One of the many unique aspects of the 2020 presidential campaign is that affordable housing has become a prominent issue. Not near the level that immigration, health care and climate change have reached, but for the first time in presidential campaign history multiple candidates have staked out strategies regarding how they would address the country’s affordable housing shortage.
So far, housing as a presidential campaign issue is exclusive to the Democrats, and 17 of the 20 candidates who appeared in this week’s Democratic debates have articulated positions related to housing conditions or affordability. On the Republican side, President Donald Trump and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld have yet to advance housing proposals as part of their presidential campaigns.
It is not surprising that Democrats show this interest in housing. Most of the top Democratic candidates are from coastal states where the rise in housing costs have eclipsed the rent and purchasing abilities of low and moderate income families, and stark scenes of homelessness are unavoidable.
Another Democratic contender, Texan Julian Castro, while not from the coasts, is especially attuned to the issue having served as secretary of housing under President Barack Obama.
Millennials and minorities hit especially hard
Furthermore, prized demographic voting blocs for Democrats, the millennials and black and Hispanic populations, have been hit especially hard by the shortage of affordable rental housing and the lack of purchase opportunities for first-time homebuyers. A similar political incentive exists because California, whose population faces the greatest affordability challenges, has become an early primary state.
Throughout the country, housing has elevated importance for voters with low-paying jobs or living on fixed income. A recent report of Harvard’s housing center showed that 70 percent of those with annual incomes below $15,000 and 40 percent of those with incomes between $15,000 and $30,000 were paying in excess of half their income for their homes — an unsustainable cost burden facing 15 million, or one of every eight, U.S. households.
In contrast to health care and food security, housing is the basic human need that the federal government has not even attempted to offer some level of assistance to all facing hardship. Still, the federal government provides and likely will continue to provide the vast majority of housing aid for families and communities, so the proposals of candidates vying for the presidency are immensely important to those looking for some relief in securing or providing housing.
Varying approaches among candidates
The approaches to housing taken by the 20 Democratic candidates who appeared on the debate stage in Detroit this week echo the diversity found among the candidates themselves.
Some candidates link the issue to nonhousing themes of their campaigns. For example, in his criminal justice proposal former Vice President Joe Biden sets a goal of ensuring that all incarcerated people have housing upon re-entry. In their climate change initiatives, Biden and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee would upgrade the energy efficiency of housing. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang states that rent becomes affordable as a result of his proposal for a new guaranteed income. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke says housing would be built under his infrastructure proposal, while Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan would add housing under his blighted neighborhoods redevelopment program.
Directly addressing housing affordability, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders all propose sizable investments in rent assistance and affordable housing construction. In addition, Harris backs funding to reduce the racial gap in home ownership, and with similar intent Buttigieg is promoting a homesteading program in urban areas with high levels of vacant and boarded homes. Sanders, who included affordable housing in his Economic Bill of Rights, would also provide federal backing for community land trusts, local rent control, and fair housing protections.
Several have detailed initiatives
Detailed, multifaceted housing initiatives have been advanced by the aforementioned Castro, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Each proposes new investments in rent assistance and in expanding the supply of affordable housing. They all go beyond these basics and address tenant protections (e.g., no discrimination against people using a housing voucher to pay rent), and in providing local governments with incentives to loosen zoning controls that restrict multifamily development.
Just ahead of the July candidates’ debate, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar released her comprehensive housing plan. It includes federal tax credits to promote home ownership in distressed neighborhoods, while expanding the rental tax credit to add apartments in high opportunity neighborhoods. Klobuchar also would increase protections for renters and greatly expand the rental voucher program, making it available to all qualifying households with children.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet have identified the importance of new federal investments in housing affordability but to date have not offered detailed proposals.
While former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper has not publicly promoted a housing proposal, the online publication MarketWatch reported receiving a statement from the Hickenlooper campaign identifying multiple housing investments their candidate supported. This leaves only three of the 20 candidates yet to identify housing as a campaign priority; they are author Marianne Williamson, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
While housing affordability will likely remain a second-tier issue during the 2020 election cycle, it is notable that housing has at last reached a tier status, and may have established permanent residency within the Democratic side of political consciousness.
Note: A running tally of statements and proposals concerning housing affordability by Republican and Democratic presidential candidates can be found on the National Low Income Housing Coalition website “ourhomes-ourvotes.org/the-
Chip Halbach, semi-retired, consults on housing policy in the Twin Cities. His long career in affordable housing included founding the Minnesota Housing Partnership and serving on the board of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
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