Name: Mazahir Salih
Address: 2355 Jessup Circle
Seat seeking: At Large (Elect two)
Occupation: Community Organizer, Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa
Educational background: Civil Engineering, Sudan University; Early Childhood Development, Ashley University; degree in electroneurodiagnostic technology, Kirkwood Community College.
Why are you running for council?
Salih: I love this community, and I believe I have the experience and ability to bring together people from diverse backgrounds to make it even stronger as a member of the Council.
I have extensive experience engaging with local government and community issues. As a leader in the Sudanese-American Association, the Black Voices Project, and the Center for Worker Justice I have helped bring together low-wage and immigrant residents who are typically disconnected from policy discussions to discuss their concerns and ideas, review existing laws and policies, and meet with elected officials and business leaders to create solutions. I have met with local business owners as a board member of the Iowa City Downtown District. I have also served on two city commissions- the Community Police Review Board and the Iowa City Manager’s Roundtable.
Working together, we have changed local policies for the better — promoting dignity and fair treatment for workers, improving the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities, creating new plans for affordable housing, and initiating innovative new programs like the Johnson County Community ID and the Iowa Valley Global Food Project. I know from experience that we don’t have to be trapped in old ways of doing things, and have proved my willingness to do the hard work that it takes to bring diverse views to the table and implement solutions.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Salih: I think the current council is on the right track — but there still is important work to be done. If I had to limit my goals to three areas, I would focus on expanding affordable housing, improving local transportation, and promoting quality jobs. I think the Forest View development project has been an excellent model for the kind of win-win proposal that establishes new commercial development while preserving and improving affordable housing. It was possible because we brought tenants and developers together into a series of meetings to discuss their goals and concerns — that process works and I would like it to become a model. I know that limitations in the city’s transportation system make it hard for low-income workers to get to work and participate in the economy, which hurts workers, businesses, and employers. I want to bring people together to chart out transportation solutions. I also know it takes good jobs with living wages to build a strong economy; poverty and wage theft hurts workers’ families, and undermines responsible employers. I want to work with workers and reputable employers to support good jobs and a stable workforce.
With developments taking place on the city’s Riverfront Crossings Park and district, additional projects are expected to follow in rapid succession. How do you feel about what has taken place so far and do you want to see anything change or done differently?
Salih: Riverfront Crossings represents a significant milestone in the City’s efforts to encourage inclusionary housing. I think it’s important to be proactive to ensure that development promotes affordable housing and does not create neighborhoods that are divided by class. I think this is an important step forward.
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Downtown and the Pedestrian Mall updates continue to expand in Iowa City. However, some have criticized the city for putting too much focus into the downtown area, while ignoring other outlying neighborhoods. How much attention should be placed on downtown and is enough attention being paid to neighborhoods?
Salih: Iowa City is a wonderful mix of neighborhoods, districts like the downtown, and the sprawling campus of a world-renowned research university and hospital system. We have areas with historic homes and buildings. We have neighborhoods that are being built right now. We have areas with a lot of business, a lot of apartments, a lot of single-family homes, and a lot of areas that blend all of the above. Broadly speaking, I believe the city has an important role to play making sure all of these neighborhoods are vibrant and livable. This will mean different things for different areas, and the first step is to bring those people who live and work in each part of the city to the table to discuss exactly what improves the vibrancy of their neighborhoods. At the same time, no part of the city stands alone. So the second part of my task is balancing the things that give each neighborhood a particular character with need to make sure that at the end of the day all these different pieces still fit together as a whole.
In the 2015 city election, development was the topic of discussion, with voters in that year ousting most incumbents and bringing in then-newcomers with a more conservative approach to large-scale development and tax increment finance incentives. How do you feel about the last two years of council development? Are you happy with the new direction, does it feel the same, or are there things you’d want to see change?
Salih: I support the direction the current council has been moving. It’s a direction that sees vibrant growth all around Iowa City. One has only to look at the cranes all over the downtown skyline to the construction projects all around the city to see that growth is as brisk as it’s ever been. What’s even better is that with the new council this growth is happening hand-in-hand with initiatives to see that bring broad benefits to the community. For example, there are requirements for affordable housing, jobs which pay a living wage, and green construction that make sure that when public tax dollars are involved, the tax payers get the best value.
Iowa City — and cities across Iowa — could face revenue losses as the state revenues remain tight. The state is threatening to do away with the backfill funds it provides to communities in an effort to balance its budget. How would you balance the city’s budget if the city were to lose funds? What funding priorities do you have?
Salih: The issue with the way the state decided to offer a variety of property tax cuts to commercial properties is, if anything, creating more jeopardy for Iowa cities than most people realize, should that backfill disappear. Not only is there the 10 percent cut on commercial properties, but the state is lowering the property tax valuation on rental properties steadily down to the same rate as residential. This almost seems like an intentional stab at Iowa’s college cities, like Iowa City and Cedar Falls, as well as larger communities with lots of rental housing stock. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Iowa City’s staff and other leaders saw this coming years ago, and with council support made plans in case the state would back out of its promise to replace the funds denied cities by the legislature’s commercial property tax cut decisions. Among cities across the state, Iowa City is actually in a position to weather this storm with a combination of smart budgeting, reserves, and years of investment in infrastructure and quality-of-life improvements to keep Iowa City — and its tax base — growing. This buys Iowa City valuable time. But ultimately we will have to either make our voices heard in Des Moines or hope for a change in the political control at the state capitol before it’s too late.
Affordable housing has been an ongoing issue in Iowa City. How serious do you feel this issue is? What efforts do you believe are successful and are there additional ideas that could be tried?
Salih: I feel affordable housing is an urgent issue in Iowa City, and it’s a problem I want to work on solving. I saw firsthand in meetings with Rose Oaks residents who were displaced last year how serious the barriers are to finding decent, affordable housing with access to public transportation in our community. I personally understand this crisis. Just two years ago, it took me months of searching to find the house I’m in right now, and it’s still not affordable. I know of many people who are still searching for affordable houses.
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The City’s Affordable Housing Action Plan is a good step forward, and I think I can help develop additional creative solutions that work for developers and for residents. I have been very proud to work with the Forest View Tenants’ Association, which for the past 1 ½ years has been bringing together tenants to learn their rights, discuss their concerns, define their goals, and negotiate with the developers. Through a lot of hard work and patience by everyone involved, the tenants, developers, and city have come together to support a joint proposal that meets everyone’s goals. This process is an important example of how a more just development can work — thanks to the council’s support for Forest View families, the developer’s willingness to negotiate creative solutions, and great organizing by the tenants themselves. I am encouraged by this project and I want to work with residents and developers in other locations to help them learn how to use the methods that have been so successfully applied at Forest View.
What other big issues would you like to see the council address in the next few years?
Salih: With a city the size and character of Iowa City, there are always going to be a score of important issues. A few examples of issues I will keep in mind as a council member are the need to keep our neighborhoods livable and vibrant, the need to keep our diversity celebrated and protected, and the need to bring as many new groups to the table of city government as possible. From sustainability to police contact with minority communities to the issues we don’t even know about yet, we will need to draw on the resources of our entire community to meet those challenges head-on. When we bring everyone — all of those minds and all of those ideas and all of those helping hands — to the table we will all prosper. This is the kind of work I have been doing as a community organizer. I know how much work it takes to do this and I know how to get this hard work done. That’s the kind of city council member I will be.