effect of reducing a disincentive — as well as adding an incentive — to put scarce land to societally-beneficial use. For example, it would become profitable to renovate many condemned properties throughout the city. It also raises badly needed revenue in a fundamentally fairer way, as the owners of the most valuable land in the city also tend to be the wealthiest. The city will need to get clearance from the state to implement this, but Virginia has already given it to other jurisdictions like Fairfax County and on the council I will work with our area delegation to obtain the clearance in the 2021 legislative session.
Lambert: Simply put, no. Real estate taxes are already too high.
We must address the local composite index scale, used to determine education funding for localities, in the next Virginia General Assembly session, and adjust the amount of money we spend on education to that of our surrounding governmental entities. Let’s focus on increasing and adding to our current revenue streams via meals, sales, lodging taxes.
Summerfield: Ensuring our schools are funded is a top priority of mine. However, raising real estate taxes will make it even more difficult for struggling Richmonders to remain in their homes during the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.
We must work on other ways to support our schools, such as partnering with the School Board and education advocates to call for additional state resources for school districts with a high percentage of students living in poverty. Rather than raise property taxes, we should strategically support equitable economic development that will redevelop neglected assets, create jobs and business opportunities, and contribute to the vibrancy of our city while simultaneously increasing funding for RPS.
QUESTION: Do you support the use of tax dollars to build a new downtown arena? Why or why not?
Hilliard: No. If the arena is going to be a viable project in the long term, then developers should be able to raise the money to build it privately. The area does need developers to invest. However, I believe that it is better policy to make systemic changes to spur that private investment rather than to hang our hat on a single, enormous project that, when committed to, becomes too big to fail. Property tax reform, more mixed-use and inclusionary upzoning, and major investments in transportation infrastructure and GRTC service would be better uses of taxpayer dollars.
Lambert: No. We have to approach this topic with an open mind and right now the priority is to use our tax dollars to help with the looming evictions and addressing the growing need for mental health services. I support the Richmond 300 master plan with the community’s input and commitment from all to tackle this effort.
Summerfield: No. Instead of an arena, our tax dollars could be better invested directly into other community priorities like improving school facilities, developing affordable housing options, and an economic development strategy that has clearly defined benefits for the city and its residents.
Redevelopment of the Coliseum area of downtown presents an opportunity for job creation and building a tax base that meets our city’s needs. However, as experienced in the defeated Navy Hill plan, it is not evident that the public wants an arena to be constructed at that location. With the current small area plan that is underway for the Coliseum area, we can determine the best use of the area for promotion of economic development that reflects our community’s priorities.
QUESTION: If elected, what legislation or policies will you propose to promote racial equity?
Hilliard: Improving our schools is the No. 1 thing we can do on this front; on the council I will work with the School Board to push for equity in the classroom. Additional funds to RPS should be targeted toward priorities like teacher recruitment and retention and expansions in educational opportunities such as course offerings. In the event new state and federal funds for school capital spending do not materialize next year, I would push for the council to make those investments.
To hold RPS accountable to students and their families, I support periodically-recurring audits of the school system’s equity and finances.
The Pulse reorganization resulted in reduced bus access in some low-income (and disproportionately nonwhite) neighborhoods. I support expansion of GRTC coverage and service to reverse this, and further support keeping GRTC access free of charge even after the pandemic has lifted.
Lambert: Whatever we do to promote racial equity, education and hope should be at the top of the list. We need to provide the next generation with the tools and skills necessary to be engaged and wanting to be a better citizen.
We can begin by modeling the Manchester Bidwell project in Pittsburgh, a world-class training center right in the heart of the most impoverished neighborhood in Pittsburgh. I believe we can do the same for the 11 neighborhoods here in the city that were disenfranchised by redlining, systemic racist policies, and no access to capital.
In addition, I propose we look at affordable municipal broadband, especially in our lower-income areas where we need more towers to strengthen the Wi-Fi signal.
We need an effective Police Citizen Review Board. I support adopting a standard of conduct and a “Bill of Rights” for our police departments to ensure accountability. I support eliminating qualified immunity, which is a major component of why communities of color do not trust the police.
I support affordable homeownership initiatives to address the widening wealth gap and offering those families an opportunity for generational wealth. There has to be more empathy in how we address these social issues that majority African American and people of color are facing.
Summerfield: The current map of Richmond illustrates the long-lasting impact of our city’s history of racial inequity, from Jim Crow laws to redlining. Where you live determines your access to wealth, educational attainment and life expectancy. COVID-19 has magnified these racial inequities. Richmond can’t move forward until we address the structural racism built into our policies and institutions, and we must develop an equity agenda that includes:
Intention. Racial equity will be a primary consideration when looking at any policy or budget decision, including police reform, environmental justice, housing, transportation, small businesses and beyond. One area where structural racism is evident is the redevelopment of Richmond’s public housing communities. I would demand that affected residents have an integral role in decision-making in any public housing redevelopment and that no one is displaced in the process.
Resources. Funding must be allocated to directly address racial inequities such as expanding tree cover and green spaces in redlined neighborhoods, wealth building programs, and updating the spaces once occupied by monuments to white supremacy.
QUESTION: Do you believe Mayor Levar Stoney deserves a second term? Why or why not?
Hilliard: Mayor Stoney has been doing his best during unprecedented times, and I believe that his administration has quietly done some good work for the average Richmonder. That said, we disagree on the approach to Navy Hill, and it is now fairly well documented that RPD’s approach to the anti-racist protests has been unnecessarily escalatory in several instances. Ultimately, I have not yet decided how I will vote and want to hear more from the leading candidates in the race about how they will make concrete improvements in people’s lives if elected.
Lambert: I believe everyone has the right to run. Now does he deserve it? I will allow the voters to determine that in November. And while I agree with the removal of the Confederate statues, he has to demonstrate how he can work with nongovernmental allies to get things done for our city. I plan to work with whoever is elected mayor and keep the lines of communication open.
Summerfield: Ultimately, this decision rests in the hands of voters of the City of Richmond. I am committed to representing the 3rd District, and I will work productively with whoever is elected in November to ensure my constituents and all Richmonders can thrive.