According to the federal government, if you pay more than 30 percent of your income toward housing, you’re paying too much. And by that measure, almost every place in America is unaffordable. In only a small fraction of counties in the United States can a person working full time at the average wage afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And in many areas, housing prices are rising faster than wages, making the affordability gap worse over time.
One reason why housing costs so much is because owners expect to make a profit when they sell a house or rent an apartment. As Daniel Hertz wrote in City Observatory last year, it’s impossible, in the long term, for housing to be both a good investment for its owners and affordable to the people to live in it. A lot of cities have tried to harness the profit incentives of the private housing market and find ways to get developers to build reduced-cost housing. But the approach that’s outlined in a new national campaign is simpler, if more radical by current political standards: Decommodify land and housing altogether, and guarantee a permanent home to everyone who needs it.
Last week, the Chicago-based advocacy group People’s Action released a policy platform called Homes Guarantee, which, if it were enacted, would transform the way housing is provided in the United States.It calls for a massive reinvestment in existing public housing, a national tenants’ bill of rights, universal rent control, reparations to people of color and native communities for racist land-use policies, a suite of taxes to discourage land speculation, and the construction of 12 million “social housing” units — publicly owned and operated apartments rented at below market rates. At the core of the campaign is the belief that, as the report says, “Everyone living in the United States should have safe, accessible, sustainable, and permanently affordable housing.”
“The first and biggest thing that we hope people latch onto is that this is not a time for incrementalism,” says Tara Raghuveer, an organizer with People’s Action who also coordinates a tenants’ rights group in Kansas City. “This plan is big and bold and comprehensive because it needs to be. In 2019, when a worker earning minimum wage can’t afford to live in any county in the country, we can’t be incrementalist in thinking about housing justice. Let’s put an end to that now and forever.”
The rough outline of the Homes Guarantee plan was put together by a few dozen grassroots organizers affiliated with People’s Action during a retreat last year, Raghuveer says. The group then reached out to a handful of academics and housing policy experts to draft the platform, which was vetted again by the organizers over the summer. Crafting the specific demands was important, Raghuveer says, but just as important was making sure that the plan was in line with the needs of the people who are suffering from housing instability across the country.
“We actually have at least one personal story for every right that we are demanding or asking for, so we can attach that personal situation to it,” says Tiana Caldwell, an organizer with KC Tenants whose story is highlighted in the plan.
Caldwell — who is “the descendant of slaves [and] the granddaughter and daughter of veterans who did not benefit from the G.I. Bill,” the plan notes — was recently diagnosed with cancer for a second time, and after falling behind on rent while trying to keep up with medical bills, she was evicted from her apartment.
“That kind of becomes a domino effect and nobody wants to rent to you then,” she says.
She and her husband and 12-year-old son were living in various hotels for several months, she says. When they did find a new apartment, the sewage backed up during the first night they stayed there and flooded the home. She became sick, she says, and the health department declared the apartment uninhabitable. She says she learned that the owner later sold that home without disclosing the sewage issues.
Caldwell says she was never involved in any kind of advocacy work prior to working with KC Tenants. But learning about the eviction research that Raghuveer was doing prior to starting the group convinced her to get involved.
“When she talked about her research and how far-reaching this was, I was like, ‘Yes, I want to help,’” Caldwell says. “It blew my mind.”
Earlier this year, Caldwell and others spoke with Congressmembers Jesús “Chuy” García of Illinois and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts about preventing evictions and other ways to stabilize housing. Since then, Raghuveer says, People’s Action has been in contact with other progressive members of Congress about drafting bills to enact various aspects of the Homes Guarantee plan, some of which may be introduced this year. The Homes Guarantee plan was met with praise by progressive lawmakers like Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and presidential candidate, and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who both tweeted about it. Even if no part of it is enacted any time soon, the coalition hopes the plan — and the concept of a housing guarantee — will define the progressive stance on housing for the 2020 campaign season.
Peter Gowan, a policy associate at the Democracy Collaborative and co-author of the Homes Guarantee plan, says he was introduced to Raghuveer and other organizers during the briefing with representatives Pressley and Garcia earlier this year. Gowan had already co-authored a paper called “Social Housing in the United States,” which called for 10 million social housing units to be built in the U.S. That target was also championed by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen in a Jacobin article calling for “A Green New Deal For Housing.” (Aldana Cohen is also a co-author of the Homes Guarantee, which includes decarbonization goals along with building targets.) Gowan says People’s Action “managed to organize [him] into doing all this with them” because of the stories that individual organizers were telling about why a new approach to housing is so important to their lives. And he hopes those stories carry the campaign forward.
“What we’d really like to see is for candidates to be held accountable to a movement of tenants, community organizers and workers around the country who are demanding that people should no longer have to pay 50, 60, 70 percent of their income on rent,” Gowan says. “I genuinely do think that this is the agenda for housing in america that progressives will get behind …This is the movement demand. Medicare for All, the Green New Deal — this is that for housing.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our thrice-weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.