Yes on Prop A: Austin DSA’s Campaign to Win the Largest Housing Bond in Texas History
Laying the Groundwork – How to pressure city council into a historic public investment in housing
Marina Roberts, Housing Committee Co-Chair
A significant piece of this campaign relied on a DSA-sympathetic city councilperson working with our chapter. Replicating this campaign elsewhere will require initial research on the local history of housing bonds and identifying allies in local government, because without a councilmember to put this item on the agenda it would have been very difficult to target city council as a whole with a specific demand. We have an ongoing internal conversation about the Housing Committee’s reliance on elected officials to move policy forward (plus in this case, the reliance on our organization to advance a particular city councilperson’s agenda). Still, for now, the organization’s size and capacity are limitations we have to reckon with. Although this campaign was largely winnable because we allied with an elected official, Austin DSA was instrumental in pushing the bond to a historically high amount.
We did this with a months-long campaign which involved mobilizing our members to contact their councilmembers to support a $300 million housing bond. The next section details how DSA and external groups collaboratively determined the $300m figure. In addition to mobilizing our members, we identified, met with, and mobilized members from over a dozen other housing and labor organizations in Austin to sign onto the $300m bond number publicly. We also asked these organizations to have their members contact councilmembers, increasing the power of our demand.
When the housing bond was on the city council agenda, we mobilized dozens of folks from DSA and our ally organizations to testify. We brought signs that said “300” in large red letters and testified regarding the difficulties of finding housing when wages stay flat and rent goes up, the proliferation and experience of homelessness, the need to build housing under safe working conditions, watching rising housing costs force neighbors out of the city, and the impossible decision of choosing between rent and other necessities.
Behind the scenes, the councilperson we were working with compromised with another councilperson to lower the bond’s size to $250m (still several times larger than any previous housing bond in Texas history). Ultimately this number was presented, and while the councilmembers chipped away at other parts of the budget, our organizing made further lowering the housing bond impossible. The $250m housing bond passed, and thanks to public pressure, even councilmembers who doubted this number would win at the ballot box voted yes.
Bond Politics – Reviewing history to determine an ambitious bond amount
Mark M, Housing Committee
Our initial discussions around this project came from members aware of the history of these bonds in 2006, 2012, and 2013:
In 2006, voters approved a $55m AH bond, with 62% voting for it.
In 2012, voters rejected a $78m AH bond, with 49% voting for it.
In 2013, voters approved a $65m AH bond, with 60% voting for it.
We knew past bonds were far smaller than Austin could afford and that organized support from Keep Austin Affordable, a political action committee, was central to winning the 2013 vote after 2012’s loss. Organizers knew pushing for a large bond amount was important, and winning the vote was essential. Before Austin’s November 2018 vote, Portland and Los Angeles passed housing bonds of $260m and $1.2b, respectively. We felt this gave us strong precedent to pass something of a similar scale for a city of Austin’s size.
In Austin, bonds proceed through three stages:
In March 2018, the Bond Election Advisory Task Force (BEATF) recommended bond amounts after receiving input from the community. The task force initially planned to recommend an $80m affordable housing bond. Due to DSA’s strong advocacy and the inclination of several BEATF members to support a radically larger amount, the task force ultimately recommended $160m to the city council.
In May 2018, the city council took this recommendation and community input and decided what to put on the ballot, although they finalized their decision in August.
In November 2018, the bond amount went on the ballot for final voter approval.
Moving from $80m to $160m to $250m at each stage was a tangible indicator that we were meaningfully affecting the process, which really raised morale. It was apparent that without organized effort, primarily from DSA but also from the many allies that joined us throughout the process, we could be looking at a much lower and less inspiring amount of housing built in Austin.
We wrote and passed our demands after the BEATF stage, but members were vocal about the $300m figure even in front of BEATF. We were consistent throughout the process, and likely the first group to make the demand in a unified way.
DSA members with 2018 co-chairs Glenn Scott and David Pinkham after council approved a $250m affordable housing bond to be placed on the November 2018 ballot on June 28, 2018.
Knowledge of both the history and process of bond elections was important in communicating to membership that we could win this fight and in motivating people to not only engage at city hall, but also go into the community to knock doors and ask their friends to join DSA to help us.
The full need identified in the Strategic Housing Blueprint adopted by council in 2017 was $6b or 48k housing units. While the bond fell short of this figure, both the state and federal government should help fill this gap as well. It's not up to the city of Austin alone.
We knew the $1b bond for Austin Independent School District in 2017 passed with 72% of the vote; public schools are broadly popular in Austin. Our task was making affordable housing as popular, and we succeeded: over 200 thousand people, 73%, voted to support affordable housing.
Building a Movement (Not Just Winning a Vote) – How we targeted working class renters
Mike Nachbar, Housing Committee
The Austin Tenants’ Council published a list of all affordable or non-market-rate housing in Austin. We centered our efforts around this housing for 2 reasons. First, tenants whose housing had been paid for by previous housing bonds or other affordable housing programs understood how the bonds worked, and we would not need to explain it. Second, Austin requires that affordable housing must be only available to lower income and working class people, who we know will be the base of any successful socialist movement.
We focused on affordable developments but supplemented them with market rate apartments. We did not target any single family homes, both because apartment complexes allow canvassers to knock more doors in the same amount of time, and because our campaign’s language spoke to the experience of renting. We used an algorithm suggested by another chapter where we looked at the percentage of a building’s residents who voted in their first primary in 2016. To find this, we took the voter file and grouped by the first line of the address.
The algorithm provided some apartments with working class residents, but it also provided some newer, more upscale buildings that catered to transplants who may have only voted in their first Texas primary in 2016. Many of these upscale buildings contained nice liberals who supported the campaign but did not engage our canvassers deeply or personally. In a few cases, security asked canvassers to leave. In a subsequent campaign we were more successful finding buildings with more working class residents using the Zillow API to get the costs and ages of buildings.
In the affordable complexes and some of the market-rate complexes, the conversations tended to go deeper. Most people we spoke with already understood Austin’s affordable housing program, and while they often had issues with their specific property manager, they supported the program and recognized the need to fund more affordable housing. Because we did not need to explain how affordable housing works or convince them of its merits, we could focus on discussing their specific experiences, their ideas for solving the housing crisis, and the possibility of a world without landlords.
While many people we spoke with expressed interest in socialism and a desire to get involved either with the bond campaign or DSA in general, we got a disappointingly low response rate when we followed up by phone, text, and email. In future campaigns, we plan to visit people who express interest in getting involved a second and third time to deepen their familiarity with DSA and show our commitment to working with them.
Making Radical Literature – The beginning-to-end process of creating our own lit
Rachel Tepper, Housing Committee
Designing the literature for the DSA Prop A campaign was a group effort. We decided to create our own literature because Keep Austin Affordable’s literature did not embody our socialist values. To start discussing ideas, we created a “housingbondlit” slack channel. To build momentum and spread the word that DSA supports Prop A, we created a logo and Facebook frame to share with members.
We initially drafted the text using Google docs and refined it as a group. For our first few canvasses, we created a foldable leaflet we could easily print in black and white. After a few canvasses we realized the literature was overly technical and powerful phrases like “Homes for People not for Profit” resonated more with people than the charts and graphs. We significantly rewrote the text to cut the word count in half and simplify the language.
After finalizing the text, we translated it into Spanish and formatted it on a door hanger with English on one side and Spanish on the other. We ordered 10,000 door hangers at SonicPrint, a union print shop. We overestimated the number of door hangers and ended up with a surplus, which we just hung on doors without canvassing in the last weeks before election day. We also ordered 5,000 business cards with links to our website. While we mostly distributed the door hangers during our canvasses, the business cards were useful to pass out on the street and buses, and at parks and public events.
Answering the Right Questions – Refining a housing justice message that speaks to renters
Marina Roberts, Housing Committee Co-Chair
While we discussed the campaign’s messaging at length while working on the literature and handouts, turning that messaging into canvassing conversations with renters required a different approach. To begin, we brainstormed key things we wanted people to know about the bond, focusing less on details and more on broad ideas. In other words, whereas the lit broke down specific programs the bond would fund, the canvassing message told people the bond would create thousands of affordable homes in Austin. But our focus was not just passing a bond, but also sharing a message about housing justice, so the greater challenge was deciding how to take the discussion both places.
We used a “deep canvassing” approach, meaning our goal was having deeper conversations with people about housing to understand their perspectives and better speak to their concerns. Our campaign started with a three-day canvassing blitz on Labor Day weekend, which we used to gather feedback about what worked and what didn’t. We drafted a script which included questions to ask renters to get conversations going, such as:
How long have you lived in Austin? Have you seen the rent go up in that time?/Since you’re new to town, what was your experience like finding housing here?
Do you know anyone who has moved out of town because they couldn’t afford to live here?
Have you ever had a bad experience with a landlord, or do you know anyone else who has?
Some questions worked, but some didn’t. Through the initial three-day canvassing blitz and running trainings at the beginning of every canvass, we collected insights, refined our message, and taught canvassers the most effective messaging, eventually without really relying on a script. That said, the trainings at the beginning of every canvass were critically important. We had to pair experienced canvassers with new folks and answer a lot of questions before getting started, so canvassers could get comfortable speaking about the housing bond even if they showed up not knowing much about it.
Some feedback during the campaign surprised us. For example, our messaging initially emphasized explaining how bond money worked. We assumed people would have a lot of questions about how the city was funding the bond, whose taxes would rise, and how we could afford to spend $250 million on affordable housing. But it turned out most folks weren’t really concerned with the money. In fact, when we asked the right questions and then explained that people could vote on a proposition that would generate money for affordable housing, the overwhelming majority of the time the support was already there. Clearly, a lot of renters, who represent just over half of Austin, have an uncomplicated desire to find and stay in affordable and habitable housing.
The best lesson I learned from this part of the campaign was that canvassers do best when we are nimble, meaning when we have the flexibility to quickly adapt in the moment to the person we are talking with. Sometimes people have questions about specifics and want to get technical, sometimes people are deeply empathetic and have stories to tell, sometimes people connect our conversation to other issues. When we can speak to the questions people actually have, create the space for folks to share their stories, and provide an opportunity for them to engage with other issues like health justice or labor rights, we can really connect with people. Those connections bring others into the fight, or help pull them from indifference toward support for our movement.
One Big Picture View of the Campaign
Madeline Detelich, Housing Committee Co-Chair (June 2018 – December 2018)
I have tried processing the campaign through a critical lens since it ended. The campaign largely consisted of weekly canvassing and weekly working group meetings. We worked very hard, but I don’t think we took enough time for strategizing or analysis, so it is easy to feel like we unnecessarily overextended ourselves. Early in the campaign, polling showed the bond was very likely to pass by a wide margin. Regardless, we embarked on our canvassing with the goal of knocking on as many renters’ doors as possible. We focused a lot on volume.
Despite this criticism, I simultaneously approve of our canvassing initiative. We were aware that an affordable housing bond was not a solution to the oppressive and common experience of housing insecurity in our neoliberal world, and it was important to us to take the opportunity to talk with people about the broader issue of housing under capitalism. It’s hard to beat the experience of going door-to-door for getting a sense of the concerns and issues working class people face, which our choice to focus on apartment complexes and affordable housing developments guaranteed. Given how our society’s structure ensures people rarely interact with others outside their class, there is intrinsic value in knocking on strangers’ doors to talk about issues that are universal to all but the wealthiest.
On one of our canvasses, I knocked on doors at a public housing complex for seniors. Many residents shared their stories of being at the mercy of negligent management companies who acted as if their low-income tenants should be grateful for any attention, no matter how slow or ineffectual the action to resolve their problems. There were weeks during the hottest months with no AC and chronically unreliable elevators. Here we were, trying to secure votes for an affordable housing bond from residents whose experiences living in affordable housing had been negative. In spite of this, many of them did not actually need persuading to vote for more affordable housing. Still, I felt the need to relay our hopes that the increase in affordable housing options in the city might give tenants like them more leverage against their negligent property managers.
I guess I often felt the need to justify to myself what the housing bond would be good for, and maybe this persistent feeling is why I am taking a more critical tone in my reflection. The term affordable housing can elicit skepticism. Accessing regulated affordable housing feels so out of reach, and there’s a general sense that even that would not necessarily be financially comfortable for people making minimum wage or just a bit higher or for people with precarious sources of income. If you’re a socialist, you may think housing should be decommodified or free or at least cost so little that it does not eat up a significant portion of your income every month or leave so many so vulnerable to eviction.
Leaving the objections over “affordable” aside, I know the housing bond will increase the amount of affordable housing in this city by more than we would have gotten without DSA’s involvement. That will take pressure off the market and even shift the power balance a little bit away from landlords to the working class. Perhaps fewer residents will be forced to accept deteriorating buildings and faltering AC units.
Perhaps I have become unable to believe we will survive long enough to see the benefits of anything that looks like incremental change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been around since 1988. They even shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore in 2007, but it wasn’t until their most recent report and the 12 years countdown that came out of it, that the IPCC emerged into the forefront of the collective consciousness. It’s hard to find any writing these days that doesn’t mention the “IPCC report.” More people than ever now know our world must change immediately to have any chance of dodging total climate disaster. The money from this housing bond will be disbursed over time, spent on a variety of projects, many of which will not be finished in the 12 years we have to cut emissions.
There is no doubt our current housing paradigm must end. I recently drove to go hiking, and leaving Austin in this particular direction is always a study in extravagant climate denial. What used to be hills of ash juniper and limestone are now seas of McMansions. The price of their little slice of paradise is hours of driving each day, but here in Texas, a long commute doesn’t persuade many people to trade in their trucks and SUVs. Yes, I’m panicking a bit about the relentless river of CO2 emissions gushing into our atmosphere from highways that connect rapidly multiplying sprawl to urban centers that are adapting too slowly to our ever-hotter reality.
In one respect, the housing bond was good because it was a grain upon which a conversation about social housing in Austin could precipitate. We designed our literature and canvassing training to encourage a broader analysis. Housing justice in Austin primarily centers around the skyrocketing rental and home prices in neighborhoods that were recently populated by black and brown residents because of explicitly racist codes. There were people who opposed the bond on the grounds that it would not exclusively benefit these long-term Austin residents and could even harm those who owned property, as bond money is raised through property taxes. In fact, the awkward question of the impact of increases in property taxes on low-income homeowners was often raised. I, for one, don’t want to halt all growth in our city, but I am sensitive to the pain this unmanaged growth selectively inflicts on working class and black and brown Austin residents.
Social democrats like the late Tony Judt know you can’t precisely slice up the population based on need, design public programs only benefiting the neediest tranches, and expect the rest of society, where most power is concentrated, to be content with this allocation of funding. We know how this strategy works when we listen to current residents of our long-failing public housing system describe their housing situation as something they wish they could escape. As socialists, we know public housing should be high quality, desirable, and even beautiful, not only because it is how it can work, but because it is the way towards a less-alienated existence. We know we must have abundant mixed-income, public housing that people feel proud to call home. And if we listen to climate scientists, we know we need housing to allow more people to live on public transit routes and in walking distance of their work, school, and lives. The path to get there is less clear, and the muddiness is strongly felt when advocating for a measure like this affordable housing bond, the largest in Austin’s history, larger than it would have been without our involvement, but still only 2.7% of the projected need to address the housing crisis in Austin.
It is not counterproductive or a waste of time to force more cities across the country to allocate larger portions of their tax revenue to building more housing the working class can afford. Seeing our members testify at City Hall, with an appeal for “300 or bust” to begin to address the housing crisis that is so deeply felt here in Austin, motivated me, personally, to commit a lot of my free time to the campaign, which strengthened my ties to our chapter and gave me valuable organizing skills. I’d like to think this experience is shared, and that our presence in city politics can at least serve to galvanize new members, waiting in the wings for the right campaign or action.
Still, DSA organizers must be open about the limitations to localized salves against housing injustice. It can be difficult, and even paralyzing, to concentrate on the large-scale changes necessary to overhaul housing in America and treat it like a right instead of an increasingly out-of-reach privilege. Through campaigning for this bond, we thought deeply about the tangled roots of housing injustice, learned from people feeling its effects, and collectively dreamt of a better world. Because of this, I’m proud of my involvement. Our weekly canvasses and weekly planning meetings had us going at an exhausting pace for two full months, and I think that stymied a lot of valuable analysis and strategizing. Hopefully future campaigns will be conducted with less of an emphasis on maximizing volume of door knocks to make space for more intentional socialist organizing.
For more information about this campaign, please contact Austin DSA’s Housing Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.