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Housing protest

Protesters gather at a rally in support of legislation to block evictions in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston on July 22, 2020. (Photo: Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Midterm Voters Send a Message: Housing is a Human Right

Housing in the U.S. is in a crisis state, and voters know it.

Fran Quigley

Across the country, the biggest winner of this year’s elections was not the Republicans who regained the U.S. House, nor the Democrats who held on to the Senate. The biggest winner was affordable housing.

From Kansas City to Portland, Maine, to the entire state of Colorado, ballot measures mandating and funding more affordable housing won, often by comfortable margins. These results should come as no surprise: with rent costs skyrocketing and evictions soaring, polls show people are increasingly concerned about housing and committed to taking action to halt the crisis. A 2021 survey showed that two-thirds of Americans in metropolitan areas are "extremely/very concerned" about the high cost of housing, ranking it as their top priority.

From Kansas City to Portland, Maine, to the entire state of Colorado, ballot measures mandating and funding more affordable housing won, often by comfortable margins.

A strong majority of Americans are also willing to put a name on those beliefs, agreeing that housing is a human right. That widespread view reflects in part the clear mandate of every religious and moral tradition insisting that it is a sacred duty to ensure every person has a safe, secure place to live.

This November’s successful housing referenda built on that baseline of support, but they also featured concerted community organizing to pass the ballot measures. For example, Kansas City voters voted to invest $50 million in affordable housing for low-income residents. Boosted by the nationally-recognized activists at KC Tenants, the largest affordable housing investment in Kansas City history was approved by an overwhelming 71%-29% margin. A Columbus, Ohio proposal to spend $200 million for housing and support for homeless persons was pushed by a broad advocacy coalition and won nearly 70% of the vote.

"Housing is a winning campaign issue. It's one that voters show up for and it's one that should cause policymakers at all levels to act," Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told the Associated Press.

This year, many voters decided to force those policymakers’ hands. In Colorado, a statewide ballot measure approved a six-fold increase in the amount of income tax dedicated to housing and homelessness initiatives. Long Island voters enacted a real estate transfer tax to fund affordable housing and 70% of Austin, Texas voters approved a $350 million affordable housing bond.

Palm Beach voters endorsed an additional $200 million for new affordable housing. The people of Asheville, North Carolina said yes to $40 million, with $50 million approved down the road in Charlotte. Portland, Maine, Richmond, California, and Orlando, Florida voters all provided majorities to rent control proposals to cap rent increases.

A new vacancy tax in San Francisco will address the problem of corporations and wealthy individuals owning multiple vacant homes while thousands are without shelter. Despite supporters of the new law being outspent 3-to-1, the tax passed and will soon begin to require owners of empty homes to be assessed as much as $20,000 per year. Corporate landlords’ expensive campaign ads were similarly unsuccessful in convincing Los Angeles voters to oppose a “mansion tax,” a levy of at least 4% on property sales of $5 million-plus that could raise as much as $1 billion annually for affordable housing and assistance to renters.

Housing in the U.S. is in a crisis state, and voters know it. This year, they went to the polls and made it clear to politicians: if they won’t act to ensure housing is a human right, we the people will happily do so ourselves.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Fran Quigley

Fran Quigley directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law and publishes the Housing is a Human Right newsletter.

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