Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
Voters in U.S. cities will weigh in on drugs, partying, renting, and rooftop gardening. Their decisions could have national implications.
On Tuesday, citizens across the country will vote on ballot measures, a number of them at the city level. Most city ballot measures deal with hyper-local issues (taxes, sidewalks, libraries, zoos), but some end up having national reverberations. Bigger metros can serve as a legislative testing ground, paving the way for smaller ones to implement copycat regulations. It was a city ballot initiative in the Seattle suburb of SeaTac that led around 40 other cities and states to raise the minimum wage, after all.
Below are some of the ballot measures to keep an eye on:
Reversing the “heat island” effect
Denver, Colorado: Downtown Denver is about 5 degrees hotter than surrounding areas in the summer, thanks to its “heat island” effect. The phenomenon occurs when concrete rooftops and pavements bake in the sun, driving up air conditioning use and worsening air quality. Denver ranks third in the country for the severity of the effect.
A group of eco-conscious Denverites, calling themselves the Denver Green Roof Initiative, decided to do something about this. They collected the 4,700 signatures needed to get an initiative on the November 7 ballot that, if passed, will require buildings 25,000 square feet and over to cover at least 20 percent of their roofs with gardens or solar panels.
The group based the initiative on similar rules already in effect in San Francisco and Toronto, though the Denver mandate would be more stringent in that it would also apply to existing buildings expanding or replacing their roofs, rather than just new development.
Opposition has been fierce. Realtors, contractors, and builders have joined together to fight the initiative, citing a rise in construction and housing costs as their main concern. Mayor Michael Hancock supports the opposition, saying the initiative “goes too far too fast.”
But the Green Roof Initiative argues that taking the long view reveals the enormous benefits—both financial and environmental—that the roofs will reap. While the up-front costs are undeniable, such roofs last longer, decrease heating and cooling costs, improve storm water management, and cut air and noise pollution.
Eric Sondermann, a Denver political analyst, told the Denver Post that it’s tough to predict the initiative’s outcome. But, he said, if voters aren’t aware of the arguments against it, they may go with their gut and vote yes: “[The initiative] just looks good, looks cutting-edge, feels good,” he said. —Mimi Kirk
Relaxing weed laws, one city at a time
Athens, Ohio: Athens could become the sixth city in Ohio to decriminalize marijuana. While some states have passed bills to decriminalize or even legalize pot wholesale, Ohio’s referendum to do so failed in 2015, so cities have since continued piecemeal to pass decriminalization bills in opposition to the existing state law, which punishes people possessing more than 100 grams of pot with fines or jail time.
If passed, the initiative would not legalize the drug—that is, it would still be illegal to buy, grow, or sell. However, it would de-penalize marijuana by lowering all fines and court costs for misdemeanor offenses to zero dollars. The Athens Cannabis Ordinance, which put this initiative forward, says it is intended to reduce the incentive to prosecute these minor offenses. Felony offenses, like trafficking, or possession of over 200 grams, would still be penalized as usual.
Laws in other Ohio cities have been met with mixed results. Toledo passed a successful decriminalization initiative in 2015, but after a similar initiative passed in Newark last year, city officials said they would continue to charge misdemeanor offenses using state law.
The referendum will come on the heels of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine releasing the “Recovery Ohio” plan, aimed at addressing opioid overdoses in the state. DeWine’s plan includes intervention programs, and task force models that target drug sales. An increasing number of Americans view marijuana as an alternate way to treat chronic pain. Ohio legalized medical marijuana in 2016, but the law will not take full effect until 2018. —Alastair Boone
The city that wants Airbnb back
Gearhart, Oregon: Gearhart is a tiny town of about 1,500 people. But the idyllic seaside destination on the Oregon Coast punches above its weight as a tourist draw—many of the properties are second homes of Oregonians who spend the rest of the year living on the I-5 corridor. Trying to stem a tide of permanent housing turned into vacation homes, and preserve housing stock for full-time residents, the Gearhart City Council voted last year to cap short-term rentals. Property owners worried about changes to the character of the town have responded with their own opposition ballot measure: repeal and replace rules for vacation rentals.
Gearhart is among the first to start experimenting with the kind of caps larger cities are considering, and already it is backfiring. If Election Day brings a reversal of its plans to this tiny northwest city, it may provide a worrying test case for larger cities considering similar policies.
Gearhart’s existing 2016 cap makes it harder for property owners to rent out units through home-sharing websites like Airbnb, Vacasa, and VRBO. The number of permits given to those renting for shorter than 30 days plummeted. Short-term rental advocates (and those who depend on Airbnb for additional income) lament the money they’re losing each weekend, unable to accommodate the vacationers they once housed.
The new measure removes all caps on the number of vacation rentals each owner can provide, while making occupancy limits more generous and inspections more lenient. If it passes, opposition leaders worry, commercial investors can buy out whole blocks of properties and use them only for short-term rentals. “And then all of a sudden, where is the fabric of your community?” said opposition campaign manager Jeanne Mark in a NW News Network interview. “It’s almost like cancer.”
As the population-1,500 Gearhart is torn asunder over repealing or maintaining its cap, a city almost 500 times as big is struggling (and so far, failing) to implement its own. And it may be watching the outcome.
In 2016, Mayor Ed Murray and city councilmember Tim Burgess proposed an ordinance that they say focuses on limiting commercial operators’ ability to take advantage of home-sharing websites. The ordinance would require short-term rental operators to obtain more (and more stringent) licensing; and limit the number of units that each owner can rent out.
Seattle is facing a massive affordable housing crisis, rising rates of homelessness, and limited available rental space even for those who can afford it. "We must protect our existing rental housing supply at a time when it is becoming harder for residents to find an affordable home in Seattle," Mayor Murray said when announcing the proposal in 2016. —Sarah Holder
The city that wants you to go home at 2 a.m.
Miami Beach, Florida: Voters will decide whether to end alcohol sales on Ocean Drive at 2 a.m. instead of 5 a.m., when bars and clubs currently shut their doors. On the surface, the vote reflects an age-old clash between supporting tourists and late-night business, and satisfying the qualms of locals. But underneath is a story about racial tension, too.
The referendum follows recent conversations about shutting down Urban Beach Week—a popular hip hop festival that occurs on Ocean Drive—after two shootings occurred there this Memorial Day weekend. (In one of the shootings, a police officer shot and killed a suspect on the run). Many tourists who patronize the bars and hotels on Ocean Drive are black. And for some, the new initiative reads like yet another way Mayor Philip Levine is trying to make Miami Beach more family friendly—and more white, too.
Proponents of the rollback see a direct link between alcohol and crime, even though statistics show that crime in the city has been going down while clubs continue to thrive. Others complain that the rowdy atmosphere might deter potential beachgoers who aren’t looking for a party from the nearby South Beach.
If this measure is approved, many worry that it could signal a broad movement against nightlife where wealthier residents don’t want it.—Alastair Boone