Common Threads Northwest spoke with Raymond Straka, who is running for Bellingham City Council Ward 3.
CTNW: Why are you running for election, and why do you believe you are qualified for the position?
Raymond Straka: I've been advocating for affordable housing, and housing solutions for homeless residents of Washington for the last five years.
I am a member of the Resident Action Project (RAP), a division of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA), which lobbies for affordable housing for low-income and homeless residents. For the last four years, I’ve gone to Olympia (at my own expense) during the legislative session and spoke with legislators not only from the two districts that cover Bellingham, but from around the state as well.
I am on the board of directors of the Washington Square Area Resident Council (WSARC), which is the HUD equivalent of a tenant union, and affords the residents the opportunity to work with the Housing Authority in all aspects of their operations (budgeting, planning, etc.). I worked with two other people in starting this Council in 2013, which involved understanding HUD laws, creating a non-profit corporation, writing workable bylaws, explaining to and teaching the residents what the Council is, how it works, and how it can work for them.
Recently, I was the lead board member in expanding WSARC to cover all of the senior and disabled high-rise apartment buildings in Bellingham.
Ten years ago, I co-founded the Foundation for a Full Recovery. An organization designed to help persons who were recently clean and sober fully and safely reintegrate into, and become productive members of, society.
CTNW: So do you work here in Bellingham or in the county?
Raymond: In Bellingham! I do part-time work in sales and marketing which has given me a wide variety of experience. I work with small businesses in ways appropriate to their needs, budget, and abilities, to get their message presented through social media management, printable media, and public awareness campaigns.
CTNW: So you're running for election because of your experience with affordable housing?
Raymond: That's a big part of it. The lack of affordable housing and the resulting crisis of so many homeless people costs Bellingham a great deal of money every year. Not just in policing, but poor medical help, overcrowding the jail, and sadly, many needless deaths. The face of the homeless has changed. Now it's men, women, children, and veterans who face seemingly insurmountable odds of destitution and poverty in our beautiful town. It's growing exponentially. If you can't pay the rent, where are you going to go?
The city council must play a more active leadership role in addressing this issue, and working with the county, state, and federal governments. There’s been action, but far too much is just talk. For example, two years ago, at a meeting in the Mayor’s boardroom, a management member of Bellingham Housing Authority stated quite clearly that BHA (Bellingham Housing Authority) can build but doesn’t have the resources to manage. She was ignored. During the following question and answer period, she was asked to repeat her statement, and was ignored again. It’s time we closed our mouths, opened our eyes, and took action.
For instance, persons and families who have just had plain bad luck, they need only an opportunity to get back into permanent housing. There are mentally ill in our city who are denied and/or suspended adequate treatment because they are homeless. Those suffering from substance abuse diseases, with adequate support and education, are capable of grasping and developing tools that enable them to become willing, self-sufficient, and productive members of society.
Our great responsibility is to create effective resolutions to our previous shortcomings. Create more viable, independent, and permanent housing programs! It has been demonstrated that the most effective approach to long term stabilization, is, conveniently, also the most cost effective for the taxpayer. Substance abuse is treatable. Mental illness is treatable and manageable.
Productivity on the city level begins when we break the stigma and agree to view and adopt a more viable stabilization program.
CTNW: What do you believe is the City of Bellingham’s biggest financial challenge, and how should it be addressed?
Raymond: The City spent over $200,000 cleaning up homeless camps last year (2018). While their effort was well-intended, it essentially just caused the homeless people to move to another location. This goes on. It hasn’t changed. Our community faces a huge cost associated with homelessness; not just policing, not just overcrowded jails, not just emergency room visits, but I say again, needless deaths.
We aren't appropriately addressing the budgets of the police, fire, and EMS departments that are insufficiently funded to deal with the homeless issue.
CTNW: How do you believe the City of Bellingham can best build the tax base to help afford to pay for all of these things that we need?
Raymond: The waterfront property could and should be developed wisely and adequately, and in my opinion, at a faster pace. Because of its value, not only would developing it increase Bellingham’s tax base, it would generate revenue through sales tax from tourists and residents who visit and frequent it. A good start toward that goal would be to have city and port representatives sit down and first discuss what they have in common, and then seek solutions to their differences.
Most of my campaigning time has been spent knocking on doors asking, "what would you want?" of the residents. One resident suggested that instead of selling the waterfront land, since it ultimately will go up in value, lease it instead. That makes a lot of sense. The Port Authority (with input from the city), would ensure that the land is being used at maximum potential. This maximum potential brings in revenue.
A large part of that revenue would probably come from manufacturing. For example, Silfab Solar already has a plant here in Bellingham and recently expanded, doubling their production and number of employees. While creating more revenue for such things as: affordable housing, better police, fire, and EMT budgets, Silfab Solar also creates more living wage jobs.
CTNW: What do you believe the City of Bellingham is spending too much money on and/or not enough money on?
Raymond: We’re spending too much money on “talk.” As I said earlier, it’s time we closed our mouths, opened our eyes, and took action. This produces better results than endlessly hiring “experts” at high prices who tell us what we already know, and then spending far too much time dissecting their reports. Of course there has to be careful planning, but time is of the essence! The more time we waste, the worse the problem gets, the more difficult the solutions become, and the greater the costs increase. Address it now, fix it now, and put the money saved into other areas of the City’s budget.
CTNW: How do you believe we are doing in the City of Bellingham with the balance of infrastructure improvements and controlling borrowing costs?
Raymond: Wouldn’t it be nice if the city was debt free, and everything worked? I admit that’s a pipe dream. What’s closer to reality is determining the state of the city right now, then near-term and long-term needs. For example, I’d like to get more than just reports from Public Works. I’d like to tour their facilities, discuss their inventory, and listen to their concerns and desires. Of course, not all of their concerns and desires are attainable. But knowing them all, then prioritizing, helps keep the budget under control. Same goes for the Parks Department.
Grants are wonderful. They give us bicycle lanes, improve the Interurban trails, and more. Bonds have been very useful and affordable. Sales taxes and business taxes are a “necessary evil,” made more painful to the residents because of so many different taxing authorities like the school system and WTA to name a couple. We have to be careful with levying sales taxes, since they hit a large group of Bellingham residents, the working poor, often those just inches away from being homeless.
We need to address the traffic situation, not only does it cost residents and businesses time and money, but automobiles create 40 percent of the CO2 that Bellingham is emitting. It’s encouraging to see more people using bicycles and would be even more encouraging to see WTA so busy that it added more routes and buses. Moving more people away from automobiles starts with education and incentives, something that is definitely a long-range effort. I believe it’s a worthy effort.
CTNW: How do you believe that Bellingham has addressed homelessness and poverty, and how should they address it?
Raymond: Not well enough. Although it's not that the efforts haven't been made. We've been working on this for a while. I’ve been reading past minutes of various meetings, which revealed two things: first, my previous comments about less talking, more listening, and more action; and secondly the fact that homeless and low income people are underrepresented, if represented at all, at too many of those meetings. There’s also the problem of under representation of builders and developers.
We need to get everybody at the table. Bellingham is not going to solve homelessness by itself. It's going to take Bellingham, the various authorities that operate within and around Bellingham, such as the Port Authority, Whatcom County, the state and federal governments, and most importantly, the residents, developers, and the non-profit organizations both faith-based and not. It's going to take all of us. We need to, at least for the time being, set aside the “us versus them” attitude. The “not in my backyard” attitude, and focus on what we have in common to find ways to work together.
We need more housing stock, then we can have affordable housing so that people don't become homeless, and we will have a place for the homeless and low-income population to move into. Affordable housing—that's going to take building, not just structures, but partnerships and coalitions.
We're going to need more living spaces; why not give developers a fast track on obtaining permits that require certain percentage of the units to be affordable housing? What other incentives that are affordable could we create for the developer? The downtown district is in the third ward, as is the Mission, so this is something that affects me and the third ward residents directly.
I think a part of the solution is going to be high rise apartment buildings, 8 or 9 stories, about 100 units each, renting to about 102-112 people. You can’t get that many people housed in tiny houses, using the same amount of land that a high rise does. Accessory dwelling units put extra pressure on water and sewer services, as well as parking.
It will take a major initial investment, but it's so much cheaper to have people in housing. The police situations and emergency medical situations due to homelessness just cost the City and businesses; it's much cheaper to put them into housing.
CTNW: What are your suggestions to strengthen the neighborhoods in the City of Bellingham?
Raymond: Again, that comes back to community building. We all sit inside our houses, often on our computers, or go walking but not really seeing what’s around us. When I grew up you said "hi" to your neighbors, often stopped for a quick chat, and you paid attention to your neighborhood. That's a big part of it.
A lot of the solutions are going to be a shift in attitude, and that's a difficult thing to do-- working together. One example of working together can be seen at Gossage Park, at the corner of Cornwall Avenue and F Street in the Lettered Streets neighborhood. It has been maintained by the residents, members of the neighborhood association, for years. It has a gazebo in it which needs to be replaced. The Parks Department wanted to raze it and put in benches. That park and gazebo mean a lot not only to Lettered Streets residents, but to adjoining neighborhood residents as well. The residents came together, and working with the Parks Department, cleaned up the gardens, and I understand they’ve been successful in obtaining funds to replace the gazebo. That's actually brought the community together.
Parks also came up in the Puget area. St. Paul to Yew Street south of Lakeway Drive. That's part of the third ward and there's a lot of young families there. There's Carl Cozier Elementary and there's Whatcom Falls, but those are kind of a distance. There are no nearby parks. There's a lot of trails but no playgrounds. And that issue came up quite a bit when I was knocking on doors in that area asking, "what are your concerns?"
CTNW: The City of Bellingham will consider a recommendation by the Climate Action Committee to create an ordinance that the city would have all new housing and buildings fossil free. And they are currently, through the Climate Action Committee, considering that same mandate to buyers of existing buildings and homes, to be retrofit to power from fossil fuels at the time they are sold. So, what does that mean to you? How realistic is their timeline for accomplishing that? And what do you believe that's going to cost the residents here?
Raymond: It's going to cost a lot, because some of these homes were built in the 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s. Having to retrofit before selling drives up the sale price. I don’t like what I see is an unfunded mandate, especially one that terribly impacts on our goal of more affordable housing. At the same time, I understand the need to do something about reducing CO2 emissions. I could give you a snap answer, but quite honestly, it’s going to take a lot of thinking about the entire issue to find an answer.
CTNW: How do we create more opportunities for young adults. Because right now, a large majority of the kids when they become young adults have to leave the area.
Raymond: And unfortunately even when you leave the area it's not necessarily better. Young people today, the chances of them buying a home is extremely thin. We need to raise living wages, which means attracting industries that can afford to pay living wages. All this construction I've been talking about, we could write it right into the contract, it's either union or living wage with local hiring. That money will get spent back into the city’s economy and multiply.
CTNW: What do you believe is the City's biggest economic development opportunity?
Raymond: The waterfront is going to be a huge component of economic development for reasons I’ve stated above.
Tourism is already an important part of our economy and will grow as we develop the waterfront and other areas. Who can resist the wonderful parks and trails we have?
But there's still more that could be done. High-tech manufacturing increases the tax base and creates good jobs. We want to have a balance of manufacturers, medical providers, software writing, and WWU so that no matter what's going on in the economy, we're still stable.
CTNW: What basic services do you believe that the City of Bellingham needs to improve?
Raymond: Police, and Fire—these are people's lives, we need to invest more in training, personnel, and equipment. The process of solving the homeless situation will free up more funds for First Responders.
The Fire Department resources are also being spent on non-emergencies much of the time. It's not their fault. So solving the challenge of housing everyone will lower the cost of the emergency services, but we need to better fund them so we have faster response times. Four minutes is the target response time for cardiac arrest, and currently the Firefighters Union tells me they aren't hitting that, that it's taking quite a bit more time.
It's all woven together, and it's sometimes a matter of just pulling one string at a time until it un-knots a little bit so we can actually deal with each problem.
One more service Bellingham needs is a fiber-optic backbone. This will attract high-tech businesses. We need that. We're in the information age. A fiber-optic backbone would be very cost prohibitive to do all at once. If we do it a piece at a time, it will get done. We're always digging up waterlines and fixing roads, so including fiber optics is not difficult, and ultimately productive.
CTNW: How do we improve the city's environment and parks?
Raymond: The first thing is to enforce the critical areas ordinance. I've read the ordinance and supporting information in depth, and it's based on science, and it makes sense. The thing to remember about critical areas is you can always mitigate damage, but that's expensive. If you don't do any harm in the first place, that's the best approach.
Our parks are very good with the trails and open spaces. One big reason for that is the community ethic. You don't see a lot of people throwing trash down on the trails. It's the community that keeps the standards for the most part, and that's what it's going to take for a lot of what needs to be done.
CTNW: What style of leadership would you have and what do you think the City of Bellingham needs right now?
Raymond: Communication and collaboration. I've been in different leadership positions. Basically you've got to say "We’ve listened to each other, now we have an idea, let's go.”
Leading takes bringing stakeholders together. It takes communication, not just to express the vision, but also to listen to all perspectives. As I mentioned above about the City and the Port Authority, let’s figure out what we have in common, evaluate the problem, and decide together how to address it. Working together as a community we find the best solutions for everyone.
CTNW: Governor Inslee recently declared the State of Washington a "sanctuary state." What does that mean to you, and do you agree or disagree with our local compliance on this issue?
Raymond: I am completely sympathetic to the reasons why people come into the United States, and I am totally in support of sanctuary for asylum seekers. I am strongly in support of a huge overhaul of the immigration process.
When my family came to America through Ellis Island, it was easier to get in, feel welcomed, and quickly call the United States of America home. Now that process can take 8, 9, 10 or more years. Seeking asylum is legal and humanitarian. The illegals who have a path to citizenship and are following it, I support that.
Just because it's legal or illegal doesn't make it moral. Illegal workers pay billions of dollars into Social Security that they can't ever collect. They have a value, not just the fact that they're human beings, but that they contribute economically and socially to our society. Yes, we should comply. There are some conditions that we should consider, but yes.
CTNW: Is there anything we didn't ask you that you would like to share with voters?
Raymond: A huge part of why I'm running is affordable housing and homelessness. But one of the most important things for any elected official is to listen. All too often, I've been on boards where we've been working on "what should we do for them," instead of them telling us. Listen to the actual voters, the residents, those are the issues that they want worked on. Like I said, they're my bosses.
You can find out more about Raymond Straka and his campaign at rayforbellingham.com.