Local Housing Advocates Promote Rental Affordability -- rhino!UP for November 21, 2021
Congress is legislatively constipated with Dems fighting each other and Repubs fighting them all. It seems like local advocates are turning to local solutions to a rental affordability crisis using ballot issues and advocacy planning.
Ballot initiatives this year range from raising tourist taxes to finance affordable housing development in conservative Colorado to enacting "rent stabilization" in Minneapolis and St. Paul Minnesota.
In Colorado, business owners couldn't wait for Federal assistance. "While the Biden administration is seeking billions of dollars for rental assistance and housing in its giant economic policy bill, the federal government has largely stayed out of the problem for years, leaving states, localities and, at times, citizens to step up. 'I am not promoting taxes on anybody,' said Jerry Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders. 'But absent the federal government’s ability to get its act together, state and local governments are going to have to take on more burden.' "
By contrast, in Minnesota, the "rent stabilization" (rent control) campaigns drew fierce opposition from the property owners. "The industry raised and spent more than $4 million on a barrage of misleading and alarmist advertisements, promoted through mainstream media, social media, and mailings."
In Cincinnati, a ballot initiative this past Spring failed to enact a charter amendment that would have required the City to appropriate $50M yearly to support affordable housing. But the advocates did succeed at getting the attention of some Council candidates. Their campaign this Spring was likely a wake-up call that contributed to the wave of new members elected to Cincinnati City Council earlier this month.
Then, there's another kind of "local activism" we'll call Advocacy Planning that crops up when there is money on the line. In Columbus, African American religious, civic, and political leaders have joined together to put pressure on City Council to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for more affordable housing. "Black community leaders urged public and private officials to do more to create affordable housing in Greater Columbus, saying the need has become as dire as ever. 'We are demanding an affordable housing action plan,' said Nana Watson, president of the NAACP Columbus chapter, who said there still aren't enough units being built." Their demands call on the existing efforts to be expanded dramatically to meet the unprecedented increases in rents for the lowest income residents. Their message is that more housing will fix all the other social needs.
In Cleveland, a coalition of housing providers, homeless advocates, and the alt-media asks What can ARPA buy? Transformational housing for a more just future...." Their answer to this rhetorical question is a mashup of plan for new developments and expanded tenants' assistance. But besides an online petition and a flurry of media spots with glossy pix of people in business attire, it's not clear that this coalition will survive past when the ARPA funds are carved up by Cleveland City Council. That task has repeatedly fallen into chaos because of competing interests.
RHINO suggests that Advocacy Planning only works when there is a steady stream of Federal dollars to divide up. Advocates, like investors, are accustomed to playing with other people's money. In these cases it's taxpayer dollars. Alas, President Biden's Build Back Better (BBB) reconciliation bill is probably the last funding train to leave DC until 2025. Will Advocacy Planners in Columbus and Cleveland shift their efforts to building a voting base to support "transformational housing" by raising local taxes or capping local rents?
Next week, rhino!UP will look at local grassroots initiatives focused on expanding renters' rights. These campaigns, led and supported by grassroots activists, show some promise of attacking a wide range of issues that could shift the balance of power between housing providers and housing consumers. Will building from the bottom up be more successful that building from the top down?