POLITICS

2020 Democrats Think The Rent Is Too Damn High

Housing policy is on the presidential agenda for the first time in decades.

The rising cost of housing has become an issue on the presidential campaign trail for one of the first times in living memory, thrilling advocates who are hopeful that tackling housing affordability can merit inclusion on a crowded 2020 Democratic policy agenda.

Housing affordability is a major problem in the U.S., with nearly half of all renters paying more than a third of their income just to keep a roof over their heads. The median rent has risen 20 percent faster than inflation since 1990, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, while the median home price has risen 41 percent faster.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s housing programs serve just a fraction of the eligible population, and Washington basically doesn’t care.  

But contenders in the Democratic primary ahead of the 2020 presidential election are pushing some new ideas.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have proposed special tax credits for renters, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is going bigger. She wants Congress to devote substantially more resources toward funding actual homes for people to live in, and to make it harder for local governments to block development.  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says affordable, safe housing should be a basic human right.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren says affordable, safe housing should be a basic human right.

“In the same way that we think about health care as a basic human right, having a decent and safe place to live should be a human ― a basic human right,” Warren said during a CNN town hall at Jackson State University in Mississippi on Monday.   

The squeeze is everywhere, Warren continued. “It’s the poor, it’s the working poor, it’s the working class, it’s the middle class, it even moves up into the upper middle class that people feel squeezed on housing because we just don’t have enough affordable housing across this country,” she said.

There’s a national shortage of 7 million affordable homes, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which has endorsed Warren’s bill. An outside analysis of the Warren plan found it would cut the shortage by 3 million homes and put downward pressure on rents.

The housing coalition’s president, Diane Yentel, said Warren’s town hall was “the most we’ve ever had affordable housing talked about on the presidential campaign trail.” 

Democratic primaries are conducive environments for ambitious policy ideas. The 2020 primary season has also seen a wave of proposals addressing family poverty and child care, as well as more familiar ideas such as boosting the minimum wage and expanding health care. Many of them have been driven by Warren, who is widely credited as the field’s leading policy innovator, even if it hasn’t helped her significantly in the polls. 

What happens in the primary can influence the policy debate after the election, however. Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination in 2016 helped make “Medicare for all” a much more popular idea among congressional Democrats. And Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign sketched out many of the ideas that subsequently appeared in the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Cory Booker's housing proposal would encourage municipalities to loosen restrictions on new construction for multifamily
Sen. Cory Booker's housing proposal would encourage municipalities to loosen restrictions on new construction for multifamily properties. 

Warren’s legislation would spend $45 billion annually on the National Housing Trust Fund, which currently dishes out roughly $200 million annually that states can use to award grants for construction and maintenance of private housing for people with low incomes. The Warren bill would also help first-time homebuyers and award grants to communities that undo barriers to multifamily housing. The legislation’s cost would be fully offset by higher estate taxes on the super-rich.

The Booker and Harris proposals, meanwhile, are less ambitious. They would create a tax credit for renters that would pay people back for their excessive housing costs once a year at tax time. The proposals would reduce poverty, but probably not make dramatic changes to the housing market (though the Booker plan would also give municipalities an incentive to loosen restrictions on new construction for multifamily properties).

Data for Progress, a progressive research advocacy group, has analyzed each of the ideas candidates have formally offered so far. A brief on the Harris proposal credited Harris for being the first candidate to address the housing crisis and said her idea would be simple to enact ― but also that it reflects her “background as a California politician hesitant to tackle the state’s treacherous housing politics.”

The Harris campaign countered that as California’s top prosecutor, Harris participated in a mortgage fraud settlement in 2012 with other state attorneys general and the nation’s largest banks. She also prosecuted small-scale foreclosure rescue scams in California.

In recent years, a single-digit percentage of Americans has rated housing as the “most important problem,” along with hunger and homelessness, according to Gallup polling. But a 2016 poll from the MacArthur Foundation found 81 percent of Americans labeled housing affordability as a major issue in the country, and 57 percent said it was a major issue where they live. At the time, 63 percent said the candidates running for president that year hadn’t paid enough attention to the issue.

Sen. Kamala Harris' proposal would create a tax credit for renters.
Sen. Kamala Harris' proposal would create a tax credit for renters.

Warren also highlighted the fact that her legislation would address past discriminatory housing policies by the government, such as redlining ― refusing to lend at favorable rates to African-Americans seeking to purchase homes within certain areas. Earlier during her trip to Mississippi, Warren visited a formerly redlined area.

“This bill tackles that head-on and it says for people who are living in formerly redlined areas, there’s going to be special assistance for first-time homebuyers and people that got cheated in the run-up to the housing crash and lost their homes,” Warren said.

Racial justice has been a more prominent theme of the 2020 primary, with candidates no longer as dismissive of the idea of reparations for slavery and segregation as they have been in the past. Warren has endorsed setting up a commission to study reparations.

Part of the housing issue’s new resonance may be related to the geography of the 2020 presidential primary calendar. After the four early states, Super Tuesday will include primaries in California and Massachusetts ― two states with metropolises with skyrocketing housing costs ― and a number of states with significant black populations, including Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

This story has been updated with a response from the Harris campaign.

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