by Elizabeth Nguyen
We’ve been getting to know Portsmouth City Councilor Rebecca Perkins pretty well lately. We share motivation to improve housing diversity and quality in our city. We had coffee with her recently and talked about housing, how working in the food industry is good preparation for service in government, and her philosophy on representing the people.
Where are the young people?
Rebecca is a New Hampshire native, and spent countless hours in high school and college working at her family-owned Dairy Queen in the Seacoast area. After service in the Peace Corps, and briefly living and working in New York City and Washington, D.C. as a lawyer, she returned to live in the Seacoast and now works for the renewable energy developer Enel Green Power, located in Andover, MA. Once she began following local politics she realized the decision makers were not keyed into the issues that matter to young residents in NH, even though retaining our educated younger workers is key to the sustained economic vitality of the state. In fact, very few elected officials and influential board members in NH are under the age of 40. Rather than wait for an invitation to be part of the conversation, she joined with other like-minded millennials and co-founded the 603 Initiative to empower young people to shape the future of the state and the communities in which they live.
Taking on Leadership
Understanding that the issues that matter most to young people, such as available housing, jobs and recreational opportunities, also benefit the community as a whole, Rebecca decided to run for City Council. On the perspective of young people she observed, “There’s a very different way people receive and process information that’s happening. There needs to be more engagement and interacting [in government] just like any business. Now you need to be a marketer and an entrepreneur and a social media expert. As government, we have the same responsibility. It is important to understand there is a different, more interactive way to engage in these public processes, and I think it will drive better outcomes.”
She points to her food service experience as foundational to her view of government. “If a customer walks in, you do everything you can to get them what they want,” but notes that this approach can feel foreign to city government, though Portsmouth does a better job than most. While there is some support for outreach and factual education, she sees that much more could be done to engage citizens in current issues before they come to a final vote by the City Council. On the wastewater treatment plant, the Council realized they needed to work with the local media to meet concerns about the plant with the research and facts they had gathered. That was a wake-up call for Rebecca that “we need to get the facts out there, and make the information interesting; sometimes we fall into the trap of just plodding along!”
More recently, together with Councilor Eric Spear she pushed for a public hearing (scheduled for August 15th) to get feedback on the possible re-location of the Federal Building offices to a new building on the Bridge Street Lot. “The city has to understand the need to engage more. It makes a difference!” She doesn’t take change to the city fabric lightly. “I think it’s really hard to create the civic life that we have here, and I think the fact that we have it is a tribute to the good planning and spaces and the cumulative effort that has been put into making this place a good place. I want very much to protect it, and use every opportunity I can to fight for it.”
When it comes to new engagement strategies, Rebecca has found that it’s best not to wait around for the decision-making machine to get things done. She posts announcements of Housing Committee public hearings to her Facebook page and created the first Google Forum to be included in the City Council’s public record. In her campaign, she experimented with Nation Builder, an online platform for community engagement. She balances these 21st century approaches with traditional media, such as a speaking with the Portsmouth Herald, so that her message is more likely to reach a wider audience. She likes to “make waves to create inbound feedback to the public process. You’re not going to get everybody on your side, but you might get more.”
When asked how she balances her own personal opinions against those of the groups in opposition to her views, she turned the question around: “was I elected to represent all opinions or was I elected to be me and use my judgement? I tend to think it’s the second one, especially since we consume a massive amount of information on these specific topics we vote on.” She feels confident in this approach because she does extensive research; she forms her opinions based on a thorough familiarity with all aspects of the issues.
On the Housing Working Group
To address the roadblocks to new housing development in Portsmouth, Rebecca approached the Mayor to create the Housing Committee, a City Council committee which she chairs. With input from housing advocates, interested citizens and developers the committee is defining three potential sites for neighborhood “village centers” appropriate for infill development. As regards public opposition to new housing types that would maintain a diverse community she noted, “The housing committee is trying to implement zoning amendments that will make it much easier to build a variety of housing types. That is by itself an incredibly complex process. At the same time, many projects are getting rejected at the ZBA, the Planning Board and the HDC. I know we have to change the zoning. That has changed from my aspirational goal to ‘we need to accomplish this.’”
She hears resistance to ADU’s, micro-units and new multi-unit housing at City boards and hearings. “The education piece just cannot be underestimated. The younger generation that cares about a walkable downtown and doesn’t need to have a car gets it, but I’m a little worried that they and all the housing advocates are sitting in an echo chamber.” She encourages the public to e-mail her with any ideas, and become active participants in the conversation. There are two more Housing Committee meetings, September 12th and October 3rd, and the public is encouraged to attend. The meeting on the 12th will be focused on listening to developers’ needs to understand how to encourage the kind of projects the committee sees as appropriate to the village concept. We’ll be there and hope to see you, too!
For Further Viewing/Reading:
Pecha Kucha 25: Rebecca Perkins on Affordable Housing
Plan NH’s Vibrant Villages New Hampshire website