How Election Day Shows Fluid Housing Politics

Wilson Vance spent the weeks leading up to Election Day pushing “fifty million for the people.”

It’s the shorthand for a $50 million affordable housing bond that Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas originally proposed earlier this year. Vance, organizing director of the nonprofit advocacy group KC Tenants, says the group initially had a hard time deciding whether to support the initiative because its definition of affordability was out of step with what city ​​tenants can actually pay. As in other metros, the official measure of affordability in Kansas City is based on an average income in a large area that includes much wealthier suburbs: nearly $100,000 for a family of four. By this definition, an affordable one-bedroom apartment would cost $1,200 per month, far more than the typical renter living within the city limits could afford.

KC Tenants pushed Lucas and other executives over the summer to update the definition of “affordability.” And as for the $50 million bond, they got assurances that it would only be spent to support housing for those on the lowest incomes, paying rents between $550 and $750 a month. , says Vance. Once these conditions were in place, KC Tenants put all their organizational strength behind the campaign. He won with 71% of the vote.

“I’m extremely tired, but we made it,” Vance said.

Housing was all over the ballot across the country on Tuesday night, with local housing-specific initiatives and statewide political races with big implications for housing policy. In general, says Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, voters have shown they want to invest in solving the housing crisis.

“The continued passage of affordable housing bonds by city after city across the country really suggests that there is local interest in supporting more investment in affordable housing, even when the federal government hasn’t picked up the slack. on this issue,” Freemark says.

Local currency for accommodation

One of the biggest housing initiatives of the night was Measure ULA in Los Angeles, a citizen-sponsored ordinance that would raise transfer fees on all homes sold for more than $5 million. Researchers have estimated that it could bring in up to $900 million a year for housing and homeless services. As of Friday morning, Measure ULA had about 54% of the vote, giving it the edge to secure the majority needed to win with about 40,000 more “yes” votes than the “no” votes counted so far on the measure.

Supporters said the measure was popular because housing and homelessness are among the most salient issues for voters in Los Angeles, and because the fee only targets the city’s wealthiest people. Half a decade ago, they approved another election measure committing over $1 billion to supportive housing. But in Los Angeles, “fundraising isn’t the problem,” says Jenny Schuetz, senior researcher at Brookings Metro. Instead, the city needs broad political will and concomitant policy reforms to increase housing supply.

“If you don’t have land and you don’t have a working approval process, there’s nothing you can do,” Schuetz says.

In the L.A. mayoral race between Rick Caruso and Congresswoman Karen Bass, which is still too close to call, neither candidate has shown much enthusiasm to take on NIMBY owners who oppose new new homes in their neighborhoods, says Schuetz. Both have campaigned on plans to increase the supply of housing for homeless people. But campaigning against homelessness can take on subtle differences depending on who is delivering the message.

Caruso “went on an aggressive campaign against the homeless,” Freemark says. A Caruso town hall would likely be very different from a Bass town hall when it comes to homelessness, even though their policies on paper have a lot in common.

Voters also backed big housing bonds in other major cities, including $50 million in Charlotte and $350 million in Austin. Palm Beach County voters approved $200 million for housing programs. An ambitious $650 million bond to Berkeley appeared to fall short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Bonds aside, Denver voters rejected a measure to provide free legal advice to tenants facing eviction — a diversion from what has been a fairly consistent trend in favor of the “right to a lawyer” movement.

How to maximize the impact?

Although there seems to be general support for investing in affordable housing, there are still disagreements about how it should be spent. One of the most critical questions is whether to prioritize helping those with the lowest incomes or creating the most units, Freemark says.

“That continues to be a problem because we have housing affordability issues across the income spectrum,” Freemark says.

It’s not just the big cities where housing is an increasingly important political issue. The issue was also a major factor in two races in suburban Washington, DC, Schuetz says. In Arlington County, Va., a battle over a “Missing Middle” zoning proposal to increase the housing density allowed in single-family areas has ended with the re-election of an incumbent council member from county which had taken a moderate position on the matter. In a primary, incumbent Matt de Ferranti fought off two challengers — one who was adamantly opposed to the proposal, and another who wanted to go even further, Schuetz says.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, incumbent county executive Marc Elrich won re-election after facing two opponents in the primary. The primary focused on housing, with Elrich narrowly winning against a challenger who Schuetz described as being much more favorable to housing development. But in the general election, with a much higher turnout, housing was “not an issue”. It’s a dynamic that’s increasingly playing out in communities across the country, she says: Candidates ax housing policy in primaries when they’re fighting for a relatively small number of voters, and the he broader electorate that votes in general elections does not get the same influence on politics.

“I think in primaries it’s harder to judge general sentiment, but generals don’t give us a lot of options,” Schuetz said.

Push and pull between cities and states

The Oregon governor’s race could also prove to be a big deal for housing advocates, Schuetz says. Democrat Tina Kotek won the gubernatorial race after leading the charge to end single-family zoning statewide as Speaker of the State House several years ago. In general, housing is an issue that doesn’t fit neatly into the red-blue political dichotomy in U.S. Republican states like Utah and Montana, for example, that have managed to create various pro-housing coalitions, she says. .

“Smart politicians will find the right way to present the issue to their audience. That’s basically one of the highlights of this issue,” she says.

But Democrats are expected to face pressure to provide more affordable housing in states where they control the governor’s office and both houses of state legislatures, which now include Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan and Minnesota, a declared Freemark.

“It should be noted that states with Democratic trifectas, such as California, Oregon and Washington, have all passed significant land use policy changes in recent years,” he says.

There is often a push and pull between state and local governments on housing policy. In California, the state legislature has spent several years discussing proposals that would essentially force cities to allow more housing. Cities have taken a myriad of positions on the issue, from enacting housing obligations to relaxing their zoning restrictions to maintaining the single-family paradigm. State law sets the picture for local policies. In 2020, California voters rejected a statewide ballot measure that would have allowed cities to expand rent control. This year, Pasadena voters weighed in on whether to create a rent control policy that would be permitted under existing state law. The result was unofficial, but “yes” votes were ahead at the end of last week.

Is rent control the political position of the radical left that it is often made out to be? The sands move. In Orlando, voters approved rent control on Tuesday night, even as they rejected a one-cent sales tax to fund public transit improvements, and the state of Florida showed a substantial right turn.

“Florida, frankly, was just a big exception to everything on Tuesday night,” Freemark said.

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