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In Biden vs. Sanders race, two differing visions for housing

How the U.S. addresses its affordability crisis will be determined by Democratic primary voters

At the Democratic debate in South Carolina, just days before the state’s February 29 primary, former Vice President Joe Biden was asked how he would convince black voters that he could change years of racial inequities—and his answer was all about housing.

“What’s happening is we’re moving people out of their neighborhoods in ways that in fact make no sense,” he said. “They’re being bought out. You cannot find a place to live.” Biden went on to mention gentrification, red-lining, and access to home ownership—all topics that other candidates had previously talked about at length in detailed platforms as the country’s affordable housing crisis moved into the campaign spotlight. But it was a first for Biden, who, up until the final weeks before Super Tuesday, was the only frontrunner who did not have a housing plan.

Now, with Biden neck-and-neck in the delegate count with Sen. Bernie Sanders, teasing out the nuances around rental assistance, neighborhood displacement, and how the government pays for housing may prove pivotal for Democratic voters in a country where a minimum-wage worker cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S. As voters pick between these two frontrunners, they’re choosing what the housing future of America might look like.

Housing issues come up often in conversations with voters, says Rachel Reyes, an organizer for the Sanders campaign. When she canvassed in Las Vegas in the weeks before Nevada’s February 22 caucus, she heard many potential voters talk about high housing costs and substandard apartments. One single mother with two children who said she has good job and adequate medical coverage told Reyes she was trapped in an undesirable living situation due to exorbitant rents. “She doesn’t want to live where she is but it’s the cheapest place she can,” says Reyes. “She knows it isn’t safe and it’s only one bedroom, but it’s what she can afford in order to pay for food, transportation, and health care for all three of them.”

As Biden and Sanders attempted to address these issues in Super Tuesday states, their successes revealed diverging strategies on housing policies for struggling Americans, according to Jenny Schuetz, an urban economist at the Brookings Institution.

“There’s a decent amount of overlap between Biden’s and Sanders’s housing plans, but the two biggest differences between them point toward their appeal in different states,” she tells Curbed. “It’s not hard to see Sanders’s antagonism to for-profit landlords playing well in California, and Biden’s attention to racial disparities appealing to black voters across the South.”

Both candidates support boosting the housing trust fund to help low-income renters, expanding tenant protections, and making housing vouchers an entitlement. But Biden’s plan heavily addresses racial disparities in housing—as Schuetz points out, it references “discrimination” 21 times—in part by reinstating Obama-era fair housing regulations. Biden also wants to instate a renter’s tax credit, which would especially help cost-burdened renters.

While Sanders does address discrimination—the word appears seven times in his plan—his plan aims to attack that inequity by going after bad-actor landlords and speculative developers. Additionally, he proposes a sweeping public housing program, with production tied to his climate justice agenda through a Green New Deal for housing, and universal rent control as part of a “housing for all” platform.

On the campaign trail, Sanders has frequently brought up housing issues, mentioning homelessness, high rents, and displacement during debates, on social media, and at campaign events. Sanders also nabbed key endorsements from housing advocates, including the influential People’s Action, authors of the Homes Guarantee initiative to make housing a right, which Sanders references in his plan.

Even after Biden released a housing plan, his campaign did not seem to prioritize the issue. On the morning of Super Tuesday, the New York Times published answers to housing questions from Democratic frontrunners. Sanders, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren all provided answers on topics ranging from displacement to rent control, but Biden’s campaign did not respond to the survey.

Still, the timing of Biden’s housing plan, dropped days before South Carolina’s primary, may have helped deliver him a resounding victory in the state. The policies were explicitly aimed at boosting his standing with black and Latino voters, two campaign staffers told In South Carolina, not only are a majority of Democratic voters black, the state’s renters are facing the highest eviction rates in the country, as Kriston Capps pointed out at CityLab.

Biden notched a 30-point win over Sanders, and according to exit polls, half of Democratic voters chose Biden because of the endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn—the highest-ranking black legislator in Congress and a longtime advocate for renters. Clyburn proposed the October HOME Act bill co-authored with Sen. Cory Booker that would provide rental assistance for cost-burdened households while withholding transportation funding to cities that refuse to upzone for apartments. Clyburn also proposed another bill last month that would provide legal assistance to tenants nationwide. Both are referenced in Biden’s housing plan.

Elsewhere in the country, Sanders has made deep inroads with communities facing displacement that appear to have been equally successful. In early February, the Sanders campaign produced a video about Los Angeles’s housing crisis featuring a local tenant activist who was evicted from her home. To debut the video, the campaign reached out to local publication LA Taco, where editor Javier Cabral touted the exclusive from “Tio Bernie.” The day after Super Tuesday, Sanders was leading Biden in LA County by almost 10 points—even with Biden’s endorsement from LA Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In the week before Super Tuesday, the Sanders campaign also attacked the “gentrifying luxury developments” of a proposed East Boston housing project on Twitter. That resonated with voters locally, says Grace Holley, a Boston-based housing activist who canvassed for Sanders in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. “When housing was brought up in East Boston, a working-class and lower-income area of many Latinx residents, those I talked with were aware and extremely excited that Bernie Sanders brought up the issue of gentrification and displacement in East Boston on his national platform,” she says.

Although Biden carried Massachusetts overall, Sanders won the neighborhood of East Boston and Revere County, which borders the development, plus other neighborhoods that Holley says have been on the forefront of the fight against displacement in the city.

As the candidates sail towards the March 10 primaries in delegate-rich Michigan, with six other states also voting that day—and a timely debate coming up March 15 as well—the race is narrowing. Bloomberg suspended his campaign the day after Super Tuesday and threw his support to Biden, joining former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who both endorsed Biden before Super Tuesday. Warren left the race this morning.

Over 100 mayors who had endorsed Bloomberg, many of whom are governing cities facing soaring housing costs and increasing homeless populations, may join Biden’s long list of endorsements. By Wednesday night, the mayors of Washington, D.C.; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky had thrown their support to Biden. A handful of mayors have endorsed Sanders—namely, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ended his own presidential campaign late last year.

How will other local elected officials grappling with housing issues fall in line when it comes to making—or switching—their endorsements? And do voters care?

In January, when Garcetti endorsed Biden, who appointed the LA mayor as his national campaign co-chair, he praised Biden as a “true partner in solving the national homelessness crisis.” (Biden hadn’t provided any policy recommendations at the time, and it would be more than a month after the endorsement before Biden released his plan.) When Biden’s housing strategy was released, it included new endorsements from a dozen California elected officials, But that didn’t seem to help Biden in the state, where he was losing by an 8-point margin Wednesday night.

No matter which Democratic candidate ends up receiving the nomination, it’s a win for the country, says Diane Yentel, executive director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We have pushed all candidates to share their plans to address the crisis, and 15 candidates responded—many of them with comprehensive, ambitious plans centering the housing needs of the lowest-income people,” she says. “It’s remarkable that after decades of chronic underinvestment by Congress, presidential hopefuls are using their platforms to elevate the housing crisis and its solutions.”

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