Affordable housing and sustainability dominated the discussion between 13 city council candidates at a sparsely attended forum hosted Wednesday night.
Notably absent from the night was West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, who was discussing the progress of State Street development on Wednesday afternoon with Indiana state senators. Independent challenger Zachary Baiel was in attendance but not afforded an opportunity to speak during the event due to a decision by Purdue Votes, the organization hosting the forum.
Baiel expressed his disapproval of Dennis’s inability to attend.
“All he has to do is say, ‘Senators, I’m going to be gone for an hour and a half. I have to do this engagement,’” Baiel said.
The candidate characterized the forum as a wasted opportunity for community members to learn more about the duties and responsibilities involved with being mayor.
In response to pamphlets Baiel distributed Wednesday condemning his absence, Dennis said in a phone interview that he was being mischaracterized for political motives while fulfilling his duties in fostering a relationship with state senators. Dennis said he was unsurprised by his opponent’s behavior, assessing Baiel to be a contentious critic of the city’s policies during the city council meetings that he frequents.
“They call it silly season for a reason,” Dennis said. “Every time I have a choice between benefiting West Lafayette or debating (Baiel), I’m going to choose West Lafayette.”
Affordable housing dominated discussion throughout the forum, with two solutions proposed. Nick DeBoer, the Democratic incumbent candidate for District 1, put forward the idea of increasing the number of high rise buildings around campus.
“How we solve this problem is by saying that the government can’t tell you that you can only have a four-story building,” DeBoer said. “What we should do is allow by-right zoning. So you can build as tall as you want anywhere south of State Street.”
Republican candidates Sydney Rivera and Jon Jones, from Districts 1 and 3 respectively, proposed the construction of new housing in the Historic Preservation District.
“We cannot talk about affordable housing without talking about expanding the land in which we are developing that housing,” Rivera said. “There is a large plot of land designated as the Historic Preservation District which is there to preserve some beautiful and historic homes in our community. But a lot of that has turned into very dilapidated student rental housing, where the conditions are not great.”
Rivera and Jones attribute the poor conditions to regulations that force homeowners to use original building materials for home improvements.
“We definitely want to consider reducing some of the regulations in that area so that some of those houses, especially the ones that are now student rentals, can be converted into higher-density apartments at an affordable price,” Rivera said.
David Sanders, the Democratic incumbent for one of three At-Large positions, believes the solution to the housing crisis should involve reducing student enrollment at Purdue.
“The housing problem that we face is in large part due to the ever-increasing enrollment at Purdue University,” Sanders said. “I don’t think that the city has made its voice heard loud enough about the problems associated with that increased enrollment.”
Sustainability was also heavily discussed. Gerald Thomas, another Democratic incumbent for the At-Large positions believes that alternative transportation is key to reducing the city’s footprint.
“We need to encourage bicycle riding, walking to classes, walking to work (and) electric scooters,” Thomas said.
At-Large Democratic candidate James Blanco looked at more traditional solutions.
“I want to make CityBus fares free because, one, it would improve our city’s carbon emissions, and two, it’s actually an affordable program to do,” Blanco said.
Candidates were asked to respond to residents disapproving of the closure of a 24-hour recycling center in West Lafayette. District 6 candidate Austin Bohlin said that lack of economic viability defines the city’s current process.
“Recycling is a major problem for a lot of Midwest cities because it costs more money to fund the program than we can earn by running it,” Bohlin said. “However, I would like to see us find money in our budgets to be able to keep the recycling plants because our city prides itself on sustainability.”
Candidates Norris Wang and John Meyers clarified that the closed location was designed to be temporary, and the city had grown to the point where a new center needed to be constructed. Wang urged residents to continue resorting to alternatives such as roadside recycling and utilizing bins within facilities. In her proposal to increase available options, District 3 candidate Shannon Kang proposed the addition of recycling bins to all apartment complexes in West Lafayette.
One attendee inquired about candidates’ ideas for expanding the breadth of mental health services in the community, referencing the underfunding of Purdue’s Counseling and Psychological Services. Shifting tone, speakers wondered alongside the audience how to address a growing issue without merely allocating money towards fixing it.
“This is not a finance issue. This is something that needs a grassroots element to it,” said At-Large councillor Steve Dietrich.
Dietrich and fellow At-Large candidates expounded upon the need to involve students in community groups designed to prevent feelings of anxiety and isolation.
Jones centered his closing statement around the need to prioritize student health when deciding where to allocate university resources. He referenced a policy he helped work on as a member of Purdue Student Government that used money raised from alcohol sales at football games to provide additional funding for CAPS.
“I plan to continue to work on that issue,” Jones said.
West Lafayette’s municipal election will be held on Nov. 5.