In the City of Norman’s Ward 4 election, voters will choose between an incumbent focused on affordable housing and opposing the proposed entertainment district and a political newcomer who would rather concentrate on retaining young professionals in the city.
The Ward 4 candidates are incumbent Councilperson Helen Grant and Judy Moss, a retired certified public accountant. In interviews, both candidates said the ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike project’s south extension is bad for Norman, but they disagree on how the unhoused should be taken care of and on a proposed University North Park entertainment district.
Ward 4 covers central Norman, stretching south from Robinson Street to Lindsey Street between Berry Road and 12th Avenue East. South of Lindsey Street, it narrows with an eastern boundary of Chautauqua Avenue and runs down to State Highway 9.
Grant said housing is a top issue facing Norman, drawing discussion among the community at large.
“For some of us, we are very vulnerable to losing our housing,” Grant said. “It kind of defuses some of the partisan, divisive talk around affordable housing being all Section 8 and drug users and enabling people. And it really drilled down into what’s affordable for a variety of incomes and living situations. We had to take a hard look that some of our city workers don’t earn enough to stay in Norman without some kind of assistance.”
Grant, who uses the pronouns they and them, said money for the proposed entertainment district could be used to improve housing issues or improve Norman’s infrastructure.
Moss said her priorities include retaining students from Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma while focusing on affordable housing for them and new residents. She said she believes Norman is not prepared to help the already unhoused.
Moss accused Grant of not being particularly responsive to their constituents, arguing that she believes she has her ears open to voters.
“The fact that the present city council person who I’m running against does not make herself available to us, this was my experience,” Moss said. “This has been a thing that I have heard over and over and over at doors. I’ve talked to people that say they’ve reached out to her and had no response from her in some time. They had to go to other city council members, which I had to do to get any direction at all.”
Grant did not respond to a request for comment about Moss’ allegation on Wednesday prior to the publication of this story. On Thursday, however, Grant said conversations have occurred with Moss on multiple occasions.
“I have talked with Judy in person multiple times,” Grant said. “My first memory of her is meeting her at the Conservative Business Owner meeting in Ward 2, where Councilmember (Stephen Tyler) Holman and myself answered questions and gave historical context for our unhoused issues. And I talked to her after that meeting as well.”
Candidates talk homelessness, affordable housing
In a prior interview, Grant said affordable housing and services for the homeless are among the biggest issues facing Norman. They said inclusionary zoning might help with housing affordability, as it could expand and diversify the residential supply.
“Inclusionary zoning allows for development [to happen]. It doesn’t concentrate poverty, and it kind of has some more mixed income intent in the design of it,” Grant said. “It’s not in our cycle of committee topics yet. If re-elected, that will be one of the things I’ll be bringing forward to [the City Council] retreat for the summer 2024.”
Moss said the homeless should use case management and private services rather than rely on city resources. She said Norman is not a good choice for some housing solution efforts owing to the city’s higher-value homes.
“We also have OU,” Moss said. “That means those students have to have housing. Those are the people that we need to focus on — keep them from entering homelessness.”
Moss said young people are at risk for housing insecurity, particularly as they leave high school and college. She said young people at or below the poverty level should be furnished with food or clothing assistance.
“They can, you know, have enough in their budgets to pay for rent and not become homeless in the first place,” Moss said.
Grant said Norman’s accessory dwelling unit ordinance, which allows homeowners to build or convert apartments on their property to provide housing for family members or renters, has worked well. However, they acknowledged that ADUs may worry people.
“We know that having that option scares people because they’re like, ‘Oh, what if they basically build a house-sized house on the lot and it’s ridiculous,’” Grant said.
Grant, Moss mixed on TIF district for entertainment district
Grant and Moss have different perspectives when it comes to a proposed $1 billion entertainment district that could be built west of 24th Avenue between Interstate 35, Rock Creek Road and Corporate Center Drive in Norman.
The possible plan has been made in partnership between civic organizations, the City of Norman, Cleveland County and the OU Foundation. Team Norman showed designs in September for an 8,000-seat arena for OU basketball and gymnastics, a hotel, hundreds of housing units and a variety of shops, restaurants, bars and offices.
The arena would also be used for concerts, business expos, local graduations and more. Grant and Moss disagree on whether Norman should follow through with creating a tax increment financing district for the area.
Grant has opposed the TIF and entertainment district, saying the district would not benefit Norman economically.
Grant said some other Southeastern Conference schools don’t use public funds to fund arenas and university-run districts.
“In the case of this TIF, it’s 100 percent for 25 years, and that means the city’s not going to see any of that money for a very long time,” Grant said.
Moss said the arena is the least attractive part of the entertainment district but likes the idea of bringing more business to Norman. She said the empty land is not creating income.
“People that come off of I-35 are looking for a place to go and play, for things to do and places to spend their money, which is how we run our town anyways, off of sales tax,” Moss said. “And I also want to know how young people, young professionals today, feel if this is the right thing for them.”
OG&E franchise agreement
Norman will have another opportunity to vote March 5 on formally confirming a franchise agreement between OG&E and the city for electricity infrastructure.
The city’s franchise agreement with OG&E expired in 2018, leaving Norman without a formal agreement with the utility. A new agreement was rejected by voters in January 2023, with 60.7 percent of those casting ballots opposing the renewal.
OG&E continued to provide electricity to city residents and businesses. Customers paid a 3 percent franchise fee on their electric bills as they did in the past.
Moss said Norman residents should vote “Yes” on the proposal, but Grant said they believe it won’t pass.
Moss said Norman needs to approve the formal agreement to get on track with the rest of Oklahoma.
“I thought we needed to get this approved because we’ve been operating since 2018 on what they call an ‘implied agreement,’” Moss said. “Just how long are they going to allow Norman to basically break the law?”
Grant said Norman citizens want more than a franchise agreement, which so far they have not gotten.
“When we were working on it, we had told OG&E the first time and before January 2023, when there was a first election, you should probably have some amendments so that people know you intend to be more proactive about protecting the tree canopy,” Grant said. “And also address what they want, which is buried lines — like have a real conversation with people about it.”
(Correction: This article was updated at 2:10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, to correct reference to Helen Grant’s position on the OG&E franchise agreement and add a response to Moss’ allegation.