One year before his inauguration as president, when the outcome of the Democratic primary was still up in the air and Bernie Sanders appeared to be the favorite to win, Joe Biden still had not released a plan for addressing the nation’s housing crises. Advocates in various corners of the housing world were backing different candidates, tacitly or openly. They all had different ideas about what strategies, policies, and investments should be prioritized.
But with Biden set to assume the presidency tomorrow, ten months into a deadly pandemic that has devastated the economy, there’s more unanimity about the next necessary steps. Biden’s “day one” priority, says Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, should be extending a moratorium on evictions through the duration of the pandemic — June at the very earliest — and expanding it to automatically cover all renters.
“I think by far the most urgent thing for both Biden and Congress is to extend and solidify the protections that are going to keep people in their homes until everyone has a vaccine. It’s unconscionable to think about housing policy when millions are facing eviction,” says Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY, a group that spends most of its time advocating for zoning reform.
“That’s like putting on your pants in the morning before you go outside,” says Damien Goodmon, an anti-gentrification activist in Los Angeles, director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, and founder of the Liberty Community Land Trust.
Most advocates believe that the incoming Biden administration is likely to extend the eviction moratorium, either by executive order or with an additional stimulus package passed through Congress, and to support additional funding for emergency rental assistance run by cities and states. (The stimulus package enacted in December included $25 billion in rental assistance; the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates at least $70 billion is needed to cover past-due rent.) On top of that, Biden’s campaign platform calls for spending $640 billion on housing programs. Most significantly, Biden has said he supports expanding the housing choice voucher program, which currently provides rental assistance for roughly a quarter of income-qualified renters, to cover everyone who qualifies. He has also called for incentives for cities that work to desegregate their neighborhoods, new protections and legal assistance for tenants, restoring the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and other fair-housing policies that were eliminated by the Trump administration, and putting $100 billion into new affordable housing projects. But as a candidate, Biden was last out of the gate with a housing plan, and his ambitions were smaller than some of the other candidates’ goals.
Tara Raghuveer, an organizer of the Homes Guarantee campaign, says that tenants and other advocates are relatively more hopeful than they were before, considering that Democrats will have control of Congress and the White House, but that there is also “a lot of sobering clarity among our base” about the prospects for systemic changes to decommodify housing.
“Housing was never central to President-elect Biden’s campaign, and therefore we’re not expecting it to be a central part of his priorities once he’s inaugurated,” Raghuveer says. “And even if it were — as it should be, given the sheer scale and depth of the crisis — unfortunately, there is a disconnect between our analysis of the solutions that are needed and the dominant analysis even among the Democratic Party.”
Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration should be prepared to work on behalf of the struggling people, particularly Black and brown women, whose stories they told throughout their most recent campaigns, Raghuveer says. That would require bolder action than what Biden has included in his housing platform. In 2019, progressives in Congress backed both a Green New Deal for Public Housing and a trillion-dollar package that would enact a Homes Guarantee. Democratic majorities in Congress could push solutions like those forward, Raghuveer says, if they want to.
“If anything we would hope that [incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer has learned some lessons on power, and how to act when you have it,” Raghuveer says. “We would hope that he would show up ready to deliver.”
Raghuveer and other progressive advocates are still hoping that the federal government will move to cancel rent and mortgage payments while the pandemic endures. They’re hoping that future rental assistance, which ultimately helps landlords, will be tied to stronger, permanent tenant protections, like banning evictions without a just cause. They want the federal government to intervene in the private market, through an acquisition fund for social housing or some other vehicle, to purchase distressed properties and foreclosed homes before speculators do and route them back to community land trusts and other non-market-oriented entities. A national law that gives tenants the first right to purchase their property, like some cities have adopted, would be a good step too, says Goodmon.
Even with Democratic control of Congress, there’s a limit to how much the federal government is likely to do in the next few years. Covid-related relief packages and expanding housing vouchers can be accomplished through budget negotiations, Saadian notes, but bigger policy changes still require 60 votes in the Senate.
Some are hoping for a new era of federal investment in new public housing, which would require a repeal of the Faircloth Amendment, which prevents increases in the supply of public housing. Lewis, of California YIMBY, notes that almost all new low-income housing is illegal in California until cities explicitly vote to approve it, a racist vestige of Article 34 to the California Constitution, as Next City has reported. Even if the federal government made unprecedented investments in public housing — hardly a likely scenario — state and city reforms will be needed to allow more that housing to actually be sited and built, Lewis says.
For Adrianne Todman, CEO of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, the backlog of maintenance for existing public housing is the first concern after extending the eviction moratorium and rental assistance. She says she’s hopeful that the incoming administration will emphasize racial justice in a range of government services, and that investments in climate change adaptation and mitigation will include retrofits for public housing as well. Some advocates have criticized the way Biden chose the next leader of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge, as “an afterthought.” But Todman says that Fudge’s experience as mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, gives her “an understanding of frontline issues” that housing authorities and low-income tenants face. And she’s hopeful that housing authorities will have a more attentive ear in Washington when the Biden administration begins.
“I think that leadership, when it comes to housing, which is very complex, has to come from all the way at the top,” Todman says. “And let’s just say that I think this new administration has been more vocal about their support for affordable housing generally than the current administration has been.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our twice-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.