In 2018, a loose coalition of housing advocates in Baltimore gave a master class in tenacity.
They had won a symbolic victory two years before, collecting 18,000 signatures to get a question on the general election ballot—should Baltimore create a trust fund for affordable housing?—and seeing the measure approved by 83 percent of voters. But earlier this year, they determined that progress wasn’t happening fast enough. So they started knocking on doors, building pressure for the city to put money in the fund, and in the spring, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration made a commitment to do just that. A few months later, when a verbal commitment was still all they had, the coalition decided it was time to take another step. If the city wouldn’t put its money where its mouth was, they’d do it for them: They started collecting signatures for another ballot question, this time requiring that a portion of the city’s overall property-tax revenue be set aside for affordable housing efforts. That sped things along, and in late September, the mayor and the city council signed an agreement, committing $20 million a year into the housing trust fund.
“We have power,” one of the activists told Next City at the time. “And we can wield that.”
There were signs of momentum on urban housing problems around the country in 2018, even as the affordability crises facing dozens of cities continued to grow more severe. And in virtually every case, the leaders who proposed the boldest solutions were pushed, publicly and privately, by tenacious groups of housing activists like the coalition in Baltimore. How far those solutions will go remains to be seen. But in 2018, more cities began stepping up to the plate. Here’s some of what they accomplished.
Following on the success of books like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law and other research, many cities have begun to acknowledge the role that explicitly segregationist policies have played in shaping the fortunes of their neighborhoods. In some cases, like Dallas, cities have been legally required to develop inclusive housing plans after being sued for practices that have made segregation worse. In Chicago, the Metropolitan Planning Council called on all the city’s institutions to adopt a “racial equity framework” in their decision-making, and the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law released a report describing how the unwritten tradition of aldermanic prerogative helps lock segregation in place. In Minneapolis, following a campaign season last year in which activists elevated issues of housing and zoning, Mayor Jacob Frey has pursued housing investments and policies with the explicit aim of de-segregating the city. “Minneapolis is obviously not unique in these circumstances,” Frey told Next City in May. “But we want to be on the very forefront of progress.”
While housing policy and investment in the United States has traditionally been focused on homeowners, in the last few years, cities have begun to pay more attention to the renter households that populate many of their neighborhoods. And this year, more cities began acknowledging the role that eviction plays in creating and sustaining poverty while taking small steps to protect tenants. Philadelphia released a 17-point plan to address its “eviction crisis” in the spring, and in the fall, the city council approved a modified version of “good cause” legislation that was introduced last fall. New York City lawmakers considered a new package of tenant protections, including efforts to crack down on harassment of tenants in rent-regulated apartments. And organizers in Los Angeles celebrated a victory when the city council approved a bill that limits rent increases and evictions in certain areas of the county.
Several cities adopted (or considered adopting) specialized taxes to fund affordable housing investments this year. In Oregon, a handful of cities have started enacting a small excise tax on construction to pay for affordable housing. Much of Philadelphia City Council’s spring session was taken up by a controversial proposal to create a similar construction excise tax. The proposal was narrowly approved in the spring, but Mayor Jim Kenney held off on signing it, and eventually negotiated an agreement to dedicate more money to the affordable housing trust fund without creating a tax on construction. In Alexandria, officials went a different direction, increasing the local tax on restaurant meals and diverting the new revenue to affordable housing efforts.
In addition to adopting new specialty taxes, some cities went big on general obligation bonds to support their housing plans. In Charlotte, voters approved a $50 million housing bond, while Austin set a record when voters approved a $250 million measure in November, with $100 million dedicated to land acquisition for future affordable housing development. An ambitious $450 million bond initiative in San Jose that Next City reported on in September failed to pass muster with voters on Election Day. Other cities asked voters to step up for housing as well, to varying degrees of success.
After years of cities lamenting the negligence of the federal government in matters of housing and urban infrastructure, the urgency of addressing affordability finally seems to be on the national political radar again. This year, three U.S. Senators who are likely 2020 presidential candidates introduced bills aimed at addressing affordability concerns. In July, Senator Kamala Harris introduced the “Rent Relief Act,” which would create a tax credit for cost-burdened renter households. In August, Senator Cory Booker introduced the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity Act, which would create a similar credit and new requirements for cities when adopting consolidated plans. In September, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, aimed at lowering the cost of housing to increase the supply while chipping away at exclusionary zoning, as reported in City Lab. None of the bills has been adopted yet, but the National Low Income Housing Coalition tells Next City that it supports all three. After years of local efforts, housing advocates may see some critical attention paid to the issue at the federal level.
On these fronts, there was progress on housing issues. Which is not to say that the biggest challenges have been addressed, or even that they are likely to be. As Daniel Kay Hertz wrote on City Observatory in October, there’s a “fundamental contradiction” in housing policy in the United States. Namely, housing can’t stay affordable over time if people also expect it to be a good investment.
“The two stated pillars of American housing policy — homeownership as wealth-building and housing affordability — are fundamentally at odds,” Hertz wrote. “Mostly, American housing policy resolves this contradiction by quietly deciding that it really doesn’t care that much about affordability after all. While funds for low-income subsidized housing languish, much larger pots of money are set aside for promoting homeownership through subsidies like the mortgage interest deduction and capital gains exemption, most of which goes to upper-middle- or upper-class households.”
Could urban housing crises grow dire enough to challenge that paradigm?
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, PlanPhilly, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, Grid magazine, and other publications.