It’s Time For Presidential Candidates To Talk About The New Housing Crisis

It's a key economic issue, but good luck hearing about it at a debate.
The affordable housing crisis is affecting millions of Americans, but candidates have rarely addressed the issue during the election season.
The affordable housing crisis is affecting millions of Americans, but candidates have rarely addressed the issue during the election season.
Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

In the fall, seven presidential candidates showed up at a New Hampshire housing summit to hear about the affordable housing crisis affecting millions of Americans, and organizers deemed the event a success. But all seven have dropped out of the race, and there has been little acknowledgement of housing issues since.

Homeownership declined to a record low following the foreclosure crisis, and there are 9 million more renters now than there were a decade ago. Rent prices continue to go up, pushing homeownership further out of reach for some. Nearly half of renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Cost burdens are increasingly affecting middle-class families.

The struggle to find a decent place to live is integral to the economic issues candidates highlight, but it has hardly been mentioned this election cycle.

The October event in New Hampshire was sponsored by the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families, a bipartisan nonprofit founded last year to end that silence. Board members include former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Henry Cisneros, who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton.

The foundation has met with candidates and their teams to push them to tackle the housing crisis, said foundation president Pamela Patenaude.

“Our number one goal is to elevate housing into the national policy dialogue and to educate the candidates about the need to address housing as a domestic policy issue that's often forgotten during presidential campaigns,” Patenaude said.

“We can’t fix poverty in America without fixing housing.”

- Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond, a Harvard University sociologist whose research on eviction shows how housing struggles push low-income families further into poverty, said the “good news” is that candidates on both sides of the aisle are talking about inequality.

“Work is central to this problem, but it’s only part of the solution,” Desmond said. “I’d like candidates to recognize that the lack of affordable housing, the extreme rent-burden low-income families are facing, is a wellspring for all sorts of social problems, from residential instability, to kids not being able to finish school, health and depression issues, moving into bad neighborhoods -- housing is central to the story, and I think that we need a very bold and robust housing platform that matches the size and scale of the problem.”

“We can’t fix poverty in America without fixing housing,” he added.

Some attention was drawn to the issue at a Democratic town hall in Las Vegas last month, when Hillary Clinton fielded a question about Hispanic Americans struggling to own homes after the recession.

“I want us to move in any way we can in the federal government to help relieve the burden of already existing homeowners,” she said. “Secondly, we want to provide more help so that more homeowners, Hispanic homeowners, African-American homeowners, those who want to be, have access to better credit, and better support.”

Clinton is the only candidate who has issued a specific housing plan, Patenaude said.

The candidate's economic agenda aimed at poor and minority communities calls for a $25 billion investment in housing. She lists several programs to expand access to homeownership and address the "skyrocketing rise of rental costs." Urban planner Robert Silverman, from the State University of New York at Buffalo, praised Clinton's platform for linking housing with employment and education.

You can find clips of Democratic challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) talking about the burden of high rents for poor families or highlighting the ongoing consequences of the foreclosure crisis in a campaign ad. Patenaude noted that even though Sanders hasn't issued policy suggestions, he has a solid background in affordable housing, going back to his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s. In Congress, he has pushed for a national housing trust fund and supported housing assistance programs.

Republican candidates have said little, if anything at all, about affordable housing.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) hasn't addressed the issue head-on, but his policy proposals would affect housing: His plan to eliminate HUD would pose a risk to critical housing assistance programs.

Candidates' inattention could be a missed opportunity, public policy professor and Terwilliger Foundation board member Raphael Bostic wrote in January:

The federal government has tremendous influence over housing policy, from tax incentives to HUD programs to oversight of the secondary market. The presidential candidates face a choice. They can view these policies as tools and craft an affordable, sustainable housing strategy that heals some of the deepest rifts in our economy and our society. Or they can bury their head in the sand and ignore the centerpiece of our middle-class wealth and the beating heart of our banking system.

There's some evidence that voters would prefer the former. In a telephone poll of 820 New Hampshire residents, conducted for the foundation by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center last fall, 75 percent said presidential candidates should put some focus on housing affordability, and 35 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate with a housing plan.

Patenaude said the foundation has tried to submit questions about affordable housing for each debate, and while she's disappointed they've struck out so far, she’s optimistic about the possibility of having their questions addressed during the general election. The organization is still meeting with candidates and drafting specific policy recommendations to present at each party's convention.

“If we can get the candidates to talk about it during the campaign season, then that’s a guarantee that they have to address it when they get elected,” she said.


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