District 2 City Council Questionnaire: Rob Korobkin

The Voter Education Brigade sent the following questions to each of the candidates for city council and mayor. Here are the answers we received from Rob Korobkin. You can also read the questionnaires from both of Rob’s opponents for District 2 City Council: Here is Wells Lyons’ questionnaire and here is Spencer Thibodeau’s questionnaire.

  1. What’s most at stake in this election?

Portland is at a pivotal moment. When I moved here seven years ago, you could still find an affordable room to rent without too much difficulty, and the city was buzzing with artists, musicians and workers of all kinds. Today, rents have gotten so high that many of the folks who make Portland what it is, from punk rockers to senior citizens, are feeling squeezed and are looking for other places to live. Among those who stay, many are getting pushed down deeper into financial insecurity, struggling to remain employed while our homeless shelters fill to overflowing and hard drugs run rampant in our streets. What’s at stake in this election is a simple question — is Portland for everybody?

Is this city really going to boil down to becoming a corporate playground where tourists and financiers eat overpriced lobster while multinational hotel conglomerates and greedy, corporate landlords exploit local people and our families?

Rob Korobkin

Or are we going to hold our ground, organize our community and stand up for our rights? We can make this city work well for everybody here. It’s totally possible. But we need leaders who genuinely care about Portland’s residents, most of whom are low income, and who will advocate for our needs. We need a city government that makes sure that every employer treats their workers fairly and pays them a living wage, that every landlord provides decent, stable homes to their tenants, and that every developer pays their fair share of taxes and builds projects that actually serve our community. As I see it, Portland has an incredibly rich history as a place of kind-hearted, fiercely independent, salt of the earth people, but if we don’t do something now, our city government is just going to continue selling off our community piece by piece to the highest bidder. We need to shift course, invest in our schools, organize neighborhood housing cooperatives and build a new, sustainable, high-tech economy that can benefit all of us.

2. Portland is growing and changing quickly. What are the potential negative outcomes from that growth that the city council should work to avoid? What should the council do to guide growth in a positive direction?

Portland needs more decent places to live, both on and off peninsula, and we also need to reinvest in our city’s aging housing stock, so that it takes less energy for us to stay warm in the winter. At the same time, we need to make sure that all development that happens actually serves our community and doesn’t break the character of our neighborhoods, drive up our housing costs and squeeze long-term residents out of their homes.

When it comes to new development, we need to enforce the city’s housing replacement ordinance, so that developers who take affordable units offline pay for them to be replaced elsewhere. We also need to pass a meaningful inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires every new development to set aside a solid percentage of units for local working families. In addition, we should make the planning process more transparent and participatory, so that we can work together as a community to ensure that all of our voices are heard and that every new development fits into the fabric of our neighborhood.

For renters, we need to pursue some form of rent control, so that landlords cannot continue spiking rents by more than 17% each year as they have been, devastating local families and fueling a potentially ugly bubble. We need more public education for tenants, landlords and homeowners describing what their rights and obligations are, and we need to collaborate with the county court system to see that housing disputes are resolved fairly and efficiently.

Lastly, we need to invest in creating low-income housing cooperatives so that folks who aren’t able to buy property on their own can still start building equity as a homeowner. For Portland’s eldest residents, who have built up that equity but lack the cash flow to pay our city’s heavy property taxes, we need to pass a circuit breaker program to prevent low income senior citizens from getting pushed out of their homes by overwhelming tax bills.

3. People without wealth are finding it more and more difficult to get by in Portland and live comfortably. What should the city council do to ensure that Portland continues to be a livable city for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds?

Most working people in this city are squeezed between employers who take large amounts of their time, often at unpleasant hours and in unpleasant conditions, in exchange for far too little money and landlords who take way too much of their money in exchange for apartments that are often in fairly poor conditions. While this has more or less always been the state of affairs in Portland, my understanding is that it’s gotten especially bad in the last decade or so. From everything I’ve heard from my friends who have jobs at them, these corporate hotels are just ghastly places to work — the pay sucks, the people are obnoxious and the hours are inconsistent at best. Personally, I think we should help our friends and neighbors working at the big downtown hotels organize themselves into labor unions so that we can bargain contracts with these billionaire hotel corporations and demand a fair shake. Workers do it in other cities — why not here? There’s no reason those jobs can’t be “good” jobs with the kind of schedules and benefits that would enable you to maintain a decent apartment in Parkside, put a couple kids through Reiche, King and Portland High and even take a couple relaxing weeks of paid vacation every year and head up to camp. Tourists are spending tons of money at those places every year — the jobs suck because the corporate shareholders are hoarding all the profits. We need to organize, hold their feet to the fire and get ours.

But the problem isn’t just the big corporate employers. It’s a lot of small business owners in our community as well, who are so focused on their own narrowly conceived bottom line that they refuse to actually pay people a living wage. If the City were to mandate that everybody pay at least $15 an hour, workers would have a lot more money to spend, especially in Portland’s poorer neighborhoods, and life would be easier for all of us.

We should also teach more people to program. Not only is it super fun to make cool, interactive web apps, but there’s also a global market of business opportunities with fat paychecks that you can work from anywhere once you learn the skills. That said, I would not focus my efforts at USM — those kids all have one foot out the door anyway, and a lot of them will move away after they graduate. The City could, however, step up to offer more quality STEM training through Portland Adult Ed — that’s definitely something I’d like to work on.

Other stuff that would really help people would be better housing and public transportation, which I’ve talked about elsewhere in this essay, and more free stuff in public spaces. Congress Square was awesome this summer. If I’m elected I’ll make sure that Congress Square remains vibrant and will work to engage citizens groups in other parts of the city in doing cool free stuff in other parks as well. We need free public programming for all kinds of people — little kids, high schoolers, twenty-somethings, parents, seniors, immigrants, and everybody in between. After all, Portland is for everybody!

4. What are two of your favorite local businesses?

Captain Mowatt’s — When I lived on the Hill, I had this neighbor who made hot sauce in his garage. Nothing fancy or high tech, but he had a bunch of equipment in there and could turn out a pretty high volume of units given the scale of his operation. You can find bottles of the stuff at local restaurants, Hannaford and online. I’ve always thought of that as such an awesome example of what people in Maine are capable of — take a garage, a few old family recipes, a little bit of ambition, a lot of independence and you’re good to go! Silly’s — Huge menu, funky atmosphere, great food. You can take anybody here — vegetarians, carnivores, gluten-free folks, sugar addicts — and everybody can get something delicious! The other thing that I love about it is that, if you look at all the photos on the walls that local people have taken in different places across the world, it’s a nice reminder of how wide our reach is as a community. Portland has always been a global city. We’re a seaport and as a major destination for all kinds of people, but, at the end of the day, we’re still a pretty small community, and I can’t think of a better symbol of that than a neighborhood joint like Silly’s with little pieces from every continent tacked up all around.

5. What should the city council do to sustain a local economy that supports the growth and creation of businesses like the ones you mentioned in the last question?

Good question. To support local folks starting small businesses like my neighbor did with the hot sauce, I’d love to see the City create more incubator spaces like the Open Bench Project and Peloton Labs, where local entrepreneurs can get their start. Portland has tons of empty commercial space, and lots of people with good ideas for businesses that they’d like to start. What we need to do is figure out how to bridge the gap, so that folks have a place where they can build the capacity they need to take on some of those bigger commercial spaces. I’d also like to create some kind of incentive program to encourage landlords to lease out spaces that have been sitting vacant for a long time, especially if those spaces can be made available to new businesses.

To support businesses that play to our strengths as a global city, like the wall of Silly’s illustrates, I think the City could do more to help immigrants start their own projects. One interesting idea that I’ve heard is that, just like USM has a multicultural center, the City could potentially have a multicultural center too. It would be a place where folks from all over the world could come to get information, meet with people, maybe eat some light food and build community with one another. While I’d love to see the City play a leadership role in creating such a space, I feel like once it was up and running, it could probably sustain itself through grants and community fundraising without being a huge drain on the municipality and would probably benefit from being more independent.

6. How often do you use forms of transportation other than driving (bicycles, bus, train, uber etc.)?

I share my car with a friend, and these days I bike everywhere in town, so most days I don’t even use my car. Sometimes, if I have time, I’ll walk downtown, but I live out by USM, so it can take a while. I’ve taken Uber a couple times and had great experiences.

7. Does our local/regional public transportation system need any improvements or changes?

Yeah. We need better busses that go more places at more times, and we need more people riding them. Especially as folks doing low wage work downtown start looking for more places to live out in Westbrook and Biddeford to escape Portland’s ridiculous rents, we’ve got to make sure that these folks can get back and forth comfortably. I really like seeing the high school kids take the Metro to school this year, and I’d like to do more to initiate new riders, maybe offering a free one-month pass to people who are new to the city, or offering better public information about how to ride the bus and where it goes. I’m also really excited to see the mobile app that the Metro is putting out that will show people where their bus is currently, but I’ll be curious to see if it has any real effect on ridership.

8. Which grocery store(s) do you shop at most?

I love picking up a few things at the different farmers markets, and I’m also a member of the Portland Food Cooperative where I shop a fair amount. To be honest, though, I still do most of my big grocery runs at Hannaford, but I try to look for local options wherever I can.

9. What should the city council do to support the local food economy?

There’s a bunch of stuff. One big thing would be providing quality local food in all the schools and educating our kids about it in all their classes so that they grow up valuing sustainability and healthy eating. The city government should also do more to support local entrepreneurs in starting and sustaining innovative businesses and community organizations that incorporate local food, from building laundromat-cafés to planting more neighborhood gardens to creating shared community kitchens. Ultimately, the solutions will come from the community, but I believe the City has a strong role to play in providing resources and supporting those solutions as they emerge into fruition.

10. Which local arts or entertainment institution do you visit most often?

I just played a show at Empire on Friday with my band. I love that place — the performance space has this cool “colonial barn” feeling to it that I love, and the food’s really good, especially when you get a half-price discount on it as a performer. I also really like the Space Gallery, and the PMA is always a fun place to take folks from out of town.

11. What can the city council do to strengthen the local arts community?

Having a vibrant “arts community” depends on two things — one, supporting artists and other creative people in making their lives here, and two, making sure that there are adequate spaces for folks to practice their art. Running with Scissors, which provides art studios in East Bayside, and Grime Studios, which provides music practice spaces on Presumpscot Street, are two of my favorite projects in town. Both have long waiting lists of folks looking to get in. If we want to sustain art and music in Portland, the City government needs to do more to support spaces like these and do more to spark the creation of new spaces in the future through offering property, funding, expertise and tax incentives to local entrepreneurs who want to strengthen our creative community. Lastly, I think the City should take a much more proactive role in supporting the formation of housing cooperatives, especially residential efforts catering to artists, musicians and writers, so that the people who put our city on the map always have a home here.

12. Would you have voted to continue General Assistance for asylum-seekers earlier this year (following cuts to state funding)? What do you think the city should have done to deal with that crisis?

Yes. Absolutely. I even testified in favor of it at the City’s primary public hearing when the legislation was being discussed. Moving forward, I think city leaders need to do a better of job of bringing people together from throughout the region, including faith-based groups, businesses, social services, neighborhood organizations and our sister local governments to facilitate a better coordinated approach to welcoming new people into our community. Using our tax dollars to help new Americans pay rent and buy groceries is an essential part of the solution, and I’m a strong advocate for it, but it’s just a piece of the solution. If we really want to address this situation, we need to focus on actually integrating new people into our community, and that will require time and work of a million different forms.

13. Are you voting for or against a $15 minimum wage?

For. If we’re serious about lifting our city out of poverty, we have to begin by demanding that local employers stop paying poverty wages. Everybody who works full-time deserves to make enough to feed their families and maintain a stable home, and paying anything less than a living wage is profoundly cruel. While it may perhaps initially be a bit of a jolt to a few small businesses, I believe strongly that it will lead to a large number of Portland residents spending a great deal more money in our community and will therefore do a lot to stimulate economic growth in our city, especially in our poorer neighborhoods, like the ones that I am running to represent.

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