A favorite drinking game during debate watch parties consists of picking a word and taking a shot of liquor every time a candidate utters it. If you and your friends chose the word “housing,” chances are you all remained sober during the 2019 Democratic debates. Had housing been a priority in the debates, the candidates might have been quizzed on the unaffordability of every major city, the vanishing supply of low-cost housing, and the environmental consequences of displaced workers commuting into the cities they once lived in. Only one housing question was asked in five Democratic debates this year, and it came during last week’s debate.
In an election cycle where economic inequality and legacies of racist public policies have taken center stage, housing is a sad understudy waiting behind the curtains. It is also an issue that President Donald Trump is particularly vulnerable on. His U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under Secretary Ben Carson, carries out a monthly assault on housing security for struggling Americans. For the last couple of years, HUD’s proposed budgets slashed funding for some of the agency’s cornerstone programs, but those cuts were eventually restored. The department has proposed policies that would diminish protections for transgender people and kick immigrant kids out of federally assisted housing, and it has postponed regulations aimed at promoting neighborhood segregation.
Can Democrats put forward an alternative vision? Their tangled history with housing policy has echoed conservative priorities of shrinking support for a housing safety net.
The party’s approach to housing since the late 1970s can be characterized as antagonism to its own New Deal housing programs, a preference for public-private partnerships, and a desire to rely on the market to the maximum extent possible. The party attempted to meet the very real challenges of distressed public housing stock and disinvestment by embracing the core mandates of neoliberal public policy. Thus, the Clinton Administration bungled the opportunity to truly revitalize public housing during the HOPE VI program, instead gutting one-for-one replacement requirements and adopting a host of barriers toward residents returning to their developments.
As HUD secretary, presidential hopeful Julian Castro came under fire in 2016 for his handling of the foreclosure crisis. A majority of the foreclosed FHA homes placed into the Distressed Asset Stabilization Program were sold off to Wall Street investment firms such as Blackstone instead of to nonprofits, community land trusts, or first-time homebuyer programs. Advocates for the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) spent the better part of eight years convincing Congress and the Senate to embrace the first major low-income housing funding in decades. The NHTF finally passed Congress in 2008.
Despite the near silence about housing during the Democratic debates, several frontrunners—four of the current top five, all except former vice president Joe Biden—have proposed serious housing legislation. Front and center in legislation introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is a $500 billion plan to build over 3 million new housing units and preserve affordable housing over the course of 10 years. Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled a set of proposals that would invest $2.5 trillion to build 10 million permanently affordable housing units over the next decade. Candidate Pete Buttigieg outlined a $430 billion plan that would make it so cities could bid for financing to purchase and develop vacant and abandoned housing and give it directly to aspiring homeowners. And Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have introduced similar pieces of legislation focused on using tax policy to tackle high rents. And just last week, Harris introduced a $100 billion affordable housing bill. Taken together, these proposals indicate that a portion of the agenda of grassroots housing organizations is trickling up to the national debate.
A Tax Credit
A recurring theme in many of the Democratic candidate’s housing platforms is the idea of a renter’s tax credit. This is the centerpiece of Harris’s Rent Relief Act and Booker’s Housing Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity Act. The tax credit would essentially refund the difference between what a household pays for rent and 30 percent of their income, up to $6,000. For example, if the Davis family, with two wage earners, makes $48,000 annually, then 30 percent of their annual income would be $14,400. If their private landlord charged $1,500 a month for rent, or $18,000 a year, they would receive a $3,600 credit on their taxes.
“We endorse tax-credit proposals because they have the potential to level the playing field. When your housing costs more than 30 or even 50 percent of your income, you have to make choices,” says Noëlle Porter, director of governmental affairs at the National Housing Law Project. “Maybe you can’t purchase health insurance, support your children’s education, or your transportation. The tax credits allow people to start meeting all of their families’ needs and even beginning to save for the future.”
Tax credits could potentially benefit more renters than even ambitious social housing production program would. However the tax-credit proposal could well create another set of serious policy choices. Like Section 8 vouchers, it is essentially a subsidy for landlords who might be incentivized to raise rents often, knowing that the federal government would essentially be good for the difference. (Harris’s Rent Relief Act does cap the credit at 100 percent of Fair Market Rent, making the subsidy similar to that of Housing Choice Vouchers, but without the inspections and paperwork.)
The Douglass Plan
Pete Buttigieg’s housing proposal—part of the Douglass Plan, a larger racial-equity policy package—targets vacant housing for rehabilitation as affordable homes. Buttigieg’s Community Homestead Act (CHA) would create a new “Homeownership Fund” that would try to tackle both historical racist exclusion from housing opportunities and the estimated 1.5 million vacant homes in the United States.
The CHA would provide housing to specific pilot cities for the purchase of abandoned homes. Those homes could then be granted, along with 10-year forgivable loan for rehab, to current residents of the pilot cities (or those who have lived in the area for a period of at least three years during the previous decade) or anyone who currently lives or have lived (for at least three years) in any historically redlined or racially segregated area. Homes would be expected to be used as primary residences. The Homeownership Fund would also fund pilot cities to invest in “infrastructure, facilities, or a jobs program that suits the profile of the region.”
New Deals for Housing
Warren’s American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, first introduced in the Senate in 2018, aims to build or rehabilitate more than 3 million homes by investing $500 billion in affordable housing. If passed, the bill would signal a dramatic shift from the politics of housing austerity and reposition the federal government as a key part of the national housing safety net.
“It’s a bold prescription for the housing crisis that recognizes that housing issues can differ depending on the place and the circumstance of the family. It manages to address segregation, ownership issues, subsidies for renters, and other issues,” says Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project.
Part of Warren’s plans includes a new HUD program that would provide down payment grants to help people buy homes in formerly redlined areas. To qualify for the program, a person must be a first-time homebuyer, have resided in the area for at least four years, and their income must not exceed 120 percent of the area median income. Her plan would also invest over $2 billion to rehabilitate and preserve 200,000 homes on tribal land.
Sanders, given his longstanding focus on combating inequality, was late to the game in putting forward housing proposals. Even some of his supporters called this into question. In August, Jacobin magazine published an article “Bernie Should Declare Housing a Human Right.” Then in September, Sanders put forward an ambitious set of housing proposals that echoed the 1989 platform of the historic Washington, D.C., Housing Now! march. Like Warren’s plan, Sanders emphasizes the need to build. His plan focuses on building affordable housing through direct government funding (and progressive taxation). The plan mostly depends on the expansion in funding and scope of the National Housing Trust Fund, and establishing a wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1 percent for the wealthiest 175,000 families, according to The Washington Post. The supply of low-income housing that would be created under Sanders’s plan is staggering. It contains 2 million mixed-income units, over 7 million low-income homes, and ambitious goals for social housing in rural America and Indian land.
Porter of the National Housing Law Project praised the emphasis both Warren and Sanders place on housing production. “Warren and Sanders are the two legislators most seriously thinking about growing the supply of housing. What use is there in issuing a bunch of new Section 8 certificates if there is nowhere for people to use them?”
The Sanders plan preserves the existing supply of public housing through investment in rehabilitation. Earlier this month, Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing, a $180 billion plan that would upgrade more than 1 million public housing units over 10 years. So far, Sanders is the only presidential candidate to openly advocate for national rent caps of 3 percent a year. Organizer René Christian Moya with the group Los Angeles Housing Is a Human Rights is effusive on this point. “The motherlode of housing proposals comes from the Sanders plan. It is the one that gets closest to a homes guarantee while proposing national rent control.”
Sarah “Fred” Sherburn-Zimmer, co-director of San Francisco’s Housing Rights Committee, says, “to have a presidential candidate even talking about housing let alone be listening to housing advocates and be arguing for expanding public housing and make universal rental control, but not B.S. weak rent-control light, but good rent control with then right for local areas to make stronger laws—this is game changing. Rent control now is banned in most states. This is a change of the whole discussion.”
The Sanders plan also earmarks $51 million for the establishment of community land trusts (CLTs). This model promotes cooperatively owned, democratically governed, and permanently affordable housing. A typical CLT splits the ownership of the land from the housing on top of it, stewarded by a membership-based, community-controlled nonprofit organization, and the building it sits on, which could be owned by a household, as a co-op by the residents of the building, or by a nonprofit as permanently affordable rental.
CLTs are an increasingly popular approach to combating displacement, especially in states that preempt rent control. Breonne DeDecker of Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a community land trust based in New Orleans, says, “Federal funding for community land trusts would be transformative for many communities interested in creating permanently affordable housing that is protected from the private market. This is especially true for communities in the South, where community land trusts are under-resourced, and, in many instances, lack the direct municipal investments that land trusts elsewhere have enjoyed. In New Orleans, which is rapidly gentrifying, being able to access federal funds for land trust housing would give us a fighting chance to halt the ongoing displacement of low-income residents.”
The sobering part of all of these discussions is that even with a Democratic presidential win, modest housing victories are likely far-off. There remains little consensus among elected officials that the federal government should play much of a role in solving the housing crisis.
Nonetheless, Sherburn-Zimmer points out that the debate has shifted somewhat, and that’s due to a rise in grassroots housing organizing. “As speculation fueled displacement hits across the country like a flood, tenants rise up city to city, rural mobile home park to public housing complex, building tenant councils, marching in the streets and passing rent control laws. Five years ago this level of activity would have been unheard of, now the question is what’s next?”
It stands to reason that the answer to that question is more of the grassroots organizing and advocacy that has placed housing back into the national debate. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has launched the Our Homes, Our Votes campaign, which has been pressuring presidential debate moderators to ask questions about the future of housing in the United States—and they were finally successful on Tuesday, Nov. 19. Their website tracks the housing platforms of all of the major and minor candidates. This has been accompanied by a major voter education and registration push throughout the United States.
Joey Lindstrom, manager for field organizing at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, sees the solution in increased voter mobilization. “Whether Democrat or Republican, elected officials will start to prioritize housing affordability and ending homelessness when they see that our movement responds to bold leadership with a big pile of votes.”
Comparing the housing movement to the push for health care, Porter of the National Housing Law Project says, “About 30 years ago, activists began the fight for universal health care coverage. That fight has finally become a national conversation. We’re seeing evidence that housing could become the next national rights debate. What we can’t do is wait 10 years until we are well past our current state of housing crisis and rising homelessness. Then, like climate change, we might be asking if it is too late to do anything meaningful.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct inaccurate details about HUD’s budget. Also, a majority of foreclosed FHA homes placed into the Distressed Asset Stabilization Program were sold off to Wall Street investment firms such as Blackstone, not Blackwater.