$300 million housing bond: Could it happen?

Bluebonnet Studios, an affordable housing complex in my neighborhood. The development was built by Foundation Communities, a nonprofit group that depends heavily on funding approved by voters in 2013.

In 2012, the same day that they voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Barack Obama as well as to approve a bunch of money for parks, transportation and public safety, Austin voters narrowly rejected an $78 million affordable housing bond.

One leader in the push for the $78 million bond recently told me that she agonized in the days following the defeat, wondering if it would have succeeded if they’d offered voters a slightly lower figure. (I’ll have a story in the Monitor later this week with more conversation with that leader –– in the meantime, can you guess who it is?)

Fearing that $78 million just may have been a little too high, housing advocates put a $65 million on the ballot the following year and voters approved it. That sequence of events seems to lend credence to the idea that Austin voters are hypersensitive to dollar figures proposed for housing and that for each dollar that the amount goes up, support for the measure will go down. That’s precisely the type of rational voter behavior that one is taught in political science courses.

I think it’s beyond clear that voters do not behave rationally in politics. And that was clear long before Donald Trump, the caricature of an anti-reason candidate, was elected president.

That’s why I think the push by a number of housing advocates for a $300 million housing bond is not such a crazy idea. In case you didn’t read my article last week:

…at least two Council members have said they want to put a bond measure on the ballot this fall that will include at least $300 million for affordable housing.

That puts them at odds with a recent recommendation made by a bond task force, which proposed $161 million. Even that much lower figure would amount to nearly twice the largest housing bond that Austin voters have ever approved.

In the voting booth, values and identity take precedence over any type of rational economic analysis. When voters are presented with an affordable housing measure,  a certain percentage will reject it no matter what the figure because they oppose the idea of paying for somebody else’s home. A certain percentage will support it no matter what the figure. And then there’s a group that could be persuaded either way, but I don’t think the dollar amount will be the key factor in determining which way they swing.

Instead, whether it passes will depend on a) who turns out for the midterm elections and b) how housing advocates make the case for the bond.

The first order of business on messaging would be to explain to voters what housing bonds actually do. An important part of that would be to dispel the myth that they provide “free” housing. With the exception of homeless shelters, most of the money is focused on creating housing that is affordable to the many people who can no longer afford what the market is creating. Second, housing advocates should put a face on those who benefit from income-restricted housing. Ideally, you would present a diverse set of beneficiaries that illustrates how people who we depend on –– service employees, teachers, paramedics, cops –– are increasingly being priced out of the city and benefit from affordable housing that allows them to live in the city where they work.

If a majority of Austinites can be convinced of the value of affordable housing, I think they’ll likely approve a bond regardless of its size. Although I wasn’t around for the 2012 & 2013 bonds, my guess is that the success of the latter had more to do with differences in voter turnout and the differences in the campaign messaging, not the dollar figure.

The evidence suggests that if there’s a year to score big progressive wins via ballot initiatives, 2018 is the year to do it. It’s too early to take a Blue Wave to the bank, but at the very least I think that turnout will be way up in liberal havens like Austin. I think the turnout among young people will be much higher than is typical of midterm elections. The atmosphere reminds me very much of the first election I voted in –– the 2006 midterms –– when I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Antipathy to Bush and, perhaps above all else, opposition to a proposed ban on gay marriage, drove record student turnout.

In addition, I think that the local political atmosphere has improved for housing bonds, simply because the affordability problem is much greater now than it was five or six years ago.

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