A Just & Resilient Recovery: Talking Transition

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As we tally the results of our #UrbanismOnTheBallot roundup, we’re also looking forward to this year’s Talking Transition programs in communities that are ushering in new leadership.
The time between Election Night and the first 100 days of an administration presents an opportunity to restore the strength of democracy at the local level – to foster community-driven policymaking that creates the change residents and businesses want. Talking Transition is a program that helps newly elected leaders engage with the communities they represent during this critical moment to shape a more just and resilient administration.
In Harris County, TX, the third most populous in the country, Talking Transition helped connect the new administration to more than 200 community-based organizations. In New York City, the program helped elevate housing affordability to a top administration priority through civic engagement that reached 50,000+ New Yorkers in less than 2 weeks. In Baltimore, an HR&A program modeled on Talking Transition engaged 5 community organizations and trained over 30 Community Data Fellows who led data collection and analysis efforts to ensure equitable data control.
Do you know a newly elected leader who would benefit from this type of inclusion that translates new ideas into meaningful action? Let us know!

Our team of experts follow up and discuss which local ballot measures passed, which failed, and most importantly, why? It’s the #UrbanismOnTheBallot follow up!



Affordable Housing Transit
Open Space Equitable Budgeting
Digital Inclusion Tax Responses to Crisis



More local funding for affordable housing
By HR&A Partner Phillip Kash

All of the affordable housing bonds we were tracking passed by healthy margins, with the exception of San Diego‘s where a majority of voters supported the bond (57%) but 2/3 support is needed for passage. The bonds were all for relatively modest amounts:


The smaller bond sizes should be more manageable for cities to deploy quickly – an issue that has plagued larger bonds like LA’s 2016 Bond, which have struggled to turn funding into housing at the scale promised and needed. On the other hand, these smaller bonds may be insufficient to make a difference even if they are deployed. This concern is already being raised in Raleigh just days after the City passed its largest housing bond ever.
Voters delivered mixed messages on housing affordability delivered via regulation.

  • California voters rejected Proposition 21, which would have given local governments greater power to enact rent regulations. A similar referendum was rejected in 2018, and a law was passed following the rejected referendum capping rent increases at 5% plus inflation, which is viewed by most housing advocates has having had little practical impact.
  • In Portland, ME voters issued a split decision – supporting a local rent regulation requirement but rejecting a limit on short-term rentals (think AirBnB). Portland’s rent regulation is far more renter friendly than California’s, limiting rent increases to inflation plus increases in property taxes. A similar rent regulation referendum was rejected three years ago. The rejection of the short-term rental restriction may produce an interesting interaction with the rent regulation restrictions as landlords weigh shifting from long-term to short-term rental.
  • Boulder, CO passed a local fee on rental properties intended to fund legal representation for tenants facing eviction. There is a growing movement to create a right to counsel for tenants in eviction court. It remains to be seen how much traction this trend will gain.

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    Are we waiting on the Feds?
    By HR&A CEO Eric Rothman

    Our country’s divisions in the national elections were evident in support for local transit initiatives. Overall, voters approved around 90% of transit referenda across the country, though the losses include a few large-scale efforts. We were excited to see resounding voter approval for transit ballot initiatives in two regions where we have done extensive work. In Austin, voters approved two initiatives for a combined nearly $8 billion: Project Connect, which will bring several light rail lines and a new tunnel to the Capital region, and Mobility Elections, which will support walking, cycling, and complete streets. In the Bay Area, voters passed emergency funding support for CalTrain commuter rail, whose ridership has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
    We were disappointed to see voters reject the Get Moving 2020 initiative in Portland, OR and the expansion of MARTA heavy rail in Gwinnett County, GA, which lost by a razor-thin margin of just over 1,000 votes. While transit referenda tend to fare better in bluer metros, the results do not align directly with top-of-ballot choices. In Gwinnett County, 58% of voters cast ballots for Joe Biden, meaning that a significant number of Biden voters opposed the transit measure. Nearly 58% of Portland-area voters opposed the Get Moving 2020 measure, which would have funded 150 transportation projects, despite the metro’s deep-blue political bent.

    • Nevertheless, support for transit in fast-growing metros has increased across recent election cycles. Previous transit initiatives failed in Austin in 2000 and 2014, and Gwinnett County rejected a 2019 transit measure by over 90,000 votes. The influx of new residents to these cities will continue to expand the demand for transit investments as their infamous traffic jams will continue to plague commuters returning to work. The question becomes “who pays for it?” – local residents, the state/region, or the federal government. Many local transit authorities depend on a dedicated source of local funding; the sales tax increase in the Bay Area and property tax increase in Austin provide long-term, sustainable revenues.
    • Both the number and dollar value of transit initiatives on the ballot in 2020 were lower than in 2016. We don’t know why that was the case, although certainly, the pandemic and resulting recession may have been factors that affected a reduced number of referenda for transit and other public spending. We also suspect that the lack of a meaningful federal program for transportation, and uncertainty about federal matching dollars, dampened local enthusiasm. To that end, HR&A is hopeful that the Biden-Harris victory in the Presidential election, which will propel “Amtrak Joe” to the White House, is a sign of brighter days ahead for transit funding nationwide.


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    People love parks
    By HR&A Vice Chairman Candace Damon

    All 27 of the parks referenda that we were watching won in landslides. Results in Traverse City and Garfield Township, MI, were simply the most extreme example of a nationwide trend: while record turnout delivered a host of very close decisions, including one race decided by two votes, locals committed to a 20-year 0.3 mill levy with 72% of the vote in order to renew a commitment to a recreational authority and its capital and operating budget.
    As many of us wonder how the other half our fellow Americans could have voted to affirm values so unlike our own, this author wonders whether a broadly shared commitment to quality open space could provide an opening for dialogue.
    Readers may recall we were particularly interested in three referenda, which will create new sources of operating revenue to make parks more equitable and inclusive.

    • In solidly “red” Collier County, FL, over three-quarters of voters approved a second round of funding for Conservation Collier, a 17-year old conservation and recreation program that’s been lauded for its past success in equitable investment. That’s up from 60% in the initial vote in 2002. By increasing taxes on the median home by about $75 a year, the county will raise $250-300 million. In approving the referendum, voters overruled some County Commissioners who had suggested the program ought to rely on donations for new funding. County Commissioner Penny Taylor rebutted, saying “we value authentic Florida… We came together, Democrats and Republicans, and said, ‘[W]e are willing to put money aside for it.’”
    • In Rochester, MN, 61% of voters decided to more than make up for $1.7 million in budget cuts that the City Council had determined to be necessary due to COVID-19 fiscal stresses, even though doing so will require raising property taxes by $33 a year for the median homeowner. This collaborative advocacy effort of the Trust for Public Land (TPL) and Rochester Parks and Recreation won in 50 of 52 precincts and by a larger margin than virtually all the top-of-ballot candidates, including President Elect Biden (54%), Senator Smith (51%), and all winning candidates for Rochester School Board and City Council.
    • The priciest initiative we followed was Portland, OR’s agreement by almost 2/3 of voters to increase property taxes for the median homeowner by $151 a year in order expand equitable access to parks. The funding – estimated to total $58.6M annually – will fill a $16 million hole in the system’s operating budget due to a drop in recreation fees during the pandemic, obviate the need for at least some of those fees in the future, expand programming for low-income residents, and make a dent in hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of deferred maintenance. Portland voters delivered mixed messages on other urbanist issues – rejecting new transit but welcoming a new police oversight board.


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    Investing in a fairer future
    By HR&A President Jeff Hebert

    National conversations about social and racial equity tend to focus on Washington personalities and policies, but many injustices, and the means to address them, depend on local government action. Last Tuesday, multiple municipalities took steps to address inequity. San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved almost $500 million in bonds for homelessness prevention and mental health services, in addition to investments in parks and streets. A Baltimore measure to raise $160 million for affordable housing, schools, community and economic development, and public infrastructure gained over 85% of voter support.
    Two other successful initiatives particularly caught our attention. A majority (57%) of Los Angeles County voters supported dedicating funds for additional community investment and alternatives to incarceration for the explicit purpose of correcting racial injustices. Measure J stipulates that the voter-dedicated funds—10% of the County’s locally generated, unrestricted revenues—may not be spent on prisons, jails, or law enforcement agencies. Rather than a one-off budget concession, this apportionment is to remain in effect indefinitely. As Vox’s Roge Karma suggests, this positive vision for the use of public funds—for housing, mental health programs, jail diversion, employment opportunities, and social services—is the other side of activists’ “defund the police” campaigns. Focusing more political energy on what to fund rather than on what to cut may yield more victories like this one in LA County: Karma cites a Reuters/Ipsos poll in which 76% of respondents supported moving “some money currently going to police budgets into better officer training, local programs for homelessness, mental health assistance, and domestic violence” whereas only 39% supported “dismantling police departments” to fund the same types of programs.
    Meanwhile, a majority (52%) of Dallas voters approved $3.5 billion in bonds for the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) to repair and upgrade school facilities and invest in school technologies. While this amount will not cover all of the $6 billion in needs identified through DISD’s master planning process, it will fund the renovation of over 200 campuses and the creation of 10 new campuses and 14 replacement schools. DISD will also invest in 4 new Student and Family Resource Centers aimed at addressing racial inequities in historically underinvested neighborhoods—guided by a Child Action Poverty Lab process that HR&A supported. These investments will also prevent adding to a backlog of deferred maintenance, which currently amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. DISD projects that, as Dallas thrives and the property tax base grows from new construction and appreciation of existing properties, it will be able issue new debt without raising taxes.


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    Everyone wants it, but how?
    By HR&A Managing Partner Danny Fuchs

    Five ballot measures in three states last week demonstrate the crux of the universal broadband problem: everyone wants to address it, voters are supportive of greater local authority to do it, but the details of implementation present obstacles.


    • 770,000 voters (nearly 90%) in Chicago said “yes” to support an “act to ensure that all the city’s community areas have access to broadband internet.” Alderman George Cardenas (12th Ward) sponsored the measure to gauge whether Chicago should do more to provide internet access as the city prepares to ensure 100,000 Chicagoans have access to the internet over the next four years through $25 million from Chicago Public Schools, $20 million from philanthropy, and $5 million in CARES Act funding.
    • In Denver, more than 225,000 voters (84%) approved a measure for the city to join a growing list of 120+ Colorado communities that opt out of a State law that prohibits local governments from providing broadband internet service – a measure that passed by similar margins in Englewood, and Berthoud, CO.
    • Meanwhile, in the town of Lucas, TX, 2,677 voters (60%) voted against investing $19.2 million in a fiber network to reach all homes. This defeat illustrates the challenges of capital-intensive approaches to broadband in medium and lower-density neighborhoods, as well as the potential for technological innovations that enable lower-cost networks – the type of approach that the City of New York is advancing with its Internet Master Plan.

    As there are growing calls for $100 billion in federal investment for universal broadband – from both the left and the right – we’re excited to be working with local governments, foundations, and innovative broadband businesses to help translate this intention into action at the local level.

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    Formidable, well-funded statewide opposition
    By HR&A Partner Paul J. Silvern

    We tracked a variety of initiatives that sought to raise new revenues to meet the fiscal challenges of these troubling times. Statewide measures were a split decision, while local measures were mostly approved. Certainly the merits of each measure as the voters saw them mattered, but so also did the sophistication of opposition campaigns and the scale of financial resources that supported them. Voters may also have understood more clearly how proposed local measures could provide direct benefits to solve immediate economic and other problems.
    Among the statewide measures with more significant campaigns and war chests on both sides, California’s proposed property tax amendment was declared defeated by a 48%-52% margin, while a graduated income tax amendment in Illinois was defeated by a much wider 55%-45% margin. On the other hand, Oregon’s tobacco products tax won 67%-34% and Arizona’s higher tax on upper-income brackets passed 52%-48%. Among local measures to increase existing taxes or add new ones, Alameda County, San Francisco, Culver City and Santa Monica won their proposals, but a fire protection measure lost once again in San Diego.
    The difference in outcomes between statewide and local measures was particularly evident in California:

    • A proposal to tax commercial property differently than residential property – that would have yielded an annual estimated $11.5 billion in desperately needed funding for schools and other services – involved an amendment to the 1978 Proposition 13, considered the “third rail” of California politics. With powerful interests and $139 million of total spending by both sides, opponents’ arguments about adverse impacts on commercial tenants during a pandemic and fears that the measure could eventually lead to further Prop 13 changes impacting residential development carried the day.
    • Graduated real estate transfer taxes on higher-priced sales in Culver City and Santa Monica attracted some opposition, but were each supported by more than 80% of their voters. Another such measure in San Francisco with more fierce opposition earned support from 58% of its voters. These measures all clearly targeted the new resources to assist local economic recovery, among other purposes.


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