How Housing Fared at the Ballot

For local ballot measures meant to fund new affordable housing and expand rights for tenants, results were decisive — for better and for worse.

(Photo by hjl / CC BY 2.0)

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The presidential election was still far from being decided last week when Ruy Arango, chair of the “No Eviction Without Representation” (NEWR) campaign in Boulder, Colorado, told Boulder Beat that he’d seen enough. Ballot measure 2B, which would levy a tax on landlords to fund legal representation for tenants facing eviction, was ahead by a healthy margin. Arango and the NEWR campaign were “pretty confident” it would pass, and he was going to bed, Boulder Beat reported.

“We’re working people,” he said, according to the story. “We have shitty jobs we need to get up early and go to.”

As election officials continued to count votes and the presidential race was too close to call, results on local ballot measures began to pour in. Aside from measure 2B in Boulder, voters in Denver voted to approve a sales-tax increase to fund new housing and services for people experiencing homelessness, according to the Denver Post.

More than 70 percent of voters in Raleigh, North Carolina, voted in favor of an $80 million housing bond, the News & Observer reported.

An effort to raise $50 million for an affordable housing trust fund in Charlotte was supported by more than three quarters of voters, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Atlanta voters overwhelmingly approved a measure creating a $30,000 tax exemption for each home owned by a community land trust, WABE reported, while statewide, Georgians approved a measure waiving property taxes for nonprofit groups that build single-family housing — specifically groups like Habitat for Humanity.

Voters in Portland, Maine, approved a local “Green New Deal” initiative focused on affordable housing and building-energy efficiency, along with a measure that caps annual rent increases and links them to the rate of inflation.

San Francisco voters passed Measure K, which, as Next City has covered, overcomes what one local official called “a racist obstacle of the redlining era” and pre-approves the creation of 10,000 publicly owned, affordable “social housing” units in the city.

Detroiters approved a $250 million bond measure to tear down 8,000 vacant homes and preserve 6,000 others for affordable housing.

But California voters rejected an expansion of rent control, like they did in 2018, the L.A. Times reported. And one of the bigger bond measures in recent years — a $900 million effort to fund supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness in San Diego — looked like it wouldn’t meet the two-thirds threshold needed to pass.

The San Diego bond effort, organized by the San Diego Housing Federation, earned support from 57 percent of voters. But Stephen Russell, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, said that while a broad coalition of groups supported the bond, it never had the full support of San Diego’s mayor or chamber of commerce, which helped kill the momentum.

“A solid majority of citizens were willing to tax themselves to do this,” Russell told Next City. “A solid majority is not what it takes in California. It takes two thirds, and that’s an incredibly high standard.”

Overall, though, the election showed that there is typically strong support for local governments spending money on affordable housing, says Phillip Kash, a partner at HR&A Advisors, which published a pre-election roundup of ballot measures affecting housing, transportation, open space, and other urban issues. HR&A helped create Detroit’s Multifamily Affordable Housing Strategy published in 2018, and Kash says the new bond (which HR&A did not work on) will help advance some of the goals of that plan.

“To state the obvious, it is a lot of money,” Kash says. “And it’s even more money when you think about the relative price of housing in Detroit. It’s an opportunity for extremely significant impact.”

A lot of cities have faced spiking housing prices over the last several years, but in Detroit, housing remains relatively cheap, and vacancy rampant. That makes it easier for public investment to have an impact, Kash says. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who backed the bond measure, also recently announced a $48 million investment in new affordable housing. Kash says that the efforts to rehab and build new affordable housing and increase homeownership for low-income people in Detroit could help close the racial wealth gap.

Nationally, there’s a trend toward greater local involvement in housing, as the federal government has gradually stepped back from its role over the years, and the presidential election has left city and state governments wondering what to expect.

“Nobody knows how the federal piece is going to play out right now, but how these [ballot measures] intersect with whatever stimulus package we get will be really interesting to see,” Kash says. “If the federal government really doesn’t step into this space, which is a very serious possibility, then you’ll see a lot more state and local action, because you’ll start to see mass evictions, and you’ll also see landlords start to fail.”

John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, says the success of Boulder’s “No Evictions Without Representation” initiative is a “sign of how mainstream the right to counsel movement has become,” in that legal representation is now a widely acknowledged factor in tenants’ vulnerability to eviction. This year, Congressional Democrats even introduced bills that would fund legal representation for tenants facing eviction, Pollock noted. So far, of the six cities that have approved some version of a right to counsel for eviction cases, two of them — Boulder and San Francisco — have done so via ballot measure. (Both efforts have been organized partly by local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, Pollock pointed out.) Pollock says he doesn’t see any basis for a legal challenge to Boulder’s Measure 2B. And he expects that advocates in more cities will start seeing ballot measures as a viable way of creating new rights for tenants.

“The people want it, and this is a perfect example that sometimes you have to do it this way,” Pollock says. “Sometimes to get the will of the people heard, you have to do it through a ballot initiative.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: affordable housingland trustsvotingright to counsel

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