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A Victory for Housing

Voters overwhelmingly approve city bond proposition
Amy Smith, 1:56am, Wed. Nov. 6, 2013

This time, affordable housing advocates had something to celebrate Tuesday when they gathered at Scholz Garten to watch the election returns for the city’s $65 million housing bond proposition.

A bare-bones ballot, unlike the one in 2012, created a clear path to victory, which was all but declared shortly after 7pm when the early vote returns gave the Keep Austin Affordable campaign a 59% edge. Late returns Tuesday showed the tally at 61%, with 212 of 227 precincts reporting.

“It was almost like we needed to lose last year,” said Mandy De Mayo with HousingWorks Austin. “We needed that wakeup call. All of us in the affordable housing community know how important housing is, but we didn’t communicate that to anyone. We didn’t let other folks know.”

So they began talking to people. This spring, before the City Council even placed the bond question back on the ballot, advocates had already re-strategized their efforts to educate voters. They spoke to community groups and civic organizations, faith congregations – anyone who would listen. “It was a hard lesson to learn, but this is what came out of it,” De Mayo said above the celebratory din of the crowd. She credited Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole for pushing the ball forward a second time (although Cole would later tell supporters Tuesday that she initially feared placing the bond proposition back on the ballot would lead to another rejection). “She was the one who pulled it together and said, ‘we’re going to do a real campaign. We’ve got to let people know this is what affordable housing does for your community.’ So that’s what we did.”

Without question, putting a human face on housing made for a better campaign, one that was told through the formerly homeless, the working families, and seniors who benefitted from the 2006 housing bond funds. And the human face made for a more informed electorate. “This really represents the values of Austin,” said campaign manager Elliott McFadden, who will catch his breath only briefly before assuming his new position as executive director of the Austin Bike Share Program. “The citizens want a city that makes room for everyone, at all income levels. A lot of people had interpreted [the 2012 loss] as a sign that Austin had changed, but what we found from our polling is that people just need to know how these funds are going to be spent.” It helped that the housing bond was the only question on the city ballot. "We were allowed to have that conversation, and people responded to that.”

Council Member Laura Morrison described that voter response as "a huge, wonderful and beautiful statement about Austin … an Austin that is diverse, has all income levels, and makes sure we invest in the safety and shelter of people so they can take advantage of the wonderful opportunities in this city."

The next step is determining how the bond money will be spent on what will ultimately produce about 3,500 affordable housing units. As things stand now, nonprofit providers across Austin are sitting on mothballed projects in need of funding. Foundation CommunitiesWalter Moreau said his nonprofit has immediate plans to build some additional units at Garden Terrace, an efficiency apartment complex for individuals earning less than $26,250. Ann Howard, executive director of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition), said her group seeks to obtain a slice of the pie to invest in Permanent Supportive Housing, providing a combination of supportive services and housing for homeless men and women. The voter-approved bond money, she said, gives the community a tool "to really end homelessness instead of manage homelessness.

Though turnout was light, campaign consultant David Butts picked up a couple of noteworthy trends from the early vote tallies: women outnumbered men in turnout (rare in city elections, Butts said), they outnumbered men in favoring the housing bond, and one out of five votes for housing came from voters between the ages of 18 and 45.

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