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Trillions of dollars, millions of affordable homes

How presidential candidates would fight California’s housing crisis

The plans are expensive, ambitious and call for certain higher taxes

Housing has long been an afterthought on the national political stage, but as skyrocketing housing costs and staggering homelessness have struck cities in California and across the country, the Democratic presidential contenders are finding the issue harder to ignore.

Many of the 2020 White House hopefuls have rolled out sweeping and expensive plans to deal with the problem, which would go farther than anything the federal government has done on housing in generations.

Experts say that building more affordable housing is key to lowering housing costs in places like California, where demand has driven up prices — and several candidates would invest huge federal sums to do so. Sen. Bernie Sanders would go the furthest, proposing an investment of $2.5 trillion over 10 years to build and rehabilitate nearly 10 million affordable homes over the next decade. That’s a staggering amount, considering the U.S. is building about 1.3 million housing units a year — period.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren would invest $500 billion, in what the accounting firm Moody’s found would create more than 3 million new affordable housing units and reduce rents by 10 percent. And former hedge fund chief Tom Steyer would spend $470 billion.

“The solutions and numbers may feel very big, and even overwhelming, but this is the scale of the problem,” said David Zisser, the associate director of the affordable housing advocacy group Housing California. “I suspect that $2.5 trillion (that Sanders is proposing) is probably about right.”

Not surprisingly, the party’s most progressive candidates would fund their fix by taxing the rich. Warren would expand the estate tax, while Sanders would use a wealth tax on the richest 0.1 percent of Americans. His plan also calls for a 25 percent house-flipping tax on non-owner-occupied property sold within five years of purchase, and a 2 percent tax on the value of vacant homes.

Sanders, Warren, and Steyer also call for repealing the Faircloth Amendment, which prevents the federal government from funding the construction of most new public housing units.

Other candidates would increase housing supply through other methods. Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar would expand tax credits that encourage developers to build affordable housing, giving them more incentive to build.

Experts warn throwing money at affordable housing won’t go that far without also changing local zoning rules that limit where apartment buildings can be built. Warren, Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would give grants to cities that reform those zoning practices, while South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sanders would use a stick instead of a carrot, making federal housing or transportation funds to cities contingent on zoning reform.

Meanwhile, other candidates take a different tack by focusing on renters, with proposals from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Sanders and others to greatly increase the availability of housing vouchers — federal funding helping low-income people pay their rent. That would fight do more to help renters in the short term, as it would take years for new funding to build more housing units to actually lead to new homes being constructed.

Stephen Levy, an economist and the director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, said he thought that reforming local zoning laws and expanding housing vouchers were more realistic proposals than the idea of spending billions or trillions of taxpayer dollars on new construction.

“Money is only one piece of why housing is not getting built,” Levy said. “Even if you had a lot more funding, you’d have to wait years to go through the approval process for construction to start.”

Multiple candidates have also endorsed policies that California has already passed and want to take them nationwide.  Warren, Bloomberg, Sanders, and Steyer have called for banning landlords from discriminating against tenants who use government housing vouchers, and Sanders and Warren would ban landlords from evicting tenants without cause and guarantee the right to legal counsel in housing disputes. Both are already illegal in the Golden State.

In one of the most drastic proposals, Sanders has called for a national rent-control law capping annual rent increases at 3 percent or 1.5 times the rate of inflation — more stringent than a similar California law passed last year — even though some experts warn that would stifle new housing construction. None of the other candidates support that idea.

But they do offer a variety of unique proposals. Buttigieg and Sanders have endorsed a program in which the federal government would give grants to cities to purchase abandoned or foreclosed homes and give them to low-income people who live in historically redlined or racially segregated areas. After 10 years of living in the home as their primary residence, the “homesteader” would fully own the property.

Former Vice President Joe Biden — who has the least fleshed-out housing proposals — would focus on policies that get homeless people into homes as quickly as possible instead of making shelter a condition of staying sober or participating in other programs.

And Warren would deny federal grants to police departments that arrest homeless people for living on the streets.

All of the candidates would go further than Trump, who has talked tough about cracking down on homelessness in California without laying out many specifics, cut funding for public housing repairs in his proposed budgets, and pushed state and local governments to cut regulations that get in the way of building affordable housing.

Overall, advocates for affordable housing say they’re thrilled that most of the Democratic candidates have shown more ambition on the issue than presidential hopefuls have in generations.

“It’s gratifying to see housing move into the center of the conversation,” said Liz Ryan Murray, project director at the Alliance for Housing Justice. “It’s so welcome and so past time for us to be hearing about this at the national level.”

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