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Blog Post | December 20, 2022

A Tenant Reckoning at the Polls: How Housing Played in The Midterms

2024 ElectionHousing
A Tenant Reckoning at the Polls: How Housing Played in The Midterms

While the Democratic Party celebrates holding on to the Senate, the 2022 midterms also tested the growing momentum around tenant’s protections with incredible success. In a survey of more than 12,200 Americans who voted in the 2022 election, polling revealed that across all racial and ethnic groups, inflation and the rising cost of living was the most important issue for the President and Congress to address. A key driver of inflation, per economic analysis by People’s Action and the Groundwork Collaborative, is sky-high rents – accounting for one third of the Consumer Price Index. 

American voters want their local and state officials to do something about high housing prices that have left tenants vulnerable. In a clear call to action around the housing crisis, states and cities across the nation passed ballot measures to crack down on rent inflation and expand access to housing. Democrats must learn from the success of these referendums and realize that voters across the country are hungry for elected officials who fearlessly take on corporate landlords and the real estate lobby to fight for safe, affordable, and fair housing for all.  

According to an election roundup by PolicyLink, cities with existing rent control laws like Portland, ME, and Santa Monica, CA voted to strengthen their tenant protections last month. In Minneapolis, a local measure allowing the city council to enact rent stabilization passed with 53 percent of voters in support. In cities like Denver, Pasadena, and Oakland, voters also supported other housing justice policies on the ballot, including just cause eviction protections and tenants’ right to counsel in eviction proceedings. Colorado voters approved a statewide ballot measure setting aside $300 million to combat homelessness and increase affordable housing. Across the country, voters approved a total of over $100 million in resources to go directly toward housing solutions ranging from housing trust fund investments to homelessness services and legal aid. 

Many of these initiatives passed with robust support from the electorate. In Pasadena, 54% of voters backed Measure H, which establishes municipal rent control, relocation assistance, a rental registry, and a host of other tenant and eviction protections. In Los Angeles, 58% of voters supported Measure ULA for a real estate transfer tax on sales over $5 million, with the tax revenue raised allotted to reduce homelessness, support affordable housing, and cover legal aid for tenants.

Bond measures to support affordable housing proved to be widely popular across the nation, with measures having margins of victory as high as 66 points. The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report last week on housing and homelessness ballot measures in 2022, highlighting that voters authorized nearly $2 billion in bond measures for affordable housing, acquisition, and rehabilitation. In Baltimore, Maryland, voters passed Question A which authorizes the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore to borrow up to $14 million for land and property acquisition, support for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, improvement of unhealthy and unsafe conditions, and prevention of blight. The measure passed on a vote of 83% to 17%. Voters in Austin, Texas passed Proposition A, a $350 million bond to fund the creation, rehabilitation, and retention of affordable rental and owner-occupied housing. The bond measure is estimated to fund the construction and preservation of 3,500 homes. The measure passed on a vote of 71% to 29%. 

In Kansas City, Missouri, KC Tenants Union support helped pass a $50 million bond in a historic housing investment. This bond will dedicate resources towards expanding access to affordable housing, creating affordable housing at or below 30% area median income, with rents between $550-$750. Through their campaigning, the KC Tenants Union garnered an incredible 75% voter support for the bond measure. The Housing Trust Fund Board, with two seats dedicated to KC Tenants leaders, will work to review residential applications and make recommendations for projects and developments across the city in upcoming years. The overwhelming success of these bonds shows that voters across diverse communities and political environments are willing to spend money to address the country’s affordable housing crisis. 

Unsurprisingly, communities pushing for more tenant protections faced well-funded opposition from the very corporate price-gougers who have fueled the housing crisis. The real estate industry and corporate landlords saw these ballot measures as a serious threat to their control over the rental market and spent millions trying to defeat them. Yet, voters saw through these smears and scare tactics on Election Day. In Florida’s Orange County, the Florida Apartment Association and Florida Association of Realtors unsuccessfully sued to stop the Orange County Rent Stabilization Ordinance from getting on the ballot. When Orange County voters went to the polls, a resounding majority of 58.8% supported the rent control measure. In Ohio, industry-friendly state legislators tried to stop local progress on housing justice by blocking cities from enacting municipal rent control measures, closing a clause in the state’s rent control laws. Nonetheless, 68% of voters in Columbus, Ohio approved a $200 million November bond package to protect affordable units, affordable home ownership, and homeless residents of the city.

Housing issues played a major role at the top of the ballot too. Democrat Wes Moore, who made affordable housing a top issue in his campaign for Governor of Maryland, flipped a seat that Republicans won by double-digits in 2018. In Nevada, Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto made lowering the cost of housing and gas for working class families the focus of her campaign. She defeated Republican Adam Laxalt, whose website made no mention of housing, in a highly contested Senate race. 

Democratic losses, too, should teach the Party to address voters’ housing needs. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, a centrist Democrat whose top campaign donor MGM Resorts spearheaded a back-door deal that destroyed a Red Rock Canyon affordable housing project, lost his bid for reelection to Republican Joe Lombardo. In an article from the Las Vegas Review Journal in September, Lombardo pledged to craft a long term plan to build affordable housing in Nevada. Upon speaking with the Las Vegas Review Journal, Lombardo’s spokesperson argued that Sisolak failed to address the housing crisis in Nevada because he “has never experienced how difficult it is to pay rent, pay a mortgage and find affordable housing in the Biden-Sisolak economy[.]”

Lombardo claimed that he wanted to solve the housing crisis in Nevada, but his close ties with hotel mogul Robert Bigelow call his sincerity into question. Bigelow called the eviction moratorium “legalized theft” and filed 46 eviction cases during the height of the pandemic. Bieglow donated $5.7 million dollars through his companies to Lombardo and to political action committees supporting him. The Lombardo-Bigelow relationship shows that Lombardo’s allegiance is likely with wealthy billionaires who are willing to sacrifice the working class just to fill their pockets. While it’s reasonably clear that Lombardo does not actually care about working class people or affordable housing, Governor Sisolak lost his credibility on housing in the months leading up to the election, costing him a race lost by fewer than 14,000 votes. Voters across Nevada expressed that their decisions were not centered around party but on getting everyday issues solved, with many of them afraid for future generations because of the economy and the housing crisis in the state. 

The takeaway is clear: voters will show up to the polls for politicians who fight for housing justice and won’t for those who are out of touch with millions of struggling renters and homeowners. Democrats can succeed in 2024 if they are seen as fighting to protect both tenants and working class homeowners and against entrenched real estate and corporate landlord interests.

PHOTO CREDIT: “Rowhouses, 2100 block of Walbrook Avenue (south side), Baltimore, MD 21217by Eli Pousson is licensed under CC0 1.0.

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