City News

Vanessa Nordyke plans to focus on homeless, community involvement in next Salem City Council term

With her next term on Salem City Council a likely guarantee, Vanessa Nordyke said she plans to continue pushing for more services for Salem’s unsheltered population, encouraging housing development and improving community involvement in public safety solutions.

Nordyke is running unopposed for reelection in the May 21 primary which will decide the makeup of half the council. Her ward 7 seat includes much of Minto-Brown Island Park and southwest Salem.

Nordyke is the executive director of CASA of Marion County, which provides volunteer advocates for abused and neglected foster children. She previously worked as an assistant attorney general for the state and has been on the Salem City Council since November 2019. 

Stepping into her new role at CASA last year has packed Nordyke’s work schedule, but she said she’s seeking reelection because councilors Trevor Phillips, Jose Gonzalez and Virginia Stapleton are not.

“Depending on how these elections fall, I could be the deciding vote on whether to continue shelter, whether to continue affordable housing, whether to create a mobile crisis unit,” she said. “I think my vote is going to be of crucial importance, and so I’m going to show up to the best of my ability.”

Nordyke said that in her time as council, she’s proudest of supporting the development of affordable housing projects in the city, including new properties under the Salem Housing Authority like Sequoia Crossings and Yaquina Hall which provide both shelter and access to mental health and social services.

“I was a vote in support of a lot of those projects, and I pushed my council to make that a priority,” she said. “Affordable housing used to not be a priority for city council, and over time I was one of those voices on the council who said ‘No, this needs to be a priority.’”

She said she’s also proud of engaging the community, including by organizing a town hall for south Salem last November that drew around 100 residents to talk about traffic, pedestrian safety and affordable housing. 

Nordyke said that once the election is over, she hopes to sit down with the new councilors and find common ground.

“Where can we agree? Where can we agree to disagree? Let’s just be professional,” she said. 

City budget

Nordyke said that it’s an issue that Salem has not secured a regular payment from the state to make up for the high amount of state-owned land that is exempt from paying property taxes.

“I still feel that work could be done to rally the community to support that,” she said. “Most people don’t even know it’s a thing, let alone that we’re asking for it. Let alone that we need it.”

She said that one of the city’s best tools to secure the payment is public support, but that there’s a trust gap with the community.

Nordyke was one of four votes on the council against imposing the payroll tax. She put forward the change to exempt people who make minimum wage from being taxed. She thought a public safety levy had a better chance of passing than the tax.

“I did not support trying to pass (the tax) without taking it to voters,” she said. “There were a lot of missteps in that process, missed opportunities. And one of the big missteps was that they could have put together a levy that was very efficient, that would have spelled out who it would have gone for. I wanted it to include a mobile crisis unit.”

She said that she’s also in support of smaller ways to bring in revenue, an example being the city’s search for tenants to sublease airport space.

“Those things add up,” she said.

On the budget committee this year, Nordyke voted in favor of using the city’s hotel tax to fend off cuts at the library and to keep splash pads, bathrooms and water fountains operational this summer.

“Splash pads and neighborhood parks are a lifeline, especially for low-income neighbors who can’t afford to drive across town, who can’t afford a private pool membership,” she said. “Turning those things off doesn’t make sense to me.” 

Public safety

In her next term, Nordyke said she plans to develop neighborhood watch programs, because she’s heard from neighborhood associations that people want a way to get involved in helping address safety issues. 

“Why not have more robust neighborhood watches? When you’re keeping an eye on your neighbors, you’re deterring people from committing crime. People are less likely to spray graffiti, they’re less likely to try and snag a package from your doorstep,” she said.

She said it would also help with improving emergency preparedness. She said that the Fairmount Hill neighborhood has a strong program, which has a plan for how to react during the next ice storm or power outage.

Neighborhood watch could check in with vulnerable people during emergencies, she said, like knocking on doors of people with disabilities who use oxygen machines or low income seniors who live alone when the power goes out.

“The city doesn’t have enough staff to knock on every door of every senior citizen during a citywide blackout or an ice storm,” she said.

Nordyke said that safe walking and biking routes to her ward’s elementary, middle and high schools are another priority. She said she wants more traffic calming measures like traffic cameras. 

Nordyke said she’s generally in support of the city’s Community Violence Reduction Initiative, the city’s plan to incorporate community feedback and organizations to focus on preventing shootings. She said that police have to be a part of the solution, but can’t solve it all.

She said the city will need to give a platform to people most impacted by gun violence. She said that Levi Herrera-Lopez, executive director of the Mano a Mano Family Center, has brought needed knowledge to the initiative.

Homelessness and housing

Nordyke said that she plans to continue to advocate for the city to increase its services for unsheltered people, and wants to work to shift the public’s perception of the people who are struggling with homelessness.

“The way we talk about people who are unsheltered matters. If you talk about people like they’re worthy of dignity and personal safety and the same human rights as you and me, then we’re more likely to uplift and empower them,” she said. 

Nordyke has pushed for the city to fund a civilian mobile crisis response team, which would pair mental health workers with addiction recovery mentors to respond to some crisis calls instead of police. She said that the program would save city emergency response resources.

Her past efforts have not gotten enough council support, but she said the city’s impending takeover of ambulance services from Falck is encouraging. In March, Fire Chief Mike Niblock said that in the coming years the city may be able to fund such a program using the profit that previously went to Falck.

Nordyke said that Salem won’t be able to police its way out of homelessness. She supported the city’s sheltering efforts using one-time Covid funding without sustainable revenue lined up beyond the first few years of operation.

Nordyke said that she’s hopeful that the state will be able to pay for their sustained operation, and that addressing homelessness is a budget priority for Gov. Tina Kotek.

“A lot of that is up in the air, at this point. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know who’s going to get that money. But I do know that I support continuing shelter in our city. I’ve seen positive results,” she said. 

She said her next term will include a lot of decisions about affordable housing, and that she wants to hold project developers accountable while continuing to incentivize affordable housing developments. 

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.