Housing Policy on the Ballot: Off-Year Election Results and What They Mean
Earlier this month, Americans in a handful of states and municipalities across the country went to the polls. After voting ended, the big headlines focused on the national political implications of an incumbent governor losing in deep-red Kentucky and Virginia Democrats winning majorities in both houses of the General Assembly to control all of state government for the first time in 26 years.
And while the big races and 2020 electoral intrigue drove press coverage, these off-year elections quietly said a great deal about the future of housing policy nationwide, revealing newfound support for rent control policies in major American cities and widespread recognition of the issue of housing affordability.
KEY RESULTS FROM ELECTION DAY
Democrats will control all statewide elected offices and both houses of the General Assembly after sweeping victories in the suburbs surrounding Washington, DC, Hampton Roads and Richmond.
The Loudoun County Board is now majority-Democrat after adding three seats to their column, showing party strength in Northern Virginia where Fairfax County remained in Democratic control. Democrats in Northern Virginia seem primed to put more money into affordable housing.
City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant – an outspoken rent control advocate and self-declared socialist – defeated Egan Orion, who was heavily backed by Amazon and a PAC stood up by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Her victory likely means that rent control will again be considered by the City Council even though it is preempted by state law. During the campaign, Orion aggressively attacked Sawant’s citywide rent control proposal as “illegal under state law” and “not a solution for the issues … at hand.”
Greater Boston –
Ricardo Arroyo won re-election to the City Council in “decisive fashion” after running on a pro-development platform that prioritized affordable housing. He defeated Maria Esdale Farrell, who blamed development for escalating housing costs and displacement.
Newcomer Kenzie Bok, who most recently worked as a Boston Housing Authority official and teaches a seminar on housing policy at Harvard, won 70% of the vote in her City Council race. She made housing issues a top priority and proposed a wide array of solutions, including enhancing inclusionary zoning, expanding access to housing vouchers and incentivizing housing construction. With housing on their minds, District 8 voters chose a councilwoman with a comprehensive approach and genuine housing expertise.
In Somerville, one of Boston’s neighboring cities, Joe Curatone was elected for his ninth term as mayor. He first took office in 2004 and is the first Massachusetts mayor to speak out in support of bringing back rent control.
San Francisco –
San Francisco voters passed Proposition A to approve a $600 million bond funding measure focused on constructing and acquiring affordable housing. It includes: $150 million for public housing, $220 million for low-income housing, $60 million for middle-income housing, $150 million for senior housing, $20 million for teacher housing.
San Francisco voters also approved Proposition E, with 74% support, which would allow for the construction of teacher and affordable housing on public land.
Incumbent Commissioner Ken Russell, who spearheaded an inclusionary zoning project in his first term, easily won reelection after continually prioritizing affordable housing on the campaign trail.
The Working Families Party scored a major victory when Kendra Brooks won a City Council seat controlled by Republicans for decades after campaigning in favor of rent control policies. She plans to push the City Council to consider eliminating the 10-year property tax abatement on the books.
Jamie Gauthier won her City Council seat after promising voters to update zoning laws. She plans to appoint a “director of equitable development” to her staff.
Incumbent Democrats Derek Green, Allan Domb and Helen Gym were all reelected to the City Council, joined by political newcomers Isaiah Thomas – who is on the record supporting rent stabilization policies – and Katherine Gilmore Richardson, setting up a more progressive City Council than in years past, primed to tackle housing issues.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR 2020 AND BEYOND
Housing affordability is clearly top-of-mind for voters. This is especially true on the local level, where people feel the adverse effects of the supply and demand imbalance. But across the country, people feel squeezed by the ever-increasing cost of living, and are voting that way.
Local races throughout the country last week also proved that cost and affordability are top of mind for voters, specifically in urban areas where housing supply lags well behind demand. Amazon cut supersized checks to defeat the face of the rent control movement in Seattle, but failed. In Boston and Philadelphia, voters picked pro-rent control politicians. Many candidates running in these elections, even those who do not explicitly support rent control, spoke to the importance of addressing affordability, albeit with a nod to reasonable solutions like inclusionary zoning and prioritization of building new housing supply.
In California, New York and Oregon, the levee has already broken in favor of restrictive housing policies because lawmakers there have claimed – and persuaded voters – that a restrictive approach will deliver immediate relief to residents of those states. But Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia now seem more likely to tackle housing affordability head-on than they did before votes were cast last week. In other states – like Illinois, Colorado and Washington – where Democrats control the levers of power and big cities dominate state politics, the threat of rent control gaining momentum is very real.
Virginia’s bicameral swing into the Democratic column should grab the attention of commonsense housing policy advocates, especially as the conversation surrounding housing affordability picks up in the suburban areas outside Washington, DC. Virginia is now firmly a blue state, having not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004. The potential for restrictive housing policies on the state and local levels are higher now than in recent years – making Virginia a state to watch.
These local races are the subtext for 2020 as Democratic candidates for president in 2020, like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), are pushing for national rent control policies with support from star progressive Members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
When millions of Americans are feeling squeezed out of the housing market, organizations and advocates with a vested interest in solving the housing affordability crisis in a way that prioritizes boosting supply should take note of last week’s elections. Americans clearly are seeking relief in the housing market.
Commonsense solutions that lean on increasing supply and incentivize the construction of a variety of housing options at multiple price points need to be on the agenda and a subject of vigorous advocacy in city halls and state capitols across the country, especially in cities and states where voters are warming up to rent control and restrictive housing policies.