Voters Approve Affordable Housing, Homelessness, and Minimum Wage Measures in 2021 Local Elections

In elections held across the country on November 2, voters approved municipal ballot measures to invest resources in affordable housing and shelter services, establish rent-control ordinances, raise the minimum wage, and increase fees on short-term rentals. Voters also rejected ballot measures to increase enforcement of camping bans, roll back zoning amendments, and change requirements for emergency homeless shelters.

Philadelphia voters passed a ballot measure that will guarantee annual funding to increase the city’s supply of affordable, accessible housing. Philadelphia voted to devote 0.5% of its annual general fund budget to the city’s Housing Trust Fund. Established in 2005, the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund supports nonprofit developers’ construction and preservation of affordable and accessible homes. Units are targeted to those earning less than 80% of AMI, and a minimum of 10% of all units must be made accessible to people with mobility or sensory impairments. The Housing Trust Fund also supports home repairs and adaptive modifications for people with disabilities, emergency utility assistance, short-term financial assistance for people at risk of experiencing homelessness, resources for first-time homebuyers, and a program that helps local employers connect their employees with homeownership opportunities near the workplace. The mandatory appropriation, which takes effect in fiscal year 2023, will invest an estimated $25 million in the Housing Trust Fund each year. 68.91% of voters supported the ballot measure.

In Albuquerque, voters authorized the city to issue up to $3.333 million in bonds for the city’s Workforce Housing Trust Fund, which finances the construction and preservation of affordable housing, as well as land banking for future development. Since its inception in 2007, nearly 87% of units created through the fund have been made affordable for households with incomes at or below 80% of the city’s Median Family Income (MFI), and the majority are affordable for families at or below 50% of MFI. Under the city’s Workforce Housing Development Act, voters must approve the bond allocation biannually. Seventy-one percent of voters supported the measure this year.

St. Paul and Minneapolis each passed ballot initiatives that will establish the first rent-control ordinances in the state of Minnesota. Because of a 1984 state law, municipalities in Minnesota cannot regulate rents on private residential property without voters’ approval in a general election. In St. Paul, voters passed the nation’s most rigorous rent-control ordinance, which will limit rent increases to 3% annually. In contrast with nearly all other rent-control ordinances currently in effect, this restriction applies to new construction, and landlords cannot raise rents beyond the 3% threshold even when a new tenant begins a lease. While most rent-control ordinances account for inflation when determining maximum rent increases, St. Paul’s annual 3% cap will not be adjusted to factor in the rate of inflation. The ballot initiative, which passed with 52.9% of voters’ support, instructs the city council to establish a process by which landlords can apply for exemptions from the rent-increase caps. The council must enact the policy within six months.

Voters in Minneapolis also paved the way for their city to enact rent control. A successful ballot measure, which passed with 53.2% of the vote, authorizes the city council to establish a rent-control ordinance—although it does not prescribe policy details, unlike its counterpart in St. Paul. The Twin Cities’ rent-control ordinances were proposed and approved in the context of an affordability crisis. According to NLIHC’s The Gap report, 68% of extremely low-income renters in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metropolitan area are severely housing cost-burdened.

“St. Paul has demonstrated popular support for strong rent control. While landlords have lobbied for carve-outs to rent control elsewhere in the nation, the Twin Cities are poised to lead the way in providing swift relief to all renters, without exception,” said Erin West, lead tenant organizer at HOME Line Minnesota. “Voters in the Twin Cities are ready for bold, impactful action to curb the affordability crisis in the region.”

The City of Tucson passed a measure to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour from its current rate of $12.15 an hour. The $15 minimum wage will phase in over the next four years and will then be tied to inflation. Raising the minimum wage will ease some of the burden on Tucson’s low-income renters, who must earn $18.44 an hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, according to NLIHC’s Out of Reach data. The measure passed with 65% of voters in support.

In Denver, voters rejected a ballot initiative to increase enforcement of the city’s camping ban, require written permission for camping on private property, set a maximum of four city-sanctioned homeless encampments on public property, and invest city resources in these authorized sites. Advocates, including NLIHC state partner Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, organized the “Let’s Do Our Best” campaign against the ballot initiative, which was discussed on NLIHC’s national call on October 18 (see Memo, 10/25). As it appeared on the ballot, the measure would have enabled residents who submit a complaint against an unauthorized encampment to sue the city if enforcement actions were not taken within 72 hours. Two days prior to the election, however, Denver District Court Judge Darryl Shockley ruled that the 72-hour requirement would infringe upon law enforcement’s ability to guarantee constitutional protections to those suspected of breaking the law and impede the city’s timely responses to other illegal activities. Because of the judge’s ruling, the 72-hour enforcement provision would not have taken effect even if the ballot initiative had passed. Ultimately, voters defeated the measure, with 56% in opposition.

Denver also voted to authorize $38.6 million in bonds to improve the city’s emergency housing and sheltering system. These resources will enable the city to fund improvements to existing shelters, acquire up to 300 motel rooms for non-congregate sheltering, and convert a shelter that it currently leases into a city-owned, 24-hour facility. The ballot measure passed with 61.6% of voters’ support.

“Denver voters made it clear that they want to see meaningful and compassionate investments in homelessness resolution and not just more punitive approaches that do nothing to solve homelessness,” said Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “Motels rooms have been a lifeline for so many people experiencing homelessness during COVID response, and their continued use as transitional and long-term housing options is a strategy that can provide quick resolution and stabilization for people while we wait for more affordable permanent housing options to become available.”

In addition, Denver voters upheld the city council’s recent amendments to the Denver Zoning Code, which increased the number of unrelated adults allowed to live in a single-family home from two to five and loosened some zoning restrictions on group residential facilities. 68.7% of voters rejected a ballot measure that would repeal these amendments. In Boulder, however, 54% of voters rejected an initiative that would increase occupancy limits, keeping in place the current limit of 3 or 4 unrelated people per residence (depending on the location within the city).

Other municipalities across Colorado approved a wave of measures to increase fees on short-term rentals and invest revenues in community housing. Research on the impact of the short-term rental market shows that Airbnb drives up rents, as the conversion of long-term rentals into short-term rentals reduces housing supply for permanent residents, and decreases municipal tax revenues, largely because Airbnb strikes voluntary agreements to secure exemptions from local lodging taxes. "Many mountain communities are desperately searching for creative ways to keep their limited housing options available to the local workforce while balancing the economic impact of tourism and seasonal travel,” said Alderman. “It's a very complicated issue that our mountain communities have been asking the state legislature to address but have yet to find consensus on how to move forward.” This year, many resort towns across Colorado turned to ballot measures that aim to mitigate these challenges.

In Leadville,  69.7% of voters approved a new 3% tax on hotel, motel, and short-term rental guests. Avon passed a 2% excise tax on short-term rentals, estimated to raise at least $1.5 million, that will be used to purchase land, construct housing units, provide down payment assistance, develop public-private partnerships, and pursue other related community housing initiatives. 70.2% of voters supported the measure. The town of Ouray passed a 15% excise tax on short-term rentals—the state’s highest tax on vacation rentals—with 56.8% of voters in favor. Telluride approved a 2% Town Lodgers’ Tax on short-term rentals, which will be used to mitigate the effects of tourism on the community as determined by the town council. Possible uses of the money include: strengthening transportation infrastructure, improving wastewater treatment, and developing affordable or workforce housing. Telluride also voted to increase the business license fees for short-term rental units, direct the revenue into the town’s Affordable Housing Fund. and cap the total number of licenses at the number that had already been issued as of November 2, 2021. Voters, however, rejected a more stringent measure to cap the number of short-term rental business license at 400 annually and distribute them by lottery. In Vail, 53.7% of voters supported a ballot measure to increase Vail’s sales tax from 4% to 4.5%, with the additional revenue to be invested in housing initiatives.

Voters in Portland, Maine, rejected two ballot proposals that would have limited the size of new emergency homeless shelters and changed some requirements for shelter operation. Opponents of the city’s current plans to build a 208-bed homeless shelter and social services center proposed a ballot initiative that would impose a 50-bed limit on emergency shelters; remove requirements that shelters provide access to public transportation routes, have day spaces for residents, designate security search areas, and maintain sight lines from administrative offices into sleeping areas; and require that shelters remain open 24 hours daily, provide in-person and videoconferencing services, and establish an appeals process for criminal trespass orders that bar people from accessing the shelter if they break the rules. The coalition maintained that multiple small-scale shelters would more effectively meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness than one large shelter. The ballot offered voters three options: the citizen ballot initiative, an alternative proposal drafted by a group of Portland city councilors, or none of the above. The city councilors’ proposal would have limited new emergency shelter capacity to 150 beds in a single facility and 300 beds within a one-mile radius, unless the city declares a shelter capacity emergency. 41% of voters elected to maintain the status quo requirements, with 31% voting for the 50-bed limit and 27.5% voting for the city councilors’ alternative.

For more information on launching ballot initiatives to secure affordable housing victories, see NLIHC’s Our Homes, Our Votes campaign report “Affordable Housing Wins: Leveraging Lessons from 2018 Housing Ballot Initiatives for Future Efforts.”