Five of Toledo's mayoral candidates debated housing discrimination — and neighborhood quality of life — in a forum Thursday night sponsored by the Toledo Fair Housing Center.
Challenger candidates took turns calling for changes in city policy that would promote diversity and safety, with incumbent Mayor Mike Bell often in the role of defending a government he said is operating on a limited budget.
Mayor Bell, candidates D. Michael Collins, Anita Lopez, Joe McNamara, and Alan Cox each got seven minutes to share their “vision for creating neighborhoods of opportunity.” About 80 people attended the event at McQuade Auditorium in the University of Toledo law school.
The forum was the second debate of the day, after the candidates were quizzed in the morning by members of the United Way of Greater Toledo.
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The mayoral primary election is Sept. 10, and the two candidates who emerge with the most votes will face off on Nov. 5.
Mr. Bell, the only black candidate and the city's second African-American mayor, said he experienced housing discrimination growing up, but he focused most of his remarks on the city's job in improving the quality of neighborhoods.
He said the city has lost population and many people have simply walked away from their homes, dumping them on the city to cut the grass or demolish them.
“We work with a limited amount of dollars. None of government works without appropriate funding. We go out and cut it even though we know it’s somebody else’s responsibility,” Mr. Bell said. “You have a role to play in this also. If I see something across the street that’s bothering me I need to cross the street and cut that grass.”
He said diversity was improving.
“I think in Toledo people move around pretty good, when you look at the Old West End and some other places. We’re moving in that direction we need to keep moving forward,” Mr. Bell said.
Ms. Lopez, a Democrat and the Lucas County auditor, who early in her career was general counsel for the Fair Housing Center, said, “elected officials must vigorously oppose discrimination and racial profiling in our community.”
Without naming Mr. Bell, she criticized his stance on the shortage of funding.
“It is too often that we say funding is the reason that we cannot provide better and responsive services to our citizens,” Ms. Lopez said.
“As we still face housing discrimination our children are subject to more challenges — high concentration of gang activity, high crime predominantly in the central city, high dropout rates,” Ms. Lopez said.
“People are not finding their dream. They’re moving elsewhere. It is not moving in the right direction. It needs to be ramped up 20 notches. Make it happen now,” Ms. Lopez said.
Independent City Councilman Collins recalled an episode when he was 7 and a black family moved into his all-white neighborhood in the South end. His said his family had just recently moved from Fernwood Avenue where it was the only white family.
“The streets of south Toledo responded in a most uncivilized way, burning dummies, screaming and chanting, using profoundly unacceptable language,” Mr. Collins said. He said he made a sign reading, “welcome to our neighborhood” and carried it in front of the house.
“Within about 30 seconds I didn't have a shirt on my back, any part of my face that wasn’t bleeding, and I lost my sign,” he said. “We must end the circumstances that give people the distinct feeling that we’re being treated different because we’re different.”
Alan Cox, a city neighborhood development specialist and political independent, called on the Bell administration to “recirculate” federal block grant money that the city receives to improve housing, rather than use it as grants that never get paid back.
“We don't have the funding that we need. We need to think about ways we can be more effective with those dollars,” Mr. Cox said.
Democratic Councilman McNamara credited former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, who was in the audience, with forming a housing task force, which created the vacant housing registry.
“We have to have a housing czar, a high ranking official who would go beyond the silos,” Mr. McNamara said. His plan has four goals: increase home ownership, save and preserve housing stock, promote racial and ethnic diversity of neighborhoods, and “continue the fight for equal access to housing.”
Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the Fair Housing Center, said 45 years after passage of the Fair Housing Act, “most housing in America remains segregated along racial lines.”
He said studies show that the average white person lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white, while the average black person lives in a neighborhood that is 65 percent black.
Not invited were Libertarian Michael Konwinski and unendorsed Republican Opal Covey. Mr. Konwinski showed up anyway, saying it was ironic that the Fair Housing Center would exclude any candidate, but he also said it was the Fair Housing Board's right to invite whom they wanted. Mr. Marsh said the board started by inviting the four candidates thought to be the leading candidates, and then accepted Mr. Cox when he asked to be included.