October 15, 2018
By Naomi Jagoda
Affordable housing is poised to become a more prominent issue in the 2020 presidential race, with several potential Democratic candidates releasing proposals on the topic in recent months.
Housing hasn’t been a top issue in past presidential elections, but Democratic strategists and housing experts say it could be a bigger part of the debate in the coming years as concern grows about how housing costs have increased faster than wages.
“In the last year, I’ve seen more attention to housing costs at the federal level, but also at the state and local level,” said Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), there is a shortage of more than 7 million rental homes that would be affordable to the lowest income renters.
In a number of populous areas, particularly in the Northeast and West Coast, housing is also becoming too expensive for middle-class families, said Schuetz.
Three Democratic senators who many expect to run for president in 2020 — Kamala Harris (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) — have all introduced bills aimed at reducing housing burdens. The senators also represent states with some of the highest housing costs.
Harris’s bill, introduced in July, would create a refundable tax credit for renters who pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. The bill has several co-sponsors, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has also been floated as a possible presidential candidate.
Booker’s bill, introduced in August, would similarly create a refundable tax credit and would also have jurisdictions receiving Community Development Block Grants develop strategies to create more affordable housing supplies.
Warren’s bill, introduced in late September, is the most comprehensive of the three.
It includes provisions aimed at lowering housing prices, such as by authorizing more federal funds to help build low- and middle-income housing and by creating a competitive grant program in which jurisdictions can get access to funds for infrastructure if they loosen their zoning laws. It also includes provisions aimed at making whole people who have been discriminated against in the past under housing policies.
“This bill will help millions of people lower their housing costs and help millions more on the path to making the promise of the American dream become a reality,” Warren wrote in an op-ed in The Root published earlier this month.
Besides Harris, Gillibrand, Booker and Warren, other possible Democratic presidential candidates may also be poised to make housing a key plank in their campaigns. Several people with backgrounds as state and local elected officials in high-cost areas, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, could get into the race.
And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for increasing investments in affordable housing during his 2016 presidential campaign and continues to consider the issue to be important. He wrote the preface to the NLIHC’s 2018 report on the cost of housing.
“I think the issue of housing is an issue that has too long been ignored, and I can tell you that in Vermont and throughout this country, it is harder and harder for working people and young people to find affordable housing,” Sanders told The Hill on Wednesday.
A number of groups that fight for affordable housing praised the bills and see potential for them to signal that housing will be more in the spotlight in the 2020 election.
“I think the three bills together are very exciting because people with presidential ambitions recognize that housing is an issue that has to be addressed,” said Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. He added that he thinks the bills show that every Democratic presidential candidate will have to include addressing housing issues as part of their platform.
Democratic strategists said that housing could be an issue that can help politicians in the party show they are attentive to voters’ needs.
“A lot of taking on Republican incumbents and taking on [President] Donald Trump is showing voters that you care about them, that their issues are your issues and that you’re going to fight for them,” said Scott Mulhauser, founder of Aperture Strategies and a former aide to former Vice President Joe Biden and the Senate Finance Committee.
Experts on Democratic politics also said that housing is an issue of importance to parts of the party’s base, including millennials and minority voters.
“I think many millennials are kind of frustrated because many of them do feel that they’re not making the same economic progress that their parents did,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.
Housing could also become a more prominent issue in Congress next year if Democrats win control of the House. Several likely freshman Democratic lawmakers — including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated a member of House Democratic leadership to win a primary in New York’s 14th District — have made housing part of their congressional campaigns.
Jesse Van Tol, CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said he sees this year’s midterm elections as a tipping point on the issue and that he’s started to hear a “groundswell of conversation” on it.
“It’s always been a surprise to me that housing doesn’t receive more attention in federal elections, and I think this is the year that changes that,” he said.
The Democratic senators’ bills have little chance of becoming law in the near future, given that Republicans are expected to keep control of the upper chamber and Trump will still be president. They’ve also drawn concern, with critics arguing that proposed tax credits might end up leading to rent increases and primarily benefiting landlords so long as housing supply is limited.
Booker and Harris’s offices pushed back against that criticism. Booker’s office said that the senator’s bill includes safeguards against rent increases. Harris’s office said that there are a number of things that need to be done to address the housing crisis, including addressing limited supply, but that the senator’s bill is one thing that could be done to help.
The legislation might not be enacted any time soon, but affordable housing advocates said they were excited about lawmakers offering proposals aimed at reducing housing burdens.
“While these bills differ in scope and specifics, they have in common a reflection of Senators Warren, Harris and Booker’s recognition of the magnitude of our country’s housing crisis, and the kind of bold and ambitious solutions that are necessary to solve it,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the NLIHC.
Democrats have been critical of some of the Trump administration’s housing proposals, such as proposals in the president’s budget to cut funding for Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs.
But some housing experts noted that both Democratic lawmakers and the Trump administration have expressed interest in encouraging local governments to loosen zoning regulations and increase housing supply.
“It’s about time we take a long, serious, look at all the regulations that have held back America’s affordable housing supply — especially multifamily housing — from keeping pace with demand,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a recent speech in Indiana.