In the race for Vancouver City Council’s Position 2 seat, voters aren’t choosing between candidates with drastically different perspectives — two of the people running, incumbent Erik Paulsen and challenger Kara Tess, share similar opinions on pandemic recovery, climate change and homelessness.
Their main contrast is in experience. Paulsen served as president of the Vancouver Planning Commission and on the Affordable Housing Task Force before he was appointed to the city council in 2019 and reelected later that year. In a conversation with The Columbian’s Editorial Board ahead of the upcoming primary election, he emphasized his granular-level expertise in local issues.
“I’m neither an ideologue nor a firebrand. I seek broad perspectives,” Paulsen said. “This is a pivotal moment in Vancouver, and we need thoughtful leaders who understand our community.”
Tess, a newcomer to politics and 20-year resident of Clark County, said that she would bring a much-needed fresh perspective to the city council, and she emphasized her willingness to learn more about the specific nuts and bolts of local government.
“I don’t take any donations from anybody. I can’t be swayed. There’s no reason why I’m not here to fight for the people,” Tess told the editorial board. “I’m not afraid to learn, and I’m definitely always open to listen.”
Both commended local leadership for their actions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve seen firsthand, having the mask mandate before we had 70 percent or 60 percent of people vaccinated was a great decision,” Tess said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Paulsen added that there’s only so much the city can do about masking regulations — those mandates come from the state. But he said he stood by how Vancouver handled the pandemic, citing programs designed to provide relief for local small businesses, like a waiver on the business license surcharge fee and the implementation of the Street Eats program.
“Given what limited tools were available to us, I think the city should be proud of our response to COVID,” Paulsen said.
He said that he looked forward to working with the rest of the city council to decide how best to spend the $32.6 million in federal funding allocated to Vancouver through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Asked about how best to spend that pot of money, Tess said she “would have to do some research and reach out to the community and see where people are hurting the most.”
“There’s so many places that money could be spent, that we really need to look down at what is the best option,” Tess said.
The candidates diverged slightly on the city’s existing affordable housing policy. Tess criticized an existing program that grants tax breaks to builders of multifamily housing projects — the Multifamily Tax Exemption Program, as Paulsen later clarified — as “kickbacks being given to developers.”
“We’re in a housing crisis right now with affordable housing,” Tess said. “I would just make sure that the laws are written in a better way, so that they are held accountable to the rents and the housing prices.”
The program’s rules allow developers to receive the tax break if they price their apartments in accordance with median household incomes across the Portland metro area. Paulsen said he disagrees with the recent push to revise the program so that developers have to set lower rents — aligned with just Vancouver’s income data, not the rest of the region’s — in order to receive the tax break.
The program was always meant to add housing stock, he said. It’s not specifically meant to improve affordability.
“It has successfully created density in our downtown core,” Paulsen said. “I personally feel that the council made the right decision in keeping the income level at the Portland-level median.”
The two candidates also disagreed on how the city can best respond to climate change. Paulsen said he felt that the council is already “talking about the right things” — Vancouver recently commissioned an audit of its fossil fuel emissions, in preparation for development of a broader climate strategy — but is not moving fast enough.
“I think there’s a sense of urgency we need to have,” Paulsen said. “I hope we can agree, and agree quickly, on a climate plan that is aspirational and puts the city in a position of leadership.”
Tess said she agrees that working toward improving the climate is a worthy goal. However, she worries about the cost versus benefit equation in a city the size of Vancouver. As long as the federal government continues to subsidize the fossil fuel industry, she continued, there’s only so much good the local government can reasonably do.
“Climate change is a global issue; and as a city, I think that we are doing much better than many other communities,” Tess said, pointing to environmental standards that can raise the cost of building new housing. “How is that going to affect housing prices and affordable housing?”
Both Tess and Paulsen appear on the Vancouver ballot for the Aug. 3 primary election. A third candidate, Tami Martin, did not respond to the editorial board’s invitation to join the meeting.