Housing crisis

Reviews | Across the US, Citizen Action is putting the housing crisis on the ballot

Today, voters will vote in one of the most critical elections in recent history. Housing is noticeably absent from the coverage despite being a priority for many voters. Half of Americans struggle with housing insecurity, unable to find affordable housing for their family, cover rent increases or protect themselves from unlawful harassment and evictions. In big cities like Los Angeles, the housing and homelessness crises consistently rank at the top of voters’ minds.

Across the country, local candidates and elected officials are refusing to accept strong proposals to change the status quo, inevitably due to the outsized influence of real estate industry donations on local elections. Real estate groups have already spent more than $187 million nationwide this election cycle and more than $419 million in the 2020 presidential election, according to watchdog site OpenSecrets. , their influence shapes politics long after election day.

The proposals in Los Angeles, Florida and Denver are smart, grassroots, people-focused local solutions that put community needs above profit and greed.

In Los Angeles, newly leaked tapes featuring three city council members and the president of the local labor federation reveal how many elected leaders speak up when they believe no one is listening. Amid racist and anti-Indigenous remarks, leaders discussed putting a tenant-dense fourth council member’s district “into a blender.” The district was eventually redistributed to weaken tenant power.

Frustrated by government inaction, activists and housing experts have taken matters into their own hands. Housing measures during the midterm ballot – with notable examples in California, Florida and Colorado – largely slipped the radar of the national media, but would have just as big, if not bigger, impacts on the daily lives of people that races to candidates. These transformative initiatives go beyond traditional policy approaches that rely on market solutions such as vouchers, tax incentives or zoning.

Back in Los Angeles, sixty percent of renters spend more than a third of their salary on rent. Forty-two thousand students, workers and elderly people live under bridges, on sidewalks or in shelters. A broad coalition of 230 housing experts, homelessness service providers, community organizations and unions put Measure ULA on the ballot. An innovative approach that combines affordable development with homelessness prevention, ULA would add the acquisition of existing buildings and social housing, including community land trusts and housing co-operatives, to the traditional construction of affordable housing. It would also provide direct income assistance to the elderly and disabled and legal advice to tenants facing eviction. If passed, the ULA measure would be overseen by a citizens’ committee and paid for by a one-time, multimillion-dollar real estate sales tax.

Across the country, communities in Florida are at the epicenter of a similar housing emergency. Rent in the Orlando metro jumped 30% overall, and 60% in some neighborhoods. Yet corporations rake in profits while Floridians are shut out of the state. Guided by the fundamental principle that everyone deserves access to safe, accessible and affordable housing, Florida Rising activists are pushing for the Orange County Rent Stabilization Ordinance, a temporary measure to a year that would limit rent increases for more than 100,000 rental properties with 4 or more on the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation currently at 9.8%.

In Denver, a ballot initiative is days away from securing the right to an attorney for tenants. Denver’s 305-initiated ordinance, also known as No Eviction Without Representation (NEWR), would provide free, universal access to counsel for Denver tenants facing eviction. This, in turn, would end unjust evictions and reduce homelessness. More than 9,000 evictions are filed each year in Denver, and that number is approaching pre-eviction levels. However, half of evictions fail in court when tenants have legal support. Under the current system, tenants are only represented 1% of the time, often losing lawsuits that were legally theirs, compared to more than 90% of landlords. This also rings true nationally – in eviction cases, only 3% of tenants nationwide are represented, compared to 81% of landlords. A Denver Initiative 305 victory would ensure the Tenants get the due process they deserve on a playing field that has long been anything but level.

Ballot initiatives like these can break legislative deadlocks, reduce the influence of the real estate industry, and give voice to citizens angry at slow and narrow-minded lawmakers. They can also generate significant opposition from the real estate industry.

The Los Angeles ballot measure is opposed by big landowners and real estate interests who have raised more than $5 million to defeat it. Florida Rising and their partners are facing stiff opposition from the Florida Apartment Association and the Florida Realtors Association, who have not only spent millions opposing the proposed ordinance, but have sued the county of Orange to have it removed from the ballot (the question remains unresolved with the vote already started). And NEWR Denver’s all-volunteer campaign faces strong fundraising opposition, whose average donation is 1,500 times larger than theirs.

The proposals in Los Angeles, Florida and Denver are smart, grassroots, people-focused local solutions that put community needs above profit and greed. But they are only a small step towards real accessibility, equity and justice in the housing industry. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but our current housing system robs so many hardworking people of basic dignity, stability, or security. Now that the pandemic has made the housing crisis so much worse, we should expect to see more citizen initiatives like this in the face of inaction from state, local, and federal politicians.