Sizing Up the Remaining Presidential Housing Plans

Both presidential candidates are proposing big investments in housing solutions, but their platforms vary significantly.

 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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Tiana Caldwell had only just read former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign platform for housing when, along with a handful of fellow Kansas City housing organizers, she decided to stage a demonstration at one of his rallies. It was the second Saturday in March — one week since Biden had dominated in the South Carolina primary, and just days after most of the remaining Democratic candidates had dropped out of the race, leaving Biden to face off against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for the nomination. Caldwell has organized with the group KC Tenants and with People’s Action, a national progressive coalition that supports a “Homes Guarantee,” language that is echoed in Sanders’ platform but not in Biden’s.

“He just put it together a week and a half ago,” she says, referring to Biden’s housing plan. “He hadn’t paid any attention to the need, and to what people were saying about a homes guarantee.”

As Curbed reported, Caldwell and other organizers made enough noise at Biden’s rally to get into a short back-and-forth with the candidate. He promised to meet with them after the rally before they were escorted out by security. But when it was over, the protestors didn’t get a meeting with Biden, and campaign aides didn’t seem to have an explanation for why. (See video of the exchange here.) It was an impromptu action, says Caldwell, a cancer survivor who was evicted from a former apartment while struggling to pay medical bills and spent several months living in Kansas City hotels. She would have liked to do something a little bit more planned, but, “I will never not take the opportunity to get my voice heard — especially on something this important,” she says.

“That’s what you’re supposed to do with your candidates: Find out where they really stand and see if it aligns with your beliefs,” Caldwell says.

It’s been more than a year since the Democratic primary began, and questions about the federal government’s role in addressing the affordable-housing crisis have played a more urgent role than they have in any other recent campaigns, says Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Since the start of the campaign, NLIHC has been tracking candidates’ plans and statements on housing through its Our Homes, Our Votes website. Yentel says she has been pleasantly surprised by the relative prominence of housing as a campaign issue.

“It’s exceeded my expectations in that we started a year and a half ago with a goal of getting presidential candidates to prioritize affordable housing and put out plans for their solutions for the housing crisis,” she says. “And here we are with 15 presidential candidates — of course many no longer in the race, but 15 nonetheless — who have put forward bold housing plans, many of them comprehensive, most of them ambitious, and all centering the needs of the lowest-income people.”

Still, there are real differences in the two remaining candidates’ (technically Tulsi Gabbard is still running, but … ) approaches to the housing crisis. For one thing, it’s true that Biden was last out of the gate with his housing plan, which he released on March 2. (In February, when the California-based housing podcast Gimme Shelter was handing out superlatives for candidates’ housing platforms, Biden’s plan was named “most non-existent.”) Sanders’ housing plan was released in September. And the two plans differ significantly on substance as well, from their overall framing down to the policy details.

The Sanders housing plan, like the rest of his campaign, is framed around fighting income inequality. In the introduction to his housing platform, the campaign notes that “there is virtually no city or town where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a decent, two-bedroom apartment [while] the top 25 hedge fund managers in America made an average of $850 million apiece last year.” His platform calls for an overall $2.5 trillion investment in housing. Around $1.5 trillion of that money would go to the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund to build and preserve 7.4 million affordable housing units — the entire shortage identified by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in 2017. Another $400 billion would be spent on constructing two million “mixed-income social housing units,” a type of publicly owned affordable housing available to everyone, regardless of income. Additionally, Sanders calls for a $70 billion investment in repairing and modernizing public housing, the high-end estimate for what it would cost to make needed repairs to existing public-housing units in the United States.

Sanders’ plan also calls for:

  • fully funding the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, which currently only serves about a quarter of eligible households;

  • banning discrimination against tenants with housing vouchers;

  • implementing a national rent control policy, which would cap annual rent increases at 3 percent or 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index;

  • creating a national “just-cause” policy that would require landlords to give a reason when they file for evictions;

  • investing $2 billion to help states and cities provide lawyers for people facing evictions;

  • creating an office within HUD to help cities fight gentrification and displacement;

  • imposing taxes on house flipping and vacant homes to fight speculation;

  • investing money in local community land trusts;

  • decarbonizing homes through a Green New Deal for public housing;

  • and more.

The campaign did not respond to requests to interview a representative about its housing plans. Tara Raghuveer, an organizer with People’s Action, says the Sanders plan is “by far the biggest stride toward a homes guarantee among any of the candidates’ plans to date, and among any housing plans that we’ve ever seen in history.”

“I think it’s by far the biggest stride toward a homes guarantee among any of the candidates’ plans to date, and among any housing plans that we’ve ever seen in history …” Raghuveer says. “His approach to housing is that housing should be treated as a public good and provided in a universalistic way, which is the same as his approach on healthcare and many other issues.”

Biden’s plan, meanwhile, is framed around “rebuilding the middle class” and shrinking the racial wealth gap. The introduction to his plan says that Biden “believes the middle class isn’t a number, but a value set which includes the ability to own your own home and live in a safe community,” while noting that “communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the failures in our housing markets.” His plan calls for an overall housing investment of $640 billion, primarily through increases to a range of existing federal housing programs. Like Sanders, Biden calls for a federal ban on source-of-income discrimination, fully funding the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, and supporting programs that help tenants avoid eviction. He would establish a $100 billion “Affordable Housing Fund” that would help build new affordable housing and repair existing affordable housing.

Biden’s plan would also:

  • add $10 billion to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which funds new affordable and mixed-use housing;

  • invest $300 million in grants to cities and states that create policies which counteract racial segregation in the housing market;

  • create a $15,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers;

  • add $10 billion to the Community Development Block Grant program, which cities use to fund various development projects;

  • invest $10 billion in transit projects serving high-poverty areas to serve low-income workers;

  • add $5 billion to the New Markets Tax Credit program, which is meant to draw investment to low-income areas;

  • appoint a task force of local elected officials to prepare a plan for ending homelessness;

  • create a $5 billion renter’s tax credit;

  • and more.

Biden’s campaign also did not respond to requests for an interview.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition is non-partisan and doesn’t make political endorsements, but Yentel says all of the candidates’ plans are encouraging. Properly addressing the housing crisis requires “buckets of solutions,” and not one single approach, and both remaining candidates call for a range of approaches to the problem. The main difference is scale, she says: Sanders’ plan calls for a much larger investment. And it’s “unfortunate,” she says, that Biden’s plan doesn’t even mention public housing. In any event, both plans are merely aspirational.

“Certainly none of this can be achieved quickly or within one administration,” Yentel says. “And the president alone can’t make any of this happen. It requires support from Congress. ”

The United States has a range of housing programs that are effective at helping people find and maintain housing, Yentel says, but many of them are too small, or have been steadily drained of resources over the decades.

“The problem — the reason why we have the homelessness and housing crisis we have today — is that none of these programs are funded at the scale necessary to address the crisis,” Yentel says. “So we need to build the political will to fund them at the scale that’s necessary.”

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.

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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.

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Tags: affordable housingpublic housinggreen new deal

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