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In 2018, voters in Oakland, California were presented with a city ballot measure to improve affordable housing policies for renters. Measure Y was “designed to amend eviction limitations law.” These laws were ostensibly a loophole for landowners to evict renters. Simultaneously, voters in the Portland metro area in Oregon had the chance to approve a $652.8 million bond to build affordable housing in Washington, Clackamas, and Multnomah Counties. The measures both passed and our case studies explore what worked, where challenges arose, and whether power was built through these ballot initiatives.
The affordable housing campaigns built the least power of all the case studies. This seems to be at least partially due to the professionalization of the ecosystems and how systematized processes have become.
While foregoing the signature collection phase of the campaigns saved time -- it also detracted from building power in communities and raising awareness about or long-term commitment to the issue.
Targeting swing voters with messages that are more focused on winning campaigns than changing distorted narratives can harm communities who stand to benefit from the policies.
While power-building was minimal in Oakland and the Portland metro area, the ballot measures helped to educate voters and raise awareness about local housing rights organizations.
In a liberal region like the Portland metro area, we
learned that it can be easier to pass progressive legislation through direct democracy than through city council or other legislative bodies.
Our six cases demonstrate how ballot measures and initiatives can be a tool for building power. AlexisAnderson-Reed, Executive Director of State Voices, said that she has seen ballot initiatives accomplish this when they are situated within a long-term strategy and used to facilitate collaboration between organizations.
The Oakland and Portland metro area case study demonstrates how a well-resourced, densely populated nonprofit ecosystem can move important pieces of legislation to improve affordable housing by bringing the issue to voters. However, it also shows how a professionalized advocacy and service sector can successfully win a ballot measure campaign in the context of a progressive city without building significant community power.
Newly activated individuals
Activating new people was not part of the strategy for these specific campaigns.
New voters or communities participating in electoral politics
Oakland's campaign targeted organizations’ existing voting blocks, while the Portland metro area's campaign targeted white middle-class women, which is standard practice for moving swing voters.
Respondents did not describe creating new organizations or programs.
New networks, coalitions or organizing relationships
In Oakland, the Close the Loopholes Coalition emerged, which repositioned which organizations held leadership positions. ACCE and Causa Justa::Just Cause collaboratively led the field work and Centro Legal led the policy work. In Oregon, the Welcome Home Coalition, which was coordinating the Yes for Affordable Housing Campaign, fractured over tensions around the messaging. One organizing relationship that was deepened as a result of this campaign was with the Oregon Food Bank. The Food Bank formally dedicated some of an employee’s time to the campaign and leveraged its statewide network.
Respondents did not describe new funding streams nor relationships with funders.
New audience or increased attention
Interviewees openly stated that these were not the most exciting or noteworthy issues on the ballot in 2018 and thus did not receive much attention.
New access to decision making
These campaigns leveraged the decision-making power they already had rather than improving access for new groups or individuals.
New positional power for communities that have been traditionally marginalized
Respondents did not describe shifts in positional power that occurred during the campaign, however, communities that have been traditionally marginalized may have gained more power after the fact because of the policy changes.
New frameworks or narratives in explaining an issue
Neither Oregon’s nostalgia frame nor Oakland’s gentrification frame were new.
New organizing models, strategies or tactics
The strategy of linking local measures with statewide ballot initiatives is not necessarily new, however, it is noteworthy.
Expanding know-how to new groups around ballot initiative or other civic engagement processes
Respondents did not mention this in our conversations.
Community has autonomy and agency throughout the campaign
In both Oakland and the Portland metro area, nonprofits carried out much of the organizing, which did not create many opportunities for community participation or control.
Community knowledge is respected in the process
In Oakland, many of the organizations in the Close the Loopholes Coalition have grassroots bases that they are responsive to and this respect for community expertise and knowledge is carried into their organizing. In the Portland metro area, respondents said they wished consultants had acknowledged their expertise and leadership earlier on and done more to prioritize the communities most impacted by the housing crisis. However, the consultants ultimately moved away from the racist nostalgia messaging because of how community partners responded, which shows some baseline respect for their perspective.
Campaigns are accountable to community members
While organizations in both cities serve community members, respondents did not mention agreements or processes that would ensure that campaigns were held accountable to community interests and needs.