On Wednesday morning, House Our Neighbors! (HON) submitted just under 30,000 signatures supporting its petition to let voters decide on whether to establish a public corporation for social housing. That number may or may not be enough support for a proposal advocates say would create more decommodified housing in a city suffering from a housing affordability crisis.
HON, a political committee that grew out of Real Change to combat the infamous Compassion Seattle initiative, launched Initiative 135 in March. At the time, Real Change Advocacy Director and HON Co-chair Tiffani McCoy told The Stranger that people thought HON was crazy for attempting to collect the requisite number of signatures in just three months. For a moment, it looked like those non-believers might have been right.
With only two weeks remaining, HON said it had only collected 15,000 signatures, meaning gatherers needed to drum up over 1,000 signatures a day to meet their 35,000-signature goal by the deadline. In response, HON began paying signature gatherers. The signatures came flooding in, and though the organizers did not meet their goal of 35,000 signatures, I-135 could still prove the naysayers wrong – but it’ll be close.
To get on the ballot, initiatives need to collect 26,442 valid signatures. During the certification process, which is where I-135 sits now, King County Elections estimates that campaigns typically lose 20% of their signatures to the scrutiny of the King County Records and Elections Division. For that reason, the agency advises campaigns to collect 20-30% more than they need, or, in this case, about 35,000 signatures.
But some campaigns lose even more than 30%. For example, last summer, Compassion Seattle submitted over 64,000 signatures, but only about 34,000 made the cut. More recently, Seattle Approves turned in its signatures earlier this month, and the King County Records and Elections Division only accepted about 62% of them.
HON does not seem to anticipate losing quite as many signatures as those other campaigns. During a press conference, McCoy said HON counted signatures conservatively, crossing out entries from signatories who were not Seattle voters or who did not include a clear address or phone number.
If I-135 were a typical ballot measure, it would likely lose too many signatures to qualify for the ballot. But there's still a cushion. The City Charter provides 20 extra days to collect the difference after the petition coordinator receives notice that they missed the mark.
Based on HON’s performance in the last two weeks, the campaign might have better footing to make up those last signatures if need be.
Two weeks before HON’s deadline, it began paying top volunteers to make up a deficit of over 10,000 signatures. That effort, combined with a final push from unpaid volunteers, seemed to do the trick. Since then, HON nearly doubled its signature total.
Paying signature gatherers can sometimes be taboo. Last summer, some of the same organizers used the phrase “paid signature gatherers” with venom when criticizing Compassion Seattle. To be fair, Compassion Seattle paid $25 an hour to anyone who could operate a clipboard, regardless of whether or not they knew what they were hocking. The campaign ended up paying over $30 for each valid signature, which feels distinctly less grassroots.
McCoy said HON did not have enough money to compensate signature gatherers for their time initially, but when a delayed start and an unusually rainy spring set the campaign back, they asked for more donations to pay for the labor necessary to meet the goal.
McCoy said HON may try to run a completely volunteer campaign in the future, but other organizers cautioned against “glorifying volunteerism.”
Nikkita Oliver, a long-time Seattle organizer who worked on the campaign, stressed that under capitalism it is important to compensate for all types of work, including the work to upset the system itself, especially because the system tends to screw over people who gravitate toward that work.
Suresh Chanmugam, an organizer with Tech 4 Housing, added that campaigns that don’t pay for labor have a hard time keeping it.
“To afford a median one-bedroom in Seattle, if you're earning minimum wage, you need to work about 80 hours a week,” Chanmugam said. “That does not leave any time to be volunteering with any kind of campaign. It doesn't leave time for parenting or even cooking a meal for yourself.”