"I hope you don't scold the electorate," housing advocate Frances Ferguson said, trying to strike a positive note as she summed up last week's ballot rejection of a $78.3 million affordable housing bond proposal. The disappointing loss – it was the only one of seven city bond propositions to fail – was a stunning reversal of the overwhelming support voters gave housing in the November 2006 bond election in a nonpresidential election year.
Ferguson, board president of nonprofit HousingWorks Austin, is much more forgiving of the 51% of voters who nixed Proposition 15 than some folks are. Most of the negative votes were cast by people who live west of MoPac and areas far north and far south, while the majority of yes votes came from Central and East Austin. (Put another way, the voters who struck down housing were the same ones who heavily favored a new form of 10-1 district representation on City Council.)
True, calling Prop. 15 naysayers "heartless bastards" is counterproductive to the affordable housing cause, but a narrow, 2% loss is tough to accept, given that it means the virtual undoing of a program that would have provided funding for housing repairs for elderly homeowners, built a few thousand apartments and homes for low-income families, and provided permanent supportive housing services for veterans and individuals with disabilities. "Heartless bastards" sounds about right when one considers all the worthy projects that cratered as a result of this outcome.
Getting back to Ferguson's attempts to steer the conversation away from blaming voters, housing advocates have already begun to restrategize their community outreach efforts beyond Austin's central core before the next bond election, possibly in 2014. That, too, could be a daunting task with a governor's race on the ballot, along with the first City Council election under the 10-1 system.
Additionally, advocacy leaders are working with city officials who have vowed to try to find other sources of funding – not $78 million, obviously, but enough seed money perhaps to move some projects off the starting block. Affordability, after all, is a community value that every member of the City Council has committed to uphold.
Without question, there were a number of factors that contributed to the housing proposal's collapse at the polls. Extremely vague ballot language was cited as a big blow, but it was certainly not the main reason for the loss. "When we saw the ballot language, we basically flipped," said Mark Yznaga, who ran the Prop. 15 effort. The campaign contacted the city's legal department in an attempt to, at the very least, add the word "affordable" to the bond description, but was told it was too late. Also, the campaign was low on resources and slow to get its message out; the ballot was unusually long; and there was an anti-tax effort afoot, although that opposition was primarily targeting the well-financed medical school campaign. Finally, persistent concerns about the economy were evident in polling data on all the bond propositions.
Those challenges proved insurmountable, but Ferguson views the defeat as an opportunity for growth. "Frankly, if you stand back and look at this, you realize that while we lost, we learned a lot," she said. "We need to do a better job of getting our message out. It was up to us to do more."
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the campaign was the lack of voter knowledge about affordable housing as a community benefit rather than a detriment. Moreover, a housing bond proposal is a fairly new concept for city voters more familiar with bread-and-butter propositions like roads, parks, and libraries. "This was only our second rodeo," said Ferguson. "We're wiser now."
Clearly, the political and economic landscapes have shifted dramatically since the city's first housing bond election in 2006. At that time, there wasn't a presidential election, the economy hadn't crashed yet, and there wasn't a new police crackdown on homeless individuals Downtown, which the police chief announced just as early voting was kicking off.
While the ballot drubbing may have shocked many supporters, people within the campaign knew Prop. 15 was in trouble early on. Polling data showed it was the least favored of the seven bond proposals, and the least likely to pass. Three automated phone polls by consultant Mark Littlefield provided a fairly accurate picture of what the returns would show.
"There was an assumption on the part of some people that housing would pass," said campaign strategist David Butts, who worked on the campaign. "None of the polling that we saw showed it winning. It showed us losing months ago, and it was losing starting in early October."
Campaign contributions started to pick up in mid-to-late October, with development groups Stratus Properties and Spring Austin Partners each kicking in $10,000. The campaign scraped together enough money to pay for a modest TV advertising buy, but by then early voting was halfway over. Campaign staffers suspected they had lost the early vote and had hoped to close the gap on Election Day. But those voters were either no-shows or didn't make their way down the entire ballot.
Even with all the negative factors working against a victory for Prop. 15, Yznaga summed up the loss in a few words: "We should have done a better job."
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