Cincinnati rejects affordable housing funding -- rhino!UP May 9, 2021
The defeat of Cincinnati's Affordable Housing initiative (Issue 3) last Tuesday is a landmark for citizen's action around rental housing needs. For the first time since 1990 (when there was a state wide vote to amend the Ohio Constitution to make housing a "public purpose") has affordable housing has been put to a vote of the people. However, unlike the successful 1990 campaign, Cincinnati's Affordable Housing Advocates faced opposition from every sector of the civic establishment in their effort to compel city officials to appropriate $500,000 annually for the support of affordable housing development.
Like other Ohio cities, Cincinnati has relied on a pot of money derived from secondary sources like Federal grants and repayments of loans from earlier development projects. What advocates sought was a fixed amount of General Revenue committed to affordable housing development.
Citizens can't fight all of City Hall and the business and civic establishment at once. Advocates had few allies from Cincinnati officials. In particular, powerful public sector unions saw Issue 3 as a direct threat to the livelihoods of their members.
A dedicated revenue source is critical. A revenue source should be "related" to housing and not currently being used by any other agency. For example, the Ohio Housing Trust Fund, created in 1991, identified an increase in the fee charged by County Recorders as the revenue stream for the Housing Trust Fund. In Columbus, the Housing Trust Fund is partially supported by the hotel-motel tax and the real estate transfer tax. In the wake of the defeat of Issue 3, Council Member Chris Seelbach plans to introduce a charter amendment to raise the earnings tax by .01% as a dedicated source of funding for affordable housing. Maybe this is a lesson learned?
Electoral timing makes a difference. Issue 3 was presented in a municipal primary election. In Ohio, these are the lowest turnout elections. They feature (mostly unknown) mayoral, council, and judicial candidates in a preliminary battle to see who gets to run again in November. Municipal tax levies often pick municipal primaries to avoid anti-tax opposition. The average voter bypasses municipal primaries unless the voter is regularly involved with local government.
Message matters. Persuading homeless or rent burdened citizens who need affordable housing come out to vote money into the hands of private developers in order to create affordable housing at sometime in the future is a complex message that doesn't fit on a bumper sticker or button. Messaging is an art form.
Right wing opposition has been mobilized. One of the most interesting developments in the campaign against Issue 3 was the emergence of right wing opposition which conflated affordable housing with defunding the police. Despite the reasoned efforts of the Affordable Housing Advocates to disconnect the housing advocates from the defund the police advocates, the linkages once made seemed inescapable. It is important to know that dark money funders are increasingly drilling into civic electoral issues with false info.
All that said, the Cincinnati initiative has succeeded at putting affordable housing on the public agenda. This fall, each candidate for Council and Mayor will be asked to take a position on how to address the affordable housing needs of Cincinnatians. Furthermore, a core of a "movement" has been battle tested. What may be missing is a balance of advocates, activists, organizers, and politicians in a campaign style organization. Advocates create policy. Activists provide visible leadership: the face of a campaign. Politicians know how to knock doors, push buttons (literal and figurative) and raise money. Organizers can manage the process to coordinate the moving parts.