It’s hard to reconcile the data cited by incumbent Allen Joines and challenger JoAnne Allen on employment, housing and a host of other metrics on Winston-Salem’s well-being.

Allen Joines and JoAnne Allen, the two candidates in Winston-Salem’s Democratic mayoral primary, often seem to describe two different cities.

An incumbent who has led Winston-Salem for the past 18 years, Allen Joines tells a story of progress and optimism, describing a city that has made significant strides in creating jobs and reducing poverty, while promising ambitious action to promote growth and help the poor.

“So, I’m as excited today to run as I was when I ran several years ago,” Allen Joines said during a candidate forum hosted by a consortium of local civic groups at the Central Library on Jan. 27. “This is a challenging set of objectives and platform that I laid out there, but with your help and my skills and my past record, we can and will get it done.”

The municipal narrative rendered by challenger JoAnne Allen, a vocal critic of city government, describes a city that has fallen behind because of ineffective leadership, darkly hinting at sinister motives by self-serving elites.

“If you don’t understand government — civics 101 — how can you fix it?” JoAnne Allen asked. “If we don’t have a group of individuals that’s making policy for the good and the welfare of the people, we end up right back where we started: right here at the beginning. And this is why our city have not done — don’t let all the new buildings downtown and all that fool you. Buildings are just buildings. That doesn’t help people.”

The two candidates will face each other in the March 3 Democratic primary (early voting begins on Thursday). Triad City Beat is fact-checking the claims by the two candidates that undergird the premises of their respective campaigns, while gauging Winston-Salem’s performance relative to other North Carolina cities since 2007, the year before the Great Recession, and since 2000, to grade the city over the past two decades under Allen Joines’ leadership.

Allen Joines cited three primary accomplishments in his opening statement during the forum, bragging, “We’ve made great progress in this city reducing poverty, reducing homelessness, creating jobs in our community.”

While Winston-Salem has shown some progress in reducing poverty in recent years, the picture isn’t particularly bright compared to other North Carolina cities. Among the five largest cities and neighboring High Point, Winston-Salem started with the highest poverty level in 2010. And while poverty began to level off in other cities around 2013, it didn’t peak in Winston-Salem until 2015. And while the poverty rate dropped from 24.8 percent to 23.3 percent in Winston-Salem from 2015 to 2017, Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham and High Point all showed the same trends. (Greensboro’s poverty rate, anomalously, began to tick back up in 2015, after falling in 2013.)

In a follow-up conversation with Triad City Beat, Allen Joines cited Andrea Kurtz, the senior director of Housing Strategies at United Way of Forsyth County, as his source for information on trends in homelessness in the city. Kurtz in turn referred TCB to a United Way website, which indicates that the number of chronically homeless individuals declined from 39 in July 2017 to 13 in April 2019.

“Chronically homeless” is the narrowest definition of the condition, and “focuses on persons with the longest histories of homelessness and the highest need,” according to the final rule adopted by the US Department of Housing & Urban Development, as published in the Federal Register in 2015. HUD defines “chronically homeless” as an individual of head of family “with a disability who lives either in a place not meant for human habitation, a safe haven, or in an emergency shelter, or in an institutional care facility” who has been homeless continuously for at least 12 months, or at least four separate occasions in the last three years where the combined occasions total 12 months. 

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools uses a broader definition in its count of students experiencing homelessness. The district is required by federal law to track homelessness among students and to provide support for their families. The law defines homelessness for a student as lacking “a fixed, regular and adequate residence.” The number of homeless students dropped from 604 in 2014-15 to 534 in 2015-16, but then leapt up to 711 in 2016-17, according to data provided by the district. The number has plateaued in the 710s over the past three years. More than half of the homeless students — 452 — are doubled up with extended family members, according to the district. Another 150 are living in shelters, including transitional housing, or awaiting foster care. The district reported that 86 live in hotels or motels. And seven are reported as unsheltered — that is, sleeping in cars, parks or other substandard accommodations.

As to Allen Joines’ claim that the city has made “great progress” in “creating jobs in our community,” employment growth in Winston-Salem does compare favorably to Greensboro and High Point, but it’s nowhere near the super-charged growth in Raleigh, Charlotte and, to a lesser extent, Durham. Data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the Winston-Salem Metropolitan Statistical Area — including Forsyth, Yadkin, Davie and Davidson counties — shows non-farm employment growth of 2.0 percent since 2007, and 2.2 percent since 2000, compared to the Greensboro-High Point MSA, where employment has declined by 3.4 percent since 2007, and by 2.6 percent since 2000. That contrasts with the Raleigh-Cary MSA (44.0 percent since 2007, 22.4 percent since 2000), the Charlotte-Rock Hill-Gastonia MSA (29.6 percent since 2007, 22.4 percent since 2000) and the Durham-Chapel Hill MSA (23.3 percent since 2007, 12.7 percent since 2000).

JoAnne Allen told voters in her opening statement that she and her husband decided to retire in Winston-Salem, where her family has lived since 1897. Hinting that something isn’t right, she said her decision was motivated by a desire to “see why Winston-Salem and the whole state is so far behind.”

While JoAnne Allen’s statement doesn’t quantify how far behind Winston-Salem is, it implies that it’s a significant gap. But is Winston-Salem actually lagging behind other North Carolina cities?

By population and growth in gross domestic product in the MSA of which Winston-Salem is a part, the city has fallen behind, largely due to brisk growth in Durham. Durham surpassed Winston-Salem in population in 2013 to become the state’s fourth largest city, according to data published by the US Census Bureau in the American Community Survey.

Winston-Salem is now the fifth largest city in the state, but as measured by GDP, the Winston-Salem MSA has held the rank of fifth largest economy in the state since at least 2000. Growth of GDP in the Durham-Chapel Hill MSA, meanwhile, allowed it to supplant the Greensboro-High Point MSA as the third largest economy in the state in 2005.

And is North Carolina actually lagging other states?

Not really. North Carolina’s population has grown relative to other states, and is expected to gain an additional congressional seat after the 2020 election. And as measured by growth in GDP, North Carolina’s position remains largely unchanged since 2000.

North Carolina’s population has grown by 10.0 percent since 2010, moving from the No. 10 rank to No. 9, close behind Georgia, while Michigan slipped form No. 8 to No. 10, reflective of the contraction of the auto industry in that state.

As measured by annual gross domestic product, North Carolina is the 12th largest economy in the country, a status that has remained unchanged since 2000. Steady economic growth in the mid-2000s allowed North Carolina to claim the No. 9 spot in 2008, when it overtook Michigan. Since the 2007 peak, just before the onset of the Great Recession, North Carolina’s economy has grown by 42.2 percent, similar to Georgia, while less robust than California, Texas, New York and Massachusetts but more briskly than Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Throughout the recession and recovery period, North Carolina has swapped places with Georgia, Massachusetts and Virginia, but fast-growing Washington State has been the true star in the pack.

When asked to name the “most important issues facing” Winston-Salem, Allen Joines reiterated his commitment to addressing poverty, including getting more third-graders reading at grade level and building more affordable housing. He added a commitment to fiscal restraint, suggesting that low taxes are a prerequisite for addressing poverty.

“Then finally, I think it’s important that we keep our taxes and fees the lowest of the major North Carolina cities,” he said. “It helps us with our economic development. It helps our citizens have more money in their pocket to provide for their children’s education and put food on the table, so that’s one thing that we’re working hard to do.”

Allen Joines’ statement that Winston-Salem has the lowest taxes and fees of the major cities in North Carolina is correct, and widely acknowledged. The city of Greensboro, Winston-Salem’s neighbor to the east, publishes an annual report, ranking the five largest cities in the state by combined city and county property taxes and user fees. In fiscal year 2019-20, Winston-Salem had the lowest combined taxes and fees, at $2,605 for an assessed property value of $150,000, followed by Charlotte ($2,724), Greensboro ($2,735), Durham ($3,149) and Raleigh ($3,674).

JoAnne Allen responded the question about the most important issues facing Winston-Salem by issuing a litany of areas where she contends the city is falling short, starting with unemployment.

“The most important issue is the fact that, first of all we don’t have any jobs,” JoAnne Allen said.

That’s facially untrue. Clearly, even the most economically challenged cities have some jobs. The most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there were 322,228 people employed in the Winston-Salem MSA, as of December 2019, the most recent report available, while the same report found that 10,855 people in the MSA, or 3.2 percent of the labor force, are unemployed. In addition to Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, the MSA also includes Stokes, Yadkin, Davie and Davidson counties, so it’s not just counting jobs in Winston-Salem, but it captures the commuting universe that most Winston-Salem residents inhabit. Just as some jobs in Winston-Salem are held by people who live in surrounding counties, it’s also true that Winston-Salem residents commute to other counties for work.

JoAnne Allen also provided some devastating statistics on poverty: “From 2001 to 2008, we improved as far as poverty here in Winston-Salem, almost 60 percent. We went from 26 percent poverty level to over 76 percent by 2008.”

It’s not clear what JoAnne Allen means when she says that poverty “improved” in Winston-Salem by 60 percent from 2001 to 2008, but her statistics on the poverty rates in those years are way off. Based on numbers gleaned from the 2000 Census, 14.4 percent of individuals in Winston-Salem were poor, while 19.1 percent of the population was poor in 2008. JoAnne Allen’s figures might reference a 2014 story in the Winston-Salem Journal, which reported that 76 percent of poor people in Winston-Salem lived neighborhoods with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent in 2008-2012. That’s a different figure, which shows how poverty is concentrated in certain areas as opposed to being evenly distributed across the city. To further complicate matters, the Brookings Institute study cited by the Journal reports a different figure: 41 percent. So, 76 percent isn’t correct, either for the 2008 poverty rate, or for the percentage of people living in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent in 2008.

In response to a question referencing the lack of low-income housing in Winston-Salem, Joines argued that job growth will help stimulate housing development, and cited some recent positive news on the employment front. “Winston-Salem has led the whole Southeast in terms of job generation, at 3.9 percent annual growth,” he said. “For the past two years in a row, we’ve created 5,300 net new jobs here in our community.”

Growth in non-farm employment in the Winston-Salem MSA from August 2018 to August 2019 was actually 3.1 percent, which tracks with a report in the Winston-Salem Journal about a November 2019 presentation at the Piedmont Triad Partnership. Allen Joines cited the partnership as a source in a follow-up conversation with TCB. Indeed, Winston-Salem’s annual jobs growth compared favorably to other MSAs in the Southeast, including Charlotte (2.4 percent), Raleigh (1.8 percent), Greensboro-High Point (0.3 percent) and Greenville, SC (1.8 percent). But a review of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics actually found that one MSA in the Southeast outpaced Winston-Salem: Huntsville, Ala., with a population roughly the same size as the City of Arts and Innovation, saw 3.2 percent growth over the same period. And the claim that Winston-Salem (and Huntsville) led the Southeast in job growth apparently is only true if you don’t count Florida. The Fort Myers, Orlando and Palm Bay MSAs all had higher rates of employment generation.

But as measured from August 2019 back to August 2007, just before the onset of the Great Recession, Winston-Salem’s growth in non-farm employment doesn’t look as impressive. Out of 29 Southeastern MSAs reviewed by TCB, Winston-Salem ranks 23rd, with 5.4 percent growth, compared to 2nd place Raleigh (25.2 percent), 6th place Charlotte (21.0 percent) and 16th place Durham (12.3 percent). Meanwhile, Greensboro-High Point placed dead last, with a net loss of 2.3 percent.

As to the claim about net new jobs, it’s not really clear where those numbers come from, but they don’t appear to be far off: The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a net gain of 5,000 jobs from December 2018 to December 2019, and a net gain of 3,400 jobs over the preceding 12 months.

JoAnne Allen savaged Allen Joines’ sunny report on jobs and housing, responding, “If that were the case, then I wouldn’t have individuals coming up to me constantly every day saying, ‘I used to live downtown. I can no longer afford to live downtown. I used to live on this side of town, but they’re tearing down the buildings. The buildings are boarded up.’

“So, let’s understand one thing,” she continued. “That there are no affordable housing in this city at this point.”

Just like her claim about employment, this is untrue on its face; rarely is anything all or nothing. HUD defines an “affordable dwelling” as one “that a household can obtain for 30 percent or less of its income.”

The US Census American Community Survey’s 5-year estimate for 2013-2017 indicates Winston-Salem has a total of 94,105 occupied housing units, including 51,253 owner-occupied units and 42,852 rentals. The Census estimates that 25,042 owner-occupied homes with mortgages have monthly payments less than 30 percent of household income, and 18,716 rentals have monthly payments less than 30 percent of household income. That housing is, by definition, affordable.

Maybe JoAnne Allen’s statement was hyperbole. If so, it would still have been pretty damning if she stated the facts in the American Community Survey: 53.3 percent of Winston-Salem renters and 26.7 percent of homeowners are housing cost-burdened. Meaning they spend 30 percent or more of household income on housing. Meaning their housing is not affordable.

While portraying Winston-Salem under his leadership as mayor of a city with bright prospects and forward momentum, Allen Joines is also pledging ambitious action on a number of initiatives that relate to reducing poverty and increasing opportunities for upward mobility. “You may have seen that I was able to raise pilot funds to pay for a free college program,” Allen Joines said. “Every kid who graduates from high school here in Forsyth County can go to Forsyth Tech free of charge — tuition fees, books, childcare transportation, whatever might be needed.”

Allen Joines’ involvement in the initiative, which was announced in November, came about through his position as president of the Winston-Salem Alliance, a nonprofit whose mission is assisting “with identifying and responding to needed changes in the economic makeup of the Winston-Salem community by acting on projects that have a direct impact on the creation of jobs and the economic vitality of the area.”

It’s not clear what, if anything, his position as mayor has to do with the private fundraising to pay for low-income students graduating from Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to attend Forsyth Tech free of charge. As Allen Joines alluded, the $870,000 scholarship fund was created through a grant from BB&T Corp.

A press release issued by Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School noted that the Winston-Salem Alliance “helped establish the program,” and Allen Joines attended the press conference, along with Councilwoman DD Adams, Superintendent Angela Pringle Hairston and school board Chair Malishai Woodbury, but other than that there’s no clear connection between the program and Allen Joines’ position as mayor.

Allen Joines went on to say during the candidate forum: “We’ll carry out a comprehensive program to get 80 percent of our third graders reading at grade level by the year 2030.”

Currently, only about half of third graders in Forsyth County read at grade level, according to multiple sources. The Winston-Salem /Forsyth County Schools website lists the district’s top goal as having 90 percent of third graders reading at grade level by 2020 — plainly unrealistic at this point.

Don Flow, a local businessman and developer who also chairs the Winston-Salem Alliance, announced the more modest initiative to have 80 percent of third graders reading at grade level by 2030 at the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership’s annual fall meeting in November.

Allen Joines also said he planned to “announce funds that we’ve raised — private funds to create a paid internship program for 11th and 12th graders in our high schools for disadvantaged families to give them a chance to earn money. We’re gonna pay ’em $10 an hour for 12 hours a week, and we’re gonna give them a chance to learn how to manage money as well as get exposed to some job opportunities.” *

And he acknowledging a need identified in a 2018 study by the city for 14,663 new units of housing by 2027, Allen Joines pledged, “We will create 15,000 new, affordable units of housing in our community to meet the needs of our community, and we’re going to do that by preventing gentrification in our neighborhoods.”

JoAnne Allen for her part noted the interrelated nature of jobs and housing, pledging to boost employment and create affordable housing. While faulting her opponent’s track record, Allen identified auditing the city’s finances as her primary strategy for tackling these challenges.

“First of all, I started out by stating that until we actually do an audit, you don’t know where the money’s going or where it’s gone,” she said. “I know where it is and what’s happened to it, and why Winston-Salem is in the shape that it is in right now. So, one of the things we have to do is, when we look at employment, and we look at trying to solve issues, there is one answer to try to solve all those issues. Because, first of all, everything — it’s sort of like a domino effect. What you have to do is if you don’t take care of the first part of it, you can’t take care of the second part of it, you can’t take part of the second, third, fourth or fifth part of it as well.”

Like her opponent, JoAnne Allen pledged to create affordable housing, but didn’t provide details about how she would get it done.

“Take a look around,” she said. “You see for yourself. You hear your neighbors, you hear your family members. There is no affordable housing for the people who need it most. That’s what we’re going to change.”

* Joines and other local leaders officially announced the internship program on Feb. 13. According to a city press release, the Truist Charitable Fund (successor to BB&T Corp.) is funding the program with a $1.2 million grant. The Greater Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce will administer the program.

Early voting begins on Thursday and the primary is on March 3. Voters can look up their registration status at vt.ncsbe.gov/RegLkup.

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