On Tuesday, voters in Seattle, San Francisco, Boulder, and elsewhere went to the polls to vote on referenda and other local elections with important consequences for urban planning and policy. Here’s an overview:


There are very good rundowns of the Seattle results from an urban policy perspective at Erica C. Barnett’s blog and The Urbanist blog. The highlights:

1. Voters approved a property tax levy worth $930 million over nine years to support investments in transportation. The campaign, called “Move Seattle,” proposed spending $385 million on road maintenance and street redesign to accommodate 50 miles of bike lanes and safer pedestrian environments, and $166 million on public transit improvements, such as upgrading several bus lines to “RapidRide” service.

2. Three of the most anti-housing growth candidates for the nine-seat City Council lost, two of them by over 50 points. Housing development has become a heated issue in Seattle, as Mayor Ed Murray has proposed some of the boldest housing affordability measures in the country, including significantly expanding the supply of housing and making some tentative reforms to the city’s single-family-only zoning districts. The results of this election suggest that a backlash to this growth agenda is weaker than some may have thought. Voters also re-elected socialist Kshama Sawant, who has advocated for tougher inclusionary zoning requirements, linkage fees on new development, a one-for-one replacement of any affordable housing and a multi-hundred million dollar bond measure to provide housing for the homeless.

Seattle. Credit: tdlucas5000, Flickr
Seattle. Credit: tdlucas5000, Flickr

San Francisco:

1. The “Mission moratorium,” a cause that has received national attention for the better part of a year, finally went to the city’s voters—and failed. The moratorium, which we’ve written about at City Observatory, would have put a temporary hold on all market-rate housing construction in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. While advocates said the measure would help stem the tide of gentrification and give stakeholders time to create a comprehensive affordability plan, others—including City Observatory and San Francisco’s own Office of Economic Analysis—argued it would only exacerbate the massive housing shortage behind the Bay Area’s affordability crisis. While the Mission itself approved the measure, only two other neighborhoods in the city gave it a majority.

2. Meanwhile, another referendum that would make a measurable and positive impact on affordable housing passed overwhelmingly. Proposition A, a $310 million bond issue to create or rehabilitate thousands of units of below-market-rate housing, garnered about 75 percent “yes” votes. (It needed two-thirds to pass.) While Proposition A is hardly enough to solve the Bay Area’s housing needs—especially given that much of that figure is made up of “preserving” units that already exist—it’s a small step in the right direction.

3. Proposition F, which would have imposed restrictions on AirBnB and other short-term rentals, failed. As catalogued by TechCrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler, Proposition F created a bizarre hodgepodge of temporary allies—landlords and renters on one side, progressive firebrands and pro-business politicians on the other—debating whether AirBnB is an important source of income for struggling renters and homeowners, or an end-run around hotel taxes that pushes rents higher by taking one to two thousand units off the regular rental market. We’re sympathetic to Cutler’s position that both the current regulatory framework and Proposition F are deeply flawed, but that referenda (which can effectively only be amended by another popular vote) are a problematic way  to regulate a fast-changing and unpredictable policy issue.


Boulder, CO

1. Voters rejected a measure that would have given Boulder, already famously anti-housing, one of the most exclusionary development approval processes in the country. As Kriston Capps explained at CityLab, ballot issue #300 would have divided the city of 100,000 into sixty-six micro-jurisdictions, each of which would then have veto power over any development within its borders—leaving members of the broader community who are impacted by such decisions without any voice in the supposedly democratic process. As we’ve written before, such hyper-local decision-making is usually a recipe for exclusion and competition in which the most disadvantaged lose out.

2. Another anti-housing measure, ballot issue #301, was also defeated. It would have required that development “pay its own way” by making large contributions to support social services and infrastructure demand. The measure would have added massively to the cost of building new housing, making it significantly more difficult to build below-market-rate or moderate-income homes. As the definition of “fiscal zoning”—that is, using zoning regulations to keep out anyone (like the low-income) who need more social services than they can pay for—this was a measure predicated on exclusion.

Boulder, CO. Credit: Chris, Flickr
Boulder, CO. Credit: Chris, Flickr


Other elections

For more information on other ballot initiatives—including a terrible highway construction proposal in Texas (which passed) and a slew of road-and-transit funding levies in Utah (which passed in 10 of 17 counties, but not Salt Lake City), check out Angie Schmitt’s analysis at Streetsblog.