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How a re-energized housing movement will shape the 2020 election

On a federal and local level, candidates have bold plans for tackling affordability and equity

Bay Area housing advocate Randy Shaw, like many in his field, has been disappointed by the Democratic presidential debates this election season. Despite social media pressure, it was proving impossible to get debate moderators to treat housing as a top-tier issue. A question about building affordable housing during the November 20 debate in Atlanta, answered by just three candidates, was the only mention of the topic during the seven debates so far.

Shaw found it especially frustrating because many of those debates were located in cities—Miami, Detroit, Houston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles—that were in the grips of the national affordable housing crisis.

“These are all Democratic cities where housing affordability is a top issue,” says Shaw, who wrote a book about the housing crisis in U.S. cities. “And the housing movement has never been at a stronger place, at least in terms of pushing the agenda at the federal level.”

Indeed, after barely getting on the radar in recent presidential election years, the deepening affordable housing crisis is poised to play a central role in this year’s local, statewide, and even federal elections. Candidates have proposed changes to housing policy and new spending plans that could dramatically remake neighborhoods across the country—and even result in all-new public housing.

“It’s an important problem facing a lot of people, there are tangible things that could make it better, and you now have a bunch of candidates with proposals who want to do something,” says Jenny Schuetz, a housing policy expert at the Brookings Institution. “But then you get Iran and impeachment. We need a month without craziness to get around to really talking about it.”

Housing has become a much bigger issue in 2020

Access to affordable housing is a rallying cry for Democrats who hope the 2020 election will usher in new policy at the federal level. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has made expanding housing opportunities and ending homelessness a key part of its 2020 policy vision. Candidates for federal and local office have embraced the Homes Guarantee pledge, a policy vision put forward by People’s Action, a national network of progressive activists. Last October in Durham, North Carolina, the group Local Progress convened a housing summit with local elected officials from around the country. Numerous states have embraced or have legislators promoting upzoning proposals, including Oregon, Virginia, Nebraska, and Maryland. California is debating numerous policy solutions, including transit-oriented zoning, renter protection, and expanding the approval and production of accessory dwelling units. And there’s been growing grassroots action as well, such as the recent protest by Moms 4 Housing, a group of homeless mothers who squatted in a corporate-owned single-family rental, leading to its purchase last week by a community land trust.

And even if it hasn’t been reflected in the debates, the 2020 presidential race does feature candidates, especially progressives like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who have proposed extensive housing policy reform and new investments. As Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY, says, you don’t get to implement lofty solutions until there’s broad agreement there’s a problem, and leading contenders agree there’s serious work to be done.

“I don’t know how you can run for national office and not take a stand on housing,” says Lewis. “Most of the leading candidates have taken a stand.”

Sarah Saadian, vice president for public policy for the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, says numerous candidates have called to ask for help crafting housing policy, though she wouldn’t give specifics. With so many politicians making it a central plank of their campaign, she sees housing policy playing an important role in the Democratic nomination process, especially in key states such as Nevada and California.

“My hope is that major legislation can be enacted to expand proven solutions to housing and poverty, and we’ll be at the forefront asking for it in 2021 and beyond,” she says.

At the same time, Saadian fears that if Donald Trump is re-elected, it could lead to a continuation of this administration’s poor record of addressing the crisis.

“When it comes to housing and homelessness, we’d be concerned to see what would happen,” she says. “They have consistently eliminated programs or made it much more difficult for people to get the assistance that they need.”

How the housing debate went from finding more funding to protecting a fundamental right

A widespread shortage of affordable units and a sharp rise in housing costs have radically shifted housing policy discussion over the last decade. The NLIHC found in 2018 that a renter working 40 hours a week and earning minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment in exactly zero counties nationwide, and the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies has found that “cost burdens have moved up the income scale,” with 4 million units of low-rent housing stock (defined as renting for under $800 a month) lost nationwide.

But the decrease in affordability was paralleled by a key shift in housing advocates’ political strategy after the Great Recession, according to Bill Przylucki, a community organizer and advocate with Ground Game LA, a grassroots organizing group in Southern California. The middle class began to feel the strain of housing costs as hedge funds and investors began buying up single-family homes to rent.

It became increasingly clear, Przylucki says, that “there is no amount of money you can make and shade of white you can be that can protect you from this beast. The real estate monster is coming to eat your community.”

“Today, Republicans, conservatives, and moderates better understand there’s a housing crisis,” adds Saadian. “It’s a much bigger issue for middle-income households.”

At the same time, many advocates who had relied on inclusionary zoning—regulations that require private developers to set aside a certain percentage of affordable units in new housing developments—to help add to the low-cost housing stock began to feel that market-based approaches weren’t working. Instead, Przylucki says, organizers began to ask: Why not start with the idea that everyone deserves housing, full stop? Since then, the affordable housing crisis has only become more pronounced, and grassroots groups have responded by taking more aggressive measures: backing candidates, in some cases holding community rent strikes, and changing their messaging strategy to emphasize housing as a human right, as well as the ways housing overlaps with other issues.

“Think about it: We say the U.S. is powerful and wealthy, so how come so many people don’t have a home they can afford?” Przylucki says.

The rise of YIMBY groups in California (short for “yes in my backyard,” a response to NIMBYism, knee-jerk opponents of development in their neighborhoods) and elsewhere over the last four years have added new voices to the housing discussion, pushing for a relaxation of regulations that have limited new housing production. New members of Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who introduced her own “A Place to Prosper Act” last fall) as well as successful Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates at the local level have begun pushing more progressive and aggressive housing proposals. Local groups like Neighbors for More Neighbors in Minneapolis pushed to turn planning and upzoning discussions into debates about equity, environmentalism, and transit access, while the Homes Guarantee asked candidates to reject real estate and developer money, a significant source of campaign funds for local officials.

Tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, and Google have all contributed money to create loan funds for affordable housing development. Even Habitat for Humanity, long a promoter of affordable housing but typically loath to get involved in promoting policy, now plans to launch a series of campaigns across the country called Cost of Home to advocate for laws promoting affordable housing construction.

“We’re never seen housing with the visibility it has now,” says Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International. “It’s gotten so bad that middle-class families with kids can’t afford housing. The invisible crisis has become visible.”

Federal investments and local policy shifts

Advocates across the ideological spectrum often see housing as a local issue, with different housing markets requiring different policies and regulations. But it’s hard to invest in significant new housing construction without federal funding. That’s why advocates are finding hope in Democratic contenders’ housing plans that talk about investing billions in a combination of rental assistance and new housing construction.

“The scale and magnitude of the housing crisis just can’t be solved without a major federal initiative,” says Shaw. “The federal government really hasn’t been involved in a serious way for 40 years.”

What to look for in 2020

Here are the trends in housing and politics to watch as election season intensifies.Upzoning moves to new statesLegislators in numerous states, including Virginia, Maryland, and Nebraska, have introduced upzoning bills. Will more states consider this step as a solution to the housing shortage?How does housing play out in Democratic primaries?With such a wide-open field heading into the Iowa caucuses, many advocates, including Saadian, believe differences in housing policy may play a large role in early primaries in California and Nevada. If the race remains contested, housing policy could even be a big deal in New York, where proposals around public housing would be especially relevant, Przylucki says.New proposals to watchRandy Shaw has his eyes on three different proposals, representing three ways progressive leaders want to change housing laws: a Housing Choice Bill in Massachusetts backed by Gov. Charlie Baker (currently stalled in the state legislature) that would allow a simple majority of a legislature to override local zoning to create new housing developments; building code reform to lower construction costs in Austin; and an ordinance to allow for more infill development in Portland, Oregon.

Still, it’s local governments that, through zoning and other regulatory reforms, will determine how and where money is spent. Brookings’ Schuetz sees state and local governments pushing more upzoning measures, especially what she calls “gentle density”: adding the ability to build an extra unit on a single-family lot, or legalizing fourplexes (building with four rental units). It’s not that surprising to see progressive states with high housing costs such as California discuss (and in the case of Oregon, pass) statewide zoning reform. But legislators in Texas, Utah, Arkansas, and Nebraska are also talking about similar zoning reforms. A member of Virginia’s House of Delegates recently introduced a number of zoning and housing policy reforms amid a larger package of housing bills.

“I’m not sure governors are going to take this on, but legislators are,” she says. “State Sen. Scott Wiener is embracing the role as a housing advocate in California, and the bills in Virginia are coming from a new delegate, Ibraheem Samirah, who’s using this as a means to define himself.”

YIMBY spokesperson Lewis thinks that housing policy will represent a key difference between incumbents and new candidates in overwhelmingly blue, progressive cities. Maya Rosas, an urban planner and cofounder of YIMBY Democrats, a San Diego progressive political group focused on housing, notes that this year’s mayoral race in that city is focused on housing and homelessness issues, and she is hopeful of getting a majority YIMBY city council, especially because their candidates present detailed plans. Todd Gloria, a state assembly member whom the group endorsed for mayor, has an extensive housing platform, including investing in a civic land trust and caps on annual rent increases.

“Everyone agrees we’re in a housing crisis and finding solutions is the only path forward, and we need candidates who will stake out positions and say what they’re going to do specifically,” Rosas says. “We need to go beyond generalities and support candidates with actual policy solutions.”

What happens after 2020?

Przylucki compares the current ferment over housing to the way health care became such a big part of the national political debate in the previous decade. Housing is likewise a massive expense for the average American, one that’s steadily rising and eating into household budgets. And the idea of enacting comprehensive, progressive, game-changing policy—akin to Medicare for All—is exciting many who want to make sure this moment doesn’t pass with a fix that comforts the struggling middle class without helping the extremely disadvantaged.

“Unfortunately, the difference between this and other election cycles is that people are talking about housing literally at all,” he says. “This is the first time there’s really been any kind of meaningfully serious discussion on housing policy in a federal election in the last 15 years of my professional career.”

There’s also evidence that housing has become a much more important issue for younger adults, especially those who have struggled to save for a down payment for a home, or who find themselves chased out of desirable neighborhoods by higher and higher rents.

“There’s absolutely a generational shift on this issue, and how important this is,” says Schuetz. “Housing affordability and climate change are much bigger issues for those under 40. They’ll be much more engaged on this over time if they don’t buy a house, which is normally when things shift.”

While there are differences among the Democratic candidates on what to do about housing, there’s a general agreement that something does need to be done, and money needs to be spent. As Shaw argues, things have gotten significantly worse since Trump was elected, especially homelessness. That’s a result of inheriting years of policy decisions, and their consequences, on the local, state, and federal levels. But what’s more important than how we got here is what we do next, he says, and whether we respond to this cry for change in housing policy with the proper urgency.

“The big thing I’ve realized is that we’re in an emergency and don’t treat it like an emergency,” he says.

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