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Democrats target housing shortage as advocates warn of crisis

The severe national shortage of affordable homes and deepening homelessness crises across the U.S. have thrust housing policy into the center of the Democratic presidential primary.

Affordable housing advocates estimate that the U.S. lacks roughly 7 million affordable homes or apartments needed to house low-income Americans. 

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, explained that for every 10 low-income renters in the U.S., there are fewer than four homes within their price range. 

“There is no state or major metropolitan area or community that has a sufficient supply of homes for its lowest-income renters,” Yentel said. 

“The fact that more and more people are either seeing the effects of the housing crisis in their communities or they’re feeling it themselves is increasing the pressure on policymakers to put forward solutions," she added.

The Trump administration has turned to spurring housing construction through deregulation, cutting taxes and reducing federal subsidies for affordable homes. The administration has also sought to shift the responsibility of creating affordable housing to the private sector, arguing that federal policy alone can’t end the crisis.

“The federal government cannot solve this problem alone,” said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson at a May congressional hearing on affordable housing. “This is not a federal problem, it’s everyone’s problem. That is why we are exploring new ways to bring the power of the private, philanthropic and faith-based sectors together to tackle this challenge."

Democrats are largely united against Trump administration efforts to loosen federal fair housing laws, reduce public housing funding and remove protections for certain immigrants and transgender homeless individuals. 

President Trump’s threats to raid homeless camps in California and Texas have also ignited an acrimonious battle between the administration and Democrats, raising fears among housing advocates eager for solutions.

There are more than 550,000 Americans without homes, according to federal data compiled in 2017. An increasing portion of the homeless population are men and women who’ve been priced out of homes and neighborhoods they were once able to afford, said David Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference (NHC).

“We've always struggled with dealing with the chronic homeless population, because their issues are severe addiction– and mental health–involved, and that makes it much more complicated,” Dworkin said. “But layered on top of that now is probably, in all likelihood, the worst case of economic homelessness since the Great Depression.”

Democrats broadly agree that a massive federal intervention is crucial to reverse the crisis policies and fill a national shortfall. The party is also unified around challenging zoning laws used to limit the construction of affordable housing units through federal grants and incentives.

“It's an absolute crisis in this country,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The Hill on Thursday. “People are struggling to put food on their table and are struggling to keep their leases.”

A slew of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have also proposed filling that gap through a massive investment in the construction and maintenance of low-cost houses and apartments. 

“We're not seeing developers return to the market for first-time homes [or] modest homes,” said Michael Wallace, a legislative director at the National League of Cities. “The challenge here is that for affordable housing to be affordable, it has to be subsidized.”

Warren is among several candidates who have pitched the affordable housing problem as an unbalanced equation exacerbated by racially discriminatory lending policies and exclusionary zoning laws.

While her housing reform plan includes measures to bridge the racial homeownership gap and fight lending discrimination, the proposal focuses on building 3.2 million affordable homes through federal grants and boosting rental assistance for low income families.

“Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side, and that means that the federal government stopped building new housing a long time ago,” Warren said during the Democratic primary debate Wednesday night.

“Housing is how we build wealth in America,” Warren continued. 

Harris also released a bill with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on Thursday that would spend $70 billion to repair and upgrade federally subsidized housing. The bill followed her previous proposals to offer a tax credit to families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and financial assistance for first-time black homebuyers.

And Booker has proposed limiting federal transportation infrastructure grants to cities and towns without zoning laws that discourage low-income development or foster gentrification.  

The vast majority 2020 Democratic candidates have also pitched similar measures to drastically expand the supply of affordable housing. But the party faces internal debates over how far and in which direction the federal government should go to ensure low-income Americans can find — and stay in — affordable homes. 

Sanders has proposed spending $2.5 trillion to build close to 10 million affordable homes, including $410 billion in housing assistance funding that Congress would not be permitted to limit. His plan, like several of his other policy proposals, is by far the costliest and most ambitious in the Democratic field.

But the most controversial aspect of Sanders’s plan among housing advocates is a federal cap limiting annual rent increases to 3 percent or 1.5 percent of the consumer price index, a gauge of inflation.

“Rent control may be the solution in some places. I really can't believe it is the solution everywhere,” Wallace said, adding that states and cities should be able to find flexible and targeted solutions for the unique needs of their citizens.

“There's not really a one size fits all solution here,” Wallace continued.

Dworkin, who served in the Treasury Department under Trump and former President Obama, added that “a federal rent control standard is a very blunt instrument and it's likely with innumerable unintended consequences.”

“The intention of it is understandable,” Dworkin continued. “But in practice, it almost never had the intended impact and creates market aberrations that are counter-productive.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Sanders, said that while New York real estate developers have found workarounds the city’s rent caps, she rejects “the idea that it's either a supply problem or a tenant protection problem.”

“There are areas where people say it's a supply problem and they use that as justification to build luxury housing,” she said. “We also need price protections and rent protections for tenants.”

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