How do people feel about politicians who vote to allow more homes to exist?
If you were to ask the newsroom at KUOW, the Seattle-based NPR affiliate, apparently they’d call it undisputed empirical fact that it’s unpopular to scale back widespread bans on “missing middle housing” like duplexes, triplexes and quads.
At a press conference Thursday, Governor Jay Inslee acknowledged the potentially career-ending position local leaders are in.
“Well, I get that. I’m an elected official – I know that – and what I do is encourage them just to blame it on me then,” he said. “I’m taking some heat off the local officials.”
But contrary to KUOW’s claim or Inslee’s riposte, there is actually very little reason to believe that legalizing additional housing options—or a bill that would do so, like Washington’s House Bill 1782—is politically unpopular.
You don’t have to ask Inslee, who has filed to run for reelection in 2024 and surely cares what Washington voters think. You can check the public record.
Oregon’s equivalent to Washington’s current legislation passed in 2019. Its author is currently a frontrunner for governor. Its senate champion has since been elected secretary of state. Of its 36 backers who ran for re-election, 97 percent won.
Oregon’s House Bill 2001 was quite similar to HB 1782 as it was first introduced, though less transit-focused: it legalized duplexes on every residential lot in cities of 10,000 or more residents, and also fourplexes in “all areas” of cities of 25,000 or more, plus all of the Portland metro area.
News reports called it “controversial,” and indeed it passed the state senate on the last day of the legislative session with a single vote to spare. So, what happened to the folks who supported it? I’ll answer that with a chart:
Across the state, the only backer of the bill to be defeated was Rep. Cheri Helt, a Republican who’d won a single term to represent a Democratic-leaning district after a campaign scandal by her 2018 opponent. The state’s blue wave swamped her in 2020.
No politician in Oregon, meanwhile, was more closely identified with the bill than its author, state Rep. Tina Kotek. Kotek, the Democratic House speaker at the time, is currently piling up institutional endorsements in her run for governor.
What about state Rep. Julie Fahey, a Democratic sponsor of the bill who represents part of the city of Eugene, led by a staunchly anti-housing city council? No visible backlash there, either. After her two years chairing the housing committee, Fahey was elected by her colleagues last month to serve as House majority leader.
Did the bill’s lead Republican sponsor, Jack Zika, pay a price? It sure doesn’t look like it.
How about Shemia Fagan, the East Portland Democrat who carried the bill through its squeaker of a senate vote? She’s now the state’s No. 2 elected official. In 2020 Fagan edged out Mark Hass, a centrist Democrat who’d opposed the housing bill, in a three-way primary for secretary of state and went on to win her general election by seven points.
California hasn’t had a general election since its legislature voted to approve its recent “middle housing” bill, Senate Bill 9. But it did have a gubernatorial recall. Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged before that election to sign the bill. His Republican opponents pledged to veto it. Newsom creamed the recall by a startling 24 points. Was zoning the only issue? Of course not. There’s just no sign at all that it hurt him.
For a closer look at California, let’s dig a little deeper, into two big housing legalizations that haven’t passed: Senate Bills 827 and 50, introduced in 2018 and 2019. Both would have legalized millions of new apartments near jobs and public transit. Both drew major media attention. And both shared three sponsors: their author, Sen. Scott Wiener; Sen. Nancy Skinner; and Asm. Phil Ting. Here’s a snapshot of their election results after introducing this high-profile legislation (Wiener and Skinner first ran in 2016, Ting in 2012):
Maybe most voters aren’t tracking state politics closely enough to notice such things? Of course most aren’t. Which is why it’s also relevant that public polling found the bill was quite popular once people heard about it:
“Housing policy is an issue that the Legislature has struggled with so much, yet people have a 2-to-1 support for changes,” independent pollster Mark Baldassare told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2019. “The California public is looking for a solution. They just want to see something done.”
The subsequent duplex-and-lot-split law that passed in California last year polled almost as well, with 55% in support and just 27% opposed, according to a different independent poll.
This brings us to Washington, home of HB 1782. On Monday, the bill advanced out of the state House Ways & Means committee.
HB 1782 was introduced last month by Rep. Jessica Bateman, a former Olympia city councilor who helped lead a charge for similar reforms in her own city and subsequently won a competitive intra-Democrat primary race and then her general election by wide margins.
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Yet another fluke?
Not according to the new poll of likely voters released last week, which found majority support for her proposal among urban Washingtonians, suburban Washingtonians, rural Washingtonians, white Washingtonians, Washingtonians of color, college graduates, non-graduates, homeowners, renters, men, women, Washingtonians under 50 and Washingtonians over 50.
Here’s the description of HB 1782 used by this poll (which, unlike the California polls mentioned above, was commissioned by Sightline): “This bill would change state law and zoning requirements to allow more homes like duplexes, fourplexes, and townhouses, including housing more affordable for lower- and middle-income families, near public transit lines, and in areas with a lot of jobs.”
Even after they were exposed to arguments against it, Washingtonians’ support for the bill fell just four points, from 61 percent to 57 percent.
Housing is popular
There aren’t many ways to interpret all of this.
Pacific Northwesterners and other West Coasters vote for politicians who loudly and publicly support more housing. Politicians who have passed recent state bills that allow more housing seem to be moving their careers along nicely. And voters consistently tell pollsters they want the government to allow more housing in cities and near transit.
Pro-housing politicians don’t always win in the United States and Canada, especially in ward-based city council races that tend to pit one neighborhood against another in the battle to avoid change. But they win regularly. Amid their various flaws, the mayors of San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Portland, and Vancouver are all identifiably pro-infill at their local level.
So what’s the issue here? Why do seemingly reasonable commentators, and even some politicians, seem convinced that a mob of home-haters is waiting to pounce on anyone who dares to let two homes in a low-density area share a wall or a yard?
Here’s my own guess: look at the disparity between homeowners and renters.
“Middle housing” bills seem to be modestly popular with homeowners, at least when they’re presented with a relatively neutral summary: California’s SB 9 polled at +8% among homeowners, Washington’s HB 1782 at +26%. But renters support the bills by far higher margins: +46% in California and +69% in Washington. This isn’t too surprising. Most homeowners have a personal stake in ever-rising land prices. Renters have the opposite incentive.
And the fact is that most people with power spend most of their time talking to homeowners, not to renters.
When you’re dropping a third or more of your money into a rent that either stays flat or goes up based on the number of homes that the government allows to exist, a lot of competing issues don’t feel as “controversial.” Polls and election results seem to reflect that.
If Washingtonians are lucky, some of their laws soon will, too.