Voters in nearly every region of the country considered ballot measures to raise revenues for housing affordability programs, strengthen tenant protections, and address homelessness in local elections held on Tuesday, November 7. Support for housing-related ballot measures transcended geographic and partisan divides: housing justice saw victories at the ballot box in communities of all sizes and political tendencies.
Many cities saw overwhelming support for major investments in affordable housing development or rental assistance. Victories included an investment of nearly $1 billion in Seattle, WA, and an innovative high-value real estate tax in Santa Fe, NM, that will raise revenues for the city’s housing trust fund. However, two cities (Boulder, CO, and Spokane, WA) passed measures to criminalize encampments or prioritize enforcement of existing camping bans, which are likely to have harmful impacts on people experiencing homelessness.
Investments in Housing Affordability Programs
Housing advocates and city councilors in Santa Fe, NM, successfully pushed for a 3% tax on high-value residential property that will raise an estimated $6 million annually for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The measure will add a 3% tax on residential property sales of $1 million or more, with the first $1 million in value exempted from the tax. An overwhelming 73% of voters approved the new tax. Despite its popular support, the Santa Fe Association of Realtors and other interest groups strongly oppose the measure and filed a preemptive lawsuit even before its passage on November 7.
Ballot measures to enact high-value real estate transfer taxes are gaining momentum as a mechanism to fund housing affordability programs. In the 2022 election cycle, the City of Los Angeles and four towns in Suffolk County, NY, enacted one-time transfer fees on high-value real estate to fund housing initiatives. A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit challenging Measure ULA, the initiative that was enacted in Los Angeles in November 2022. The Chicago City Council also voted on November 7 to place a binding referendum on the March 2024 ballot. The measure, known as “Bring Chicago Home,” would replace the flat 0.75% tax on property sales with a three-tiered tax that raises the tax rate on properties above $1 million in value. The new tax revenue would generate at least $100 million annually and would be dedicated to programs that alleviate homelessness.
Voters in Seattle, WA, approved Proposition 1, which replaces an expiring property tax levy that voters approved in 2016. The measure passed with an overwhelming 66% of voters’ support. By raising the property tax rate from $0.14 to $0.45 per $1,000 in assessed value, the levy will raise an estimated $970 million over the next seven years to increase the supply of affordable homes and keep people stably housed. According to the city, more than $700 million will be dedicated to building and preserving approximately 3,500 affordable homes over seven years. Another $30 million will be invested in short-term rental assistance and housing stability services that will support an estimated 4,500 people at risk of homelessness. Meanwhile, $122 million will be invested in more than 500 new permanent supportive housing (PSH) units and in stabilizing wages for workers in more than 600 existing PSH units.
Other jurisdictions also enacted ballot measures to raise revenues for housing affordability programs:
- Voters in Albuquerque, NM, approved a $35.8 million bond measure that includes $7.5 million for affordable housing – the largest line item in the bond. Additional funds will be used to serve people experiencing homelessness, provide senior housing, and enhance community centers. In total, 77% of voters supported the measure.
- Phoenix, AZ, passed a $63 million bond measure that will fund new construction of affordable homes, address homelessness, repair and refurbish existing affordable homes, and build and renovate senior centers. In total, 66% of voters supported the measure.
- Boulder County, CO, passed Issue 1B. The measure will extend the county’s 0.185% sales and use tax for 15 years and invest the funds in affordable housing and supportive services. In total, 71% of voters supported the measure.
- Steamboat Springs, CO, voted to allocate 75% of the city’s existing short-term rental tax revenues to the Yampa Valley Housing Authority until 2042, which will support the development of nearly 2,300 affordable homes. A total of 55% of voters supported the measure.
- Whitefish, MT, approved a measure that will invest 10% of existing resort tax revenues into community housing projects and programs. The measure will raise an estimated $27 million over 20 years. A total of 83% of voters supported the measure.
Voters in Bellingham, WA, approved a comprehensive rental relocation assistance ballot initiative. The measure will require 120 days’ advance notice for rent increases. If tenants face a rent increase of 8% or greater within a 12-month rolling period, they will become eligible for relocation assistance from the landlord. The amount of the relocation assistance will be equivalent to three times the tenant’s current rent or three times the fair market rent (FMR), whichever is greater. A total of 58% of voters supported the ballot initiative.
In Tacoma, WA, a comprehensive tenant protections ballot initiative known as the Tenant Bill of Rights remained too close to call in early returns. The initiative would require six months’ notice for all rent increases, require relocation assistance for rent increases greater than 5%, end school-year evictions of families with children and winter evictions for nonpayment of rent, cap excessive fees and deposits, and prevent landlords from raising rents until they make repairs affecting habitability. As of the preliminary vote count, 49% of voters favored the initiative and 51% rejected it, with a gap of just 561 votes between the two positions.
In another victory for tenant protections, voters in Portland, ME, rejected the latest attempt to roll back rent control. Voters rejected Question A, which would have exempted landlords who own nine or fewer units from the city’s rent control ordinance. The measure was defeated in a vote of 34% to 66%. Portland voters rejected a similar attempt to weaken rent control in the June 2023 election, where 67% of voters opposed a measure that would repeal the 5% cap on rent increases when a new tenant moves into a property.
Criminalization of Homelessness
Despite major victories for housing justice at the ballot box, two cities passed anti-camping measures that target people experiencing homelessness. In Spokane, WA, 75% of voters approved Proposition 1, which will make it a citable offense for people experiencing homelessness to camp within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds, and licensed childcare facilities in the city. The initiative will allow the police to issue tickets to anyone who camps or stores personal property on public land in covered areas. According to an online map prepared by Professor Robert Sauders of Eastern Washington University, this area would encompass a significant portion of the city and nearly the entire downtown area.
Boulder, CO, passed Question 302, known as Safe Zones 4 Kids, with the approval of 62% of voters. The initiative directs the city to prioritize removing tents, propane tanks, and other prohibited items within 500 feet of school property or within 50 feet of multi-use paths or sidewalks. Boulder City Council passed an emergency ordinance in 2021 that prohibits tents and propane tanks in city parks and public spaces; Safe Zones 4 Kids will codify the prioritization of anti-camping enforcement in designated areas. Critics point out that the policy will punish those in encampments based on their location, rather than dangerous behavior, and will merely push people experiencing homelessness to other areas of the city.
Rather than pursue initiatives to criminalize and stigmatize people experiencing homelessness, communities should consider ballot measures that make meaningful investments in deeply affordable homes, rental assistance, and supportive services for people facing housing instability and homelessness. Recent elections demonstrate that housing affordability and homelessness are top-of-mind for voters, and voters deserve the opportunity to enact real solutions. The Housing Not Handcuffs campaign has compiled a set of model policies for local, state, and federal governments that would shorten the duration of, reduce, and prevent homelessness.
Organizers that are working on ballot measure campaigns for upcoming elections in 2024, or are considering ballot measures for future election cycles, will find guidance and tools from NLIHC’s nonpartisan Our Homes, Our Votes campaign. Our Homes, Our Votes aims to boost voter turnout among low-income renters and elevate housing as an election issue.
For Our Homes, Our Votes resources on ballot measures, visit: www.ourhomes-ourvotes.org/ballot-measures