In a season full of ambitious plans to tackle the housing crisis, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has introduced what may be the most ambitious plan yet.
In November, Omar, a member of the so-called “Squad” — a group of four newly elected progressive Congresswomen of color that also includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley — introduced the The Homes for All Act. The bill calls for spending $1 trillion to build 12 million new homes over ten years. Of those, 9.5 million would be publicly owned, built to “the highest possible environmental standard,” and kept in good shape permanently through mandatory yearly maintenance spending by Congress. Another 2.5 million more would be privately owned, permanently affordable homes funded through a $200 billion investment in the federal Housing Trust Fund. Like the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act introduced the week before by Ocasio-Cortez, the Homes for All Act calls for the repeal of the Faircloth Amendment, a rule that prevents public housing authorities from increasing their overall housing supply. And it creates a $200 billion “Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund” that would make grants to cities for programs that would “help re-house displaced people, regulate exploitative developers or provide communities with the resources necessary to make a tenants’ right of first refusal [to purchase their apartment] an affordable and realistic option,” according to a summary of the legislation.
“The private market alone will never be able to provide enough adequate housing for every American,” Omar’s office wrote in the summary. “Fulfilling Americans’ basic right to housing will only happen with a guaranteed public option and a massive investment in new public, affordable housing construction.”
The legislation sticks out as a sweeping reimagination of the federal government’s role in housing people. But it has a lineage. Earlier this fall, as Next City reported, a campaign for a “Homes Guarantee” led by the Chicago-based group People’s Action released a policy platform calling for federal investment in housing. Among its demands were the construction of 12 million new “social housing” units — enough to house every extremely low-income renter household in America, plus the more than 500,000 people who were homeless during the point-in-time survey in 2018. The policy platform also called for a $200 billion “Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund.” Both demands are included in Omar’s bill.
The housing plans endorsed by progressive members of Congress increasingly respond to national campaigns for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. And the presence of new progressive Congress members seems to be encouraging more collaboration among those campaigns as well. Tara Raghuveer, an organizer with People’s Action, says the Homes Guarantee group worked directly with Omar staffers on the Homes for All Act. But so did advocates with the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), another national progressive coalition that earlier this fall brought its own set of demands for rent control and tenant protections to Congress, as Next City reported. CPD also worked with Ocasio-Cortez on some of her “Just Society” legislation.
Dianne Enriquez, director of campaigns for community dignity at the Center for Popular Democracy, says that Omar’s office actually started with a vision for new government-funded housing that was developed at the Center for American Progress — a liberal think tank with Democratic Party ties — and approached CPD for more ideas.
“Omar’s staff integrated a bunch of our language and integrated a bunch of the ideas, and took a bill that was much more moderate and [made it] what it looks like now,” Enriquez says.
People’s Action and CPD are both now working with other members of the Squad on more housing-related legislation, which they expect to be introduced early next year, according to both Enriquez and Raghuveer.
“The increased collaboration of our member groups on the ground plants the seed of collaboration between our national groups, and ultimately, I think we’re going to need all that power and more to win this stuff,” Raghuveer says.
The elevation of housing concerns to something approaching a national priority was hard to foresee just a few years ago, Raghuveer says. But progressive groups’ commitment to the issue is getting stronger and, similar to the way Medicare for All has gone from being a far-left wish to a core issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the groups’ influence is filtering up, Raghuveer says. Demands for a Green New Deal for public housing and 12 million new government-funded homes may seem wildly ambitious now, but progressive organizers feel like they have a chance to set a housing agenda at the federal level for the first time in memory.
“We’re trying to create a line where anything less than what we’re putting out is not good enough,” Enriquez says.
And while agenda-setting is a worthy goal on its own, organizers say, it’s not too far fetched to think that some parts of the agenda could be enacted in the relatively near term. Having legislators “who come out of movements like this and who see themselves as accountable to movements” creates opportunities for a “united front” among movements that have sometimes worked on separate campaigns, says Peter Gowan, a senior policy associate at the Democracy Collaborative. So a real caucus of progressive legislators supporting a cohesive housing vision could enact some changes, Gowan says.
“Say we have a Democratic administration and possibly a Democratic Congress coming around in 2021,” says Peter Gowan. “Maybe we don’t get everything, but a lot of this stuff could be done in a federal budget or an appropriations bill.”
In the spring of 2018, Gowan co-authored a paper for the People’s Policy Project called “Social Housing in the United States,” arguing for an investment in publicly owned housing for people at a range of income levels. Gowan says he’s happy with the Homes for All Act and other pieces of progressive legislation, and with “how the movement in general has reintroduced the idea that the public sector can play a role in expanding housing to working-class people on a non-discriminatory basis.” At the time he was writing the social housing paper, it wasn’t obvious that the ideas would get much traction.
“I certainly hoped that we would get somewhere like this, but this was at the edge of my hope for what we could achieve over such a short period of time,” Gowan says.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our 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.