Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Election Day Shows the Fluid Politics of Housing

Bond initiatives to support affordable housing both won and lost on Tuesday night, and political races around the country could have big implications for housing policy.

affordable housing.jpg
An artist's rendering for a proposed affordable housing development outside of Seattle, Wash. (CoStar Group)
Wilson Vance spent the weeks leading up to election day pushing “fifty million for the people.”

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

KC Tenants pushed Lucas and other leaders over the summer to update the definition of “affordability.” And when it came to the $50 million bond, they secured assurances that it would only be spent to support housing for people with the lowest incomes, paying rents between $550 and $750 a month, Vance says. Once those conditions were in place, KC Tenants put its whole organizing muscle behind the campaign. It won with 71 percent of the vote.

“I’m tired as hell, but we did it,” Vance says.

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

“The continued passage of affordable housing bonds by city after city all over the country really suggests that there is a local interest in supporting more affordable housing investment, even when the federal government has not taken up the mantle on this issue,” Freemark says.

Local Money for Housing

One of the biggest housing initiatives of the night was Measure ULA in Los Angeles, a citizen-sponsored ordinance that would raise the transfer fee on all homes sold for more than $5 million. Researchers have estimated it could raise as much as $900 million a year for housing and homelessness services. As of Friday morning, Measure ULA had about 54 percent of the vote, giving it the advantage to pass the majority needed to win with about 40,000 more "yes" votes than "no" votes counted on the measure so far.

Proponents have said the measure is popular because housing and homelessness are some of the most salient issues for voters in L.A., and because the fee targets only the wealthiest people in the city. Half a decade ago, they approved another ballot measure dedicating more than $1 billion for supportive housing. But in L.A., “raising money isn’t the issue,” says Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro. Instead, the city needs a broad-based political will and attendant policy reforms to increase the supply of housing.

“If you don’t have land and you don’t have an approvals process that functions, you can’t do anything,” Schuetz says.

In the L.A. mayor’s race between Rick Caruso and Congresswoman Karen Bass, which is still too close to call, neither candidate showed much enthusiasm for taking on NIMBY homeowners who oppose new housing in their neighborhoods, Schuetz says. Both campaigned on plans to increase the supply of housing for people experiencing homelessness. But campaigning against homelessness can take on subtle differences in emphasis depending on who’s delivering the message.

Caruso “ran an aggressively anti-homeless-person campaign,” says Freemark. A Caruso mayoralty would likely look a lot different than a Bass one when it comes to homelessness, even if their policies on paper share a lot in common.

Voters supported big housing bonds in other big cities too, 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 in Berkeley appeared to be short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Aside from bonds, voters in Denver rejected a measure to provide free legal counsel to tenants facing eviction — a turn away from what has been a fairly steady trend in favor of the “right to counsel” movement.

How to Maximize Impact?

While there does seem to be general support for investing in affordable housing, there are always disagreements about how it should be spent. One of the most critical questions is whether to prioritize helping the people with the lowest incomes or creating the greatest number of units, says Freemark.

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

It isn’t just big cities where housing is an increasingly important political topic. The issue was a major factor in two races in suburban Washington, D.C., as well, says Schuetz. In Arlington County, Va., a battle over a “Missing Middle” zoning proposal to increase allowable housing density in single-family areas ended with the re-election of an incumbent County Board member who had taken a moderate position on the issue. During a primary, the incumbent, Matt de Ferranti, had fought off two challengers — one who was vehemently opposed to the proposal, and one who wanted to take it even further, Schuetz says.

In Montgomery County, Md., incumbent County Executive Marc Elrich won re-election after facing two challengers in the primary. The primary was focused on housing, with Elrich narrowly winning against a challenger who Schuetz described as much more pro-housing development. But in the general election, with much greater turnout, housing was “a nonissue.” It’s a dynamic that increasingly plays out in communities around the country, she says: Candidates hash out housing policy in primaries when they’re fighting for a relatively small number of voters, and the broader electorate that votes in general elections doesn’t get the same influence on policy.

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

Push and Pull Between Cities and States

The Oregon governor’s race could prove to be a big deal for housing advocates as well, says Schuetz. Democrat Tina Kotek won the governor’s race after leading the charge to end single-family zoning statewide as speaker of the state House several years ago. Generally, housing is an issue that doesn’t map neatly onto the red-blue political dichotomy in the U.S. Republican states like Utah and Montana, for example, have managed to build diverse pro-housing coalitions, she says.

“Smart politicians will figure out the right way to frame the issue for their audiences. That’s fundamentally one of the strengths of this issue,” she says.

But Democrats should face pressure to deliver more affordable housing in states where they control the governor’s office and both chambers of the state legislatures, which now include Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan and Minnesota, Freemark says.

“It’s worth pointing out that states with Democratic trifectas, like California, Oregon and Washington, have all been passing some significant land-use policy changes over the last few years,” he says.

There’s often a push and pull between state and local governments on housing policy. In California, the state Legislature has spent several years arguing over proposals that would essentially force cities to permit more housing. Cities have taken a host of positions on the issue, from putting up bond money for housing to easing their zoning restrictions to holding fast to the single-family paradigm. State law sets the table 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 permissible under existing state law. The outcome wasn’t official, but the "yes" votes were ahead late last week.

Is rent control the radical left policy position it’s often purported to be? The sands shift. In Orlando, voters approved rent control on Tuesday night, even as they rejected a one-cent sales tax to fund transit improvements, and the state of Florida showed a substantial rightward lurch.

“Florida, frankly, was just a big exception to everything on Tuesday night,” Freemark says.
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
From Our Partners