Campaign volunteers with House Our Neighbors! (HON) have knocked doors and occupied street corners all over town ahead of the February 14 special election for Initiative 135, a measure to establish a public development authority (PDA) that could one day bring social housing to the city. 

The campaign is spending its final weeks targeting renters, who will need to turn out in force for the initiative to pass. Though canvassers say renters respond most positively to their pitches, they’re also the hardest to reach and the least likely to vote–especially in an odd year, and especially in a special election, when many are paying more attention to the Super Bowl than the ballot box.

But the volunteers say they have their strategies for getting through, and they’re about halfway to meeting their get-out-the-vote goals. 

Knock, Knock

HON, the advocacy arm of the Real Change newspaper, set a goal of knocking 50,000 doors, including the ones attached to single-family homes and apartment buildings. As of the Saturday before the election, campaign co-chair Tiffani McCoy said HON had made it through 25,000 doors. She said the campaign's data found 10,000 of those doors belonged to renters.

That’s no small task. The online outlet Just Security called canvassing apartment buildings a “legal gray area” because almost all of the legal precedent protecting canvassing only applies to single-family homes. Well, except for in Minnesota, which specifically protects door-to-door canvassing in apartments. 

Nevertheless, canvassers are willing to take the risk. Sydney Provence, who has spent months canvassing for I-135 on behalf of the Seattle chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, often takes volunteers inside apartment buildings. Sometimes canvassers will partner with a building resident to get inside, and sometimes they’ll just ask nicely to tailgate behind someone.

Building managers don’t seem to mind, or at least they don’t notice, according to Provence. She said her team has only been shooed out of a building once during a canvas, and at that point they had already made their rounds and were debriefing in the lobby.

Provence said it's worth the extra effort to go to renters’ doors because of how positively renters respond. 

The Rent’s Too Damn High

Initiative 135 would create a PDA to build or buy apartments that would house people making 0 to 120% of the area median income. Basically, rent from tech bros would subsidize the rents of food-service workers. The initiative requires the City to throw in a little seed money to launch the PDA, but to make it a force in Seattle’s housing stock the City or the State will have to keep feeding it money, or else HON will have to fight for a tax until the PDA can bond against rents to sustain the program.

That’s a mouthful at the doors. But in January, Provence led a group of volunteers through a neighborhood of low-income housing in Othello, and no one slammed a door in their face. No one even asked about how the initiative would affect property taxes, as so many homeowners have done after hearing Provence’s pitch. (It won’t.) 

After some initial confusion about someone knocking on their door on a Sunday afternoon, the renters typically nodded politely as the canvassers pitched the initiative. Some of the renters pledged their support, no questions asked. 

One mother, who had not heard of social housing before the volunteers came to her door, said the initiative’s promise to cap the rent of publicly owned units at 30% is a no-brainer. “Everyone needs housing and no one can afford it," she said. 

Others took the campaign’s flyers and said they would “look into it.” Though she would rather see everyone jumping up and down in excitement to vote for I-135, Provence argued that even this more neutral response is a win for HON.

If those voters follow through on their plan to “look into it,” they won’t find much opposition on the web. No formal campaign formed to fight against HON. Voters can watch debates about the plan on the Seattle Channel or Converge Media. The worst that voters will find is the Seattle Times Editorial Board shitting on the measure. 

Spread the Good Word

But HON is not wasting too much time debunking bad arguments. The campaign’s primary goal, through all its phone-banking and door-knocking, is to make sure its likely supporters–particularly low-turnout renters–know there’s an election coming up at all. In Provence’s experience of canvassing, almost no one she talks to knows about the February special election. 

That’s not surprising. Special elections typically see lower turnout compared to primary and general elections. In the last municipal primary in 2021, just under 42% of Seattle’s registered voters returned a ballot, and about 54.5% participated in the general election. Compare that to the 2019 special election for the education levy, where only 32% of Seattle's registered voters cast a ballot. And when there’s lower turnout, it's renters and progressives who are MIA. 

That said, more than 52% of District 3’s registered voters hit the ballot box for the recall against Council Member Kshama Sawant in 2021. Still, King County Elections (KCE) projects only 33% turnout for the upcoming contest. 

As of Monday morning, KCE reports that about 18% of Seattle registered voters have cast a vote. Based on the KCE precinct map, voters in less dense neighborhoods are voting at higher rates than voters in renter-heavy precincts. It’s worth remembering that renters usually vote later, causing a progressive push as results roll in the week after election day.

If you’re registered to vote, your ballot should be in your mailbox by now. If it’s there, great. Fill it out, follow the instructions on the envelope, sign it, and drop it off at a drop box. If you’re not registered to vote, then it's too late to register online or by mail, but you can still register in person at KCE’s office in Renton or at a vote center through election day.