Lessons from California’s Successful Statewide Ballot Campaign for Housing

Contributors: Nur Kausar, Housing California; Alina Harway, Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH); Jeannette Brown, Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing (SCANPH); Tom Collishaw, Self-Help Enterprises and Rob Wiener, California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH)

This article was originally published on April 12 in Shelterforce: The Voice of Community Development

In November 2018, Californians voted with their values when they passed Propositions 1 and 2, a combined $6 billion for affordable and supportive housing for lower-income Californians and for people chronically struggling on the streets while living with mental illness. Proposition 1, the Veterans and Affordable Housing Act, received 56 percent of the vote. Proposition 2, the No Place Like Home Act, received 63 percent.

California’s unique model for running a statewide campaign that relied on regional coordination and the voices of the people most impacted offers relevant insights to organizations around the nation. Offering views from statewide to regional, and spanning varied political climates and cultural contexts, here is a sample of unique strategies and tactics from what became known as “The Year of Affordable Housing” in California’s 2018 election cycle.

The State

California is home to more than 25 million registered voters spread across a diverse geography, each with its own unique political climate. The California Legislature placed Propositions 1 and 2 on the ballot, so a public campaign for these investments needed to be created from scratch and pushed out quickly, dissimilar to campaigns that may have started with a public signature gathering and education process.

Four diverse organizations spearheaded campaign coordination and fundraising: Housing California, California Housing Consortium, State Building Trades of California, and Silicon Valley Leadership Group. This statewide Props 1 and 2 team hired consultants, approved materials, secured major donors, and pumped relevant and cohesive information to each major regional artery that then branched out to local communities. This was done by creating four committees: Executive, Advisory, Fundraising, and Coalition and Communications – all of which included key allies and legislative leaders.

The campaign raised our top goal of $6 million thanks to a smart, multi-sector strategy for endorsements and contributions that included financial institutions, agriculture, health care, unions, and large businesses.

The Residents United Network was also an integral part of the campaign. This is a network of advocates who live and work in affordable housing developments across California. RUN conducted outreach within affordable communities to educate current and potential voters on the issues. This tactic allowed the campaign to reach voters that otherwise might get ignored, and expanded the leadership of low-income communities to use their powerful voice to continue to push for change.

Below, you’ll find more context and tactics for three regional arteries of the Props 1 and 2 campaign, written by regional leads.

Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area covers nine counties, 101 cities, and more than seven million people.

NPH activated Bay Area communications collaboratives to leverage the Prop 1 and Prop 2 content; grew an existing fundraising program, having demonstrated the value to our donor network through previous campaigns, and quickly folded in the Props 1 and 2 education and engagement content into our ongoing resident engagement programs.

Working with developer members to share targeted voter information across affordable housing properties, NPH distributed slate cards in four languages and voter registration posters in seven languages, to every county in the region. NPH also sent Get Out the Vote mail to registered voters living in affordable housing communities and employed a robust digital advertising campaign partially targeted to affordable housing residents.

Southern California

SCANPH serves the Southern California region of Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. Together, these counties represent the largest population base in California, the greatest concentration of poverty and housing need, and a vibrant mix of communities with diverse resources and approaches to providing affordable housing.

Los Angeles historically has low voter turnout and the large geographic terrain of Southern California presents challenges for voter mobilization. Nevertheless, Los Angeles voters in recent years had already shown a strong commitment to addressing the housing crisis at the ballot.

 On the grassroots level, SCANPH conducted training sessions at member housing developments and across Southern California to advance civic engagement, greatly increasing the voter turnout rate.

Lessons Learned: The collective strength of SCANPH’s political reach is greatly amplified by member engagement via a committee framework, including a steering committee specifically for the campaign and a policy committee engaged on the substance of the measures; Southern California’s expansive geography requires consistent messaging dispersed in varied formats to reach necessary levels of magnitude; the power of storytelling has greater media resonance; voter education of residents represents an exciting opportunity to build an inclusive 21st-century democracy in the most populous region of the state and speaks to the importance of ongoing field work for future campaign work.

Rural California

“Rural” varies in California.  Interior counties tend to be the most conservative politically and view government as untrustworthy, invasive, and inefficient – although they depend on government in many ways. Coastal rural counties tend to be more liberal but are faced with strong push-back from environmentalists and wealthy residents who don’t want lower-income people and people of color to live in their exclusive enclaves.

Bond funding from Props 1 and 2 was treated just like taxation from a local conservative perspective. Because of this, we needed to work to make the issue personal and local. The Propositions 1 and 2 rural coalition went to service clubs and selected city councils to make the pitch, and in all cases localized the message, telling stories of people affected by the housing crisis.

On Election Day, the rural coalition was disappointed with the Valley results, where only two of eight counties approved the two measures by a 50 percent+ vote. However, if we consider support for Prop 2, the statewide and rural county margins actually increased.  Messaging here made a difference.

Rural lessons learned: Keep the message clear, don’t clutter the ballot with multiple housing asks, focus more on getting a majority of voters and less on counties less inclined to support, and personalize and localize the impacts.

Through the energy and hard work of dedicated organizations across the state, residents of California are now able to benefit from an initiative that provides robust funding for housing for low-income households. We look forward to building on California’s momentum with other ballot wins across the country. In 2020, we expect to elect a president who will expand housing affordability and work to decrease the severe shortage of affordable and available homes.


Gather additional tips and resources on voter and candidate engagement and education by checking out: https://www.ourhomes-ourvotes.org/ Be sure to track this campaign on Twitter and Facebook with #OurHomesOurVotes2020.

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