How the Democratic Candidates Would Tackle the Housing Crisis
The New York Times asked the candidates about their plans for housing and homelessness. They back many of the same programs, but are split on national rent control and a renter’s tax credit.
More than 550,000 people in the United States are homeless on any given night. More than 18 million spend more than half of their income on housing. And there is no state in which the number of affordable homes matches the number of low-income households.
Affordable housing, or the lack thereof, is a crisis no matter which way you slice it, and has been for many years. But it has never gotten as much attention in a presidential campaign as it is getting now, with candidates proposing hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending and terms like redlining and Section 8 starring in stump speeches.
And the public debate over housing and homelessness has grown increasingly prominent in many of the states voting on Super Tuesday, such as California, where the crisis has been particularly acute.
A new survey of the Democratic candidates on a variety of housing policies, conducted last week by The New York Times, finds they are largely united on offering incentives for affordable development and increasing tenant protections. But the responses to the questionnaire also revealed significant differences, including on rent control.
Of the five candidates still in the race, three — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York — completed the survey.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. did not complete it, but he recently released a housing plan, and where possible, The Times used that to determine his positions. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii did not complete the survey and has not released a plan.
Advocates both for tenants and for the housing industry agree that supply is at the core of the affordable housing crisis. By some estimates, the United States would need seven million more affordable rental units to meet demand, and as of 2018, there was no state in which the number of affordable homes matched the number of low-income households, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
In fact, in eight states — including the two most populous, California and Texas, both of which vote on Tuesday — there were 30 or fewer affordable homes per 100 very low-income households.
The candidates want to sharply increase funding for an array of programs that help states and localities build affordable housing or create incentives for private developers to do so.
Mr. Sanders, for instance, is proposing nearly $1.5 trillion in funding over 10 years for the National Housing Trust Fund, which is tasked with creating permanently affordable units. Ms. Warren would increase funding for that program by $445 billion, and Mr. Biden by $20 billion.
Mr. Sanders also wants to add $15 billion “to purchase and revitalize abandoned properties” on behalf of historically disadvantaged groups, and $500 million for the Agriculture Department’s Section 515 program for rural housing.
Ms. Warren would provide $25 billion for the Capital Magnet Fund, which builds homes for low- and middle-class households, and $4 billion for a “middle-class housing emergency fund.” Mr. Biden would create a $100 billion affordable housing fund.
All of them want to push cities to change exclusionary zoning rules that perpetuate segregation: Mr. Bloomberg, for instance, said he would tie federal infrastructure funding to rezoning efforts and provide $10 billion for municipalities “that offer the best solutions to restrictive zoning.”
“We’re very encouraged by how there’s a general consensus among all the candidates that the nationwide housing shortage is the root cause of this affordability crisis,” said Greg Brown, senior vice president for government affairs at the National Apartment Association, an advocacy group for the rental housing industry. “If you can break down some of the physical barriers and the regulatory barriers to the development of new supply, you can address that challenge.
”The candidates also agree that the government should help low-income Americans afford down payments; that homeless shelters should not be able to discriminate against transgender people, as the Trump administration wants to allow; and that source-of-income discrimination, in which some landlords refuse to accept Section 8 housing vouchers, should be banned.
That is an area where tenant and industry groups diverge, and the candidates are much more aligned with the tenant advocates. The National Apartment Association, for instance, supports expanding the Section 8 program to cover more people but argues that landlords should not be required to accept the vouchers.
Most of the candidates support a “just cause” requirement for evictions and want to repeal the Faircloth Amendment, which effectively prohibits the construction of new public housing. (Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren were united on those two policies; Mr. Biden’s and Ms. Gabbard's positions are unclear.) They generally want to expand access to federally backed mortgages.
Notably, the three candidates who completed the survey all agreed with the statement that “the federal government has an obligation to proactively address racially discriminatory housing policies from the past.”
The candidates’ responses reflect a shift not only in the amount of attention being paid to housing issues, but also in the direction of the focus.“
To the extent that housing has ever been talked about in previous presidential campaigns, it’s almost always been related to middle-class homeownership,” said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “This time, it’s almost entirely about the housing needs for lowest-income renters and people experiencing homelessness, where the solutions are most needed.”
The differences between the candidates’ plans, Ms. Yentel added, “are, for the most part, a matter of scale.” But there are a few significant points of disagreement.
Mr. Sanders, for instance, is the only candidate calling for a national rent control law. Specifically, he wants to limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher. Landlords could apply for waivers if they made significant improvements to an apartment or building.
“Landlords cannot be allowed to raise rents to whatever they want, whenever they want,” Mr. Sanders’s campaign wrote in response to the survey, adding that he would encourage states and cities to enact even stricter rent control.
Ms. Warren’s campaign said that she did not want a federal rent control law but that she “strongly supports state and local rent control efforts, which she believes will be more effective at protecting renters from unacceptable rent increases while ensuring adequate affordable housing supply.”
Mr. Bloomberg said he opposed national rent control, and Mr. Biden’s plan does not mention it.
The candidates are evenly split on the question of a tax credit for renters, and not along the usual ideological lines: Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders support it, while Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Warren do not.
Under Mr. Biden’s plan, renters would receive the credit if their rent and utilities exceeded 30 percent of their income, and the credit would be large enough to bring the costs down to that 30 percent mark. He said he would allocate $5 billion a year for the credit, which would help “low-income individuals and families who may make too much money to qualify for a Section 8 voucher but still struggle to pay their rent.”
Mr. Sanders’s campaign said that while he supported a renter’s tax credit, it “must be paired with rent control to ensure it is not a windfall for real estate investors.” Landlords should not be allowed to raise rents at will “and then have the federal government subsidize those rent increases,” he said.
Ms. Warren, by contrast, said that while she supported “robust funding” for rental assistance programs, the housing crisis was rooted in a lack of supply, and that she wanted to focus on policies that would address the shortage of affordable housing.
Individual proposals, especially ones as forceful as national rent control, are subjects of disagreement among advocates and experts — and, of course, among candidates. But rarely has the debate played out on such a large stage.
“After decades of chronic underinvestment by Congress, it is remarkable that presidential hopefuls are now using their platforms to elevate the housing crisis and its solutions,” Ms. Yentel said. “Candidates are talking more substantively about solutions to the housing crisis than perhaps any presidential campaign in history, and we’re still eight months out from the election.”
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