Moving into a new apartment comes with a lot of paperwork: the lease, proof of income and identification, tax returns. What if, when your landlord hands over all those documents, they also included a voter registration form, so you can make sure you’re registered to vote at your new address?
Across the country, housing providers are working with their tenants to register them to vote as part of the Housing Providers Council, an initiative from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Renters are historically less likely to vote than homeowners, and low income renters even more so. About 60% of homeowners voted in 2018, while only 40% of renters did; 85% of people with earnings over $100,000 were registered to vote in 2016 (74% of whom voted), while just 60% of people with incomes below $20,000 were registered, and only 38% of them voted.
Landlords and housing providers are in a unique position to address this disparity. “What we’ve been really focusing on . . . is every time we sign a new lease with someone, also saying to them, ‘Have you registered to vote?'” says Jonathan Rose, president of real estate development and property management firm Jonathan Rose Companies and a member of the council, speaking at a recent webinar hosted by NLIHC. “They’re sitting there filling out lots of papers anyway, and it’s a time in which they have a new address and might need to update their voter information.”
When moving to a new apartment, renters call fall off of voter registration lists, says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of NLIHC, at the webinar. And because of housing instability issues, renters change their address more frequently than homeowners. During the COVID-19 pandemic, registration obstacles are even higher. If someone doesn’t have internet at home, libraries and other places they would normally go to register online, or in person, might still be closed. All these barriers can also make it difficult for people to get information on mail-in voting right now. “Having a housing property with informed management that can assist residents is proven to not only be a help to getting them registered to vote, but informing them on how to vote,” Rose says.
The council is part of NLIHC’s Our Homes Our Votes 2020 campaign, an effort to increase low-income voter participation. For NLIHC, this participation is crucial to getting affordable housing legislation on the table, because when renters are less likely to vote, politicians don’t focus on their needs. “What will it take to get policymakers to prioritize the needs of low income renters?” Yentel says. “When we look at who regularly votes and who doesn’t, it becomes very clear what it will take.”
Some municipalities have moved to require landlords to provide their new tenants with voter registration forms. The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance in 2017 that added voter-registration information to the information packets on housing laws that landlords were already required to give tenants. It’s difficult to parse out how that ordinance has affected registration numbers, but a spokesperson for the King County Department of Elections says “that anything that helps put materials into the hands of potential voters certainly helps increase access to our elections.”
But other cities have run into legal barriers: New York City tried to pass that requirement in 2017 and faced opposition from the Real Estate Board of New York, who argued it would “task owners with yet another responsibility well outside their mandate.” After Minneapolis and St. Paul passed similar ordinances in 2016, a federal judge overturned them in March 2020, ruling that they violated landlords’ First Amendment rights by “forcing them to convey the cities’ messages.”
Rose doesn’t understand why a landlord would not want to empower their tenants to vote, but he and other likeminded property managers are doing it voluntarily. More than 40 management and property companies, who operate more than 500,000 units, have signed on to the Housing Providers Council.
But voluntary commitments can only take you so far, says Joey Lindstrom, director of field organizing at NLIHC. The coalition is working to get legislators to add federal housing to National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “motor voter law,” which requires states to offer voter registration opportunities when someone renews their driver’s license or applies for public assistance. “The idea is that the legislation will allow anyone moving into federally subsidized housing to check a box indicating that they would like to be registered to vote at that address,” he says.
NLIHC has some hope that that legislation could happen soon, but in the meantime local ordinances could still be helpful, he adds. They could encourage landlords to provide voter registration forms to tenants, and let them know that doing so wouldn’t affect their tax status or make them seem partisan. That’s one thing NLIHC tries to stress with its Our Homes Our Votes campaign: that empowering renters to participate in democracy is a nonpartisan issue.