a photo collage of 2020 presidential candidates.
Everybody's talking housing. Mark Byrnes/CityLab/AP

Among Democratic candidates for president, the politics of America’s housing affordability crisis are getting complicated. Just wait until Trump barges in.

At a town hall in the Bronx last month, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that housing should be “legislated as a human right.” She touched on topics ranging from federal tax breaks to racial asthma disparities, arguing for a framework to tackle these as related concerns.

“What does that mean?” Ocasio-Cortez asked. “What it means is that our access and our ability and our guarantee to having a home comes before someone else’s privilege to earn a profit.”

AOC’s call for a national housing conversation is finding plenty of takers. Earlier this year, three Democratic presidential candidates—Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—released plans for solving the housing crisis. Another 2020 hopeful, former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, is unveiling his housing plan this week.

There’s never been a bigger opportunity to press for solutions, according to Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It’s unlike anything any of us who have been working in this field for decades have seen before,” Yentel says. “Just in these first early months of the election season, we’ve already seen more attention on affordable housing policy than, I think, in entire presidential campaigns in history.”

But while these Democratic candidates agree on the urgency of the housing affordability crisis, they don’t all see eye to eye with Ocasio-Cortez on the details. During her run for office last fall, she opposed a mixed-use housing development with a Target department store planned for Jackson Heights. (She won her seat in Congress, but Target slipped past her.) Whereas most of the presidential candidates are looking to pry loose restrictive local zoning codes that make it impossible to build new apartment buildings, AOC’s housing philosophy is cousin to NIMBYism: She has opposed building up in areas she represents for fear it will lead to gentrification or displacement. The think tank Data for Progress, an important nexus for the socialist and anti-capitalist left, recently released their own platform on housing, which similarly emphasizes building new public housing over new market-rate apartments.

For an issue on which so many agree—the rent is too damned high, especially in urban areas—housing affordability doesn’t present one single obvious fix. There isn’t even a clear partisan divide on the affordability crisis. As a political issue, housing doesn’t scan neatly along any traditional left-right spectrum. Instead, it divides people diagonally, drawing seismic fault lines through traditional liberal blocs and marking alliances between conservatives and progressives in ways that “bipartisan” doesn’t fully convey.

If the politics of housing seem messy now, wait until the Trump administration weighs in: The White House is in the process of developing its own housing plan, and two sources familiar with this work say that it will find common cause with pro-growth YIMBY progressives. That could split this intra-left debate wide open.

* * *

Lately, cities across the country have zeroed in on local land-use regulations as an answer to the affordable housing crisis. By lifting restrictive zoning codes, a strategy known as upzoning, some cities and states hope to increase the supply of housing and encourage growth in racially segregated areas dense in amenities such as parks and schools. That’s the approach Minneapolis will try: The city made national waves when it eliminated single-family zoning in December.

In a way, this should be the federal government’s job. With the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Congress set a policy that requires communities that receive federal housing funds to work actively toward desegregation. Communities could do so by building up low-income, multi-family housing in wealthier areas (something wealthy areas resist). In the 50 years since, however, that policy has never (or rarely) been enforced. In fact, the Trump administration delayed a formal rule on the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing policy in 2018.

So the White House doesn’t play any role in writing local land-use regulations, really. Instead, zoning has been left to state and local governments, and until the recent trend in upzoning, those governing bodies have been content to let neighborhoods lead the process. As a result, zoning rules were typically written by affluent white men who own homes, and for the benefit of wealthy white neighborhoods.

Zoning is the primary target for the Democratic presidential candidates who have released housing plans so far. Booker, Harris, and Warren have taken different approaches, through a combination of incentives and penalties, to encourage communities to increase their permitted density. Their strategies are still evolving.

Booker, who released his comprehensive housing plan earlier in June, favors the stick over the carrot. Previously, the New Jersey senator called for using federal Community Development Block Grants to persuade local governments to unlock exclusionary zoning codes. This would punish municipalities that use zoning to favor incumbent homeowners by denying them federal funds.

The problem with this approach, according to the Brookings Institution’s Jenny Schuetz, is that CDBG dollars go to large cities and poor cities—not the suburbs that make the most use of exclusionary zoning. The funds are designed by law to flow around the places that Booker’s policy has in mind. Congress can’t take federal dollars away from wealthy areas that do not receive those federal dollars in the first place.

That hasn’t stopped others in Congress from advancing legislation to thread CDGB funds to zoning outcomes. But Booker’s latest proposal takes a different tack. The senator’s new Housing, Opportunity, Mobility and Equity Act would link some $16 billion in various federal funds to local zoning restrictions—looking beyond the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and targeting a much larger purse.

“With the proposal that Booker put out [in June], CDBG is still in the mix, but he actually lists a whole bunch of the transportation funds, not through HUD but through DOT, and notably including roads. So it’s not even just tied to light rails and subway,” Schuetz says. “Basically he’s saying that the federal government could withhold road funding to local governments if they don’t change their zoning. That’s getting into a whole new ballgame.”

This is one example of the way that housing affordability is growing in visibility as a campaign issue. Candidates’ housing plans share a lot of DNA. Both Booker and Harris are promoting a tax credit for renters (which the Internal Revenue Service would pay out monthly, under their proposals). Both Booker and Warren support features that address historical racial inequities: Booker wants to use baby bonds to bridge the racial wealth gap; Warren has designed a down-payment assistance program for historically redlined areas.

Elizabeth Warren speaks at a campaign house party in New Hampshire on June 14. (Elise Amendola/AP)

With several Democratic candidates making a big deal about affordability, it can seem that housing is only an important political issue for the left. Given the fact that the least-affordable cities are run almost exclusively by Democratic Party officials, it may seem like housing is only a political problem for the left. But the affordability crisis is national, and so is the potential appeal of solutions.

“Candidates are taking notice of the fact that there are a lot of parts of the country, and a lot of people living in parts of the country, where housing is a day-to-day stressor,” Schuetz says. “Housing affordability has been a problem for poor people for decades. But there are now enough middle-income people in these large costly metro areas that politicians are starting to pay more attention.”

* * *

Some progressive advocates insist that Democrats need to think bigger on housing—much bigger. The folks at the progressive strategy organization Data for Progress are convinced that candidates are underselling affordability as a concern that will put voters in booths, according to the group’s housing strategists. “There’s a massive untapped opportunity, not just solving a problem affecting millions of Americans, but also having some real political upside doing so for progressives,” according to Henry Kraemer, housing fellow for Data for Progress.

Earlier this year, Data for Progress released “Homes for All: The Progressive 2020 Agenda for Housing.” It goes further than even the most sweeping proposal from the Democratic bench, with solutions for racial justice, economic justice, climate justice, and even rural uplift. According to Kraemer and Peter Harrison, senior housing advisor for Data for Progress, the socialist-style agenda they’ve outlined is enormously popular even with more moderate voters. Data for Progress (with YouGov Blue) conducted a poll of registered voters in April 2019 that showed strong support for the group’s tentpole issues: equitable zoning, social housing, rent relief, and rent stabilization.

“The one key point that we have as we talk to candidates is that it’s not an a la carte thing,” Harrison says. “It’s not a little bit of [Low Income Housing Tax Credits], it’s not a little bit of tax credits for homeowners. It’s a comprehensive, holistic view that does hopefully ignite change, with federal support.”

The platform includes several fairly mainstream ideas. Data for Progress wants candidates to commit to expanding housing tax credits (such as LIHTCs), increasing rental housing vouchers (Section 8), and lifting exclusionary zoning codes. All three Democratic senators have those goals as section headers in their respective housing plans. So does Castro.

But some of the group’s ideas are likely nonstarters, at least as far as Booker, Castro, Harris, and Warren are concerned. Data for Progress calls for a radical expansion of social and public housing, and they want to see the federal government use the carrot-and-stick approach to persuade local governments to adopt rent stabilization. The report also calls for the federal government to subsidize experimental models of collective homeownership.

Kraemer and Harrison acknowledge that they’re calling for a moonshot, especially when it comes to strategies to decouple the nation’s essential shelter needs from its fundamental wealth-building assets—the essential paradox at the heart of American housing policy. But they say that a lot of the ideas that they recommend have been tried before, in one form or another. And anyway, the problem can’t be solved by piecemeal solutions.

“We’re dealing with 50 years of deferred maintenance on the supply of homes for the American people,” Kraemer says. “We’re dealing with over a century of violent racist oppression that’s manifested in how the built environment is created and how homes are created and marketed and sold and rented to low-income people and people of color.”

With this platform, Data for Progress hopes to challenge several cherished articles of faith among liberals and housing experts alike. Among them: The notion that the entire public housing system since the 1960s has been a failure. Far from being a disaster, public housing works, Harrison says. (Given the $32 billion in capital repairs that the New York City Housing Authority alone needs in order to make its public housing stock safe for residents, that’s a quixotic assessment.) Public housing was set up to fail, the socialist housers say, and a government whose priorities were not racist in a systemic sense could make public housing work. “Good public housing in America didn’t die of natural causes,” Kraemer says. “It was assassinated.”

Some aspects of the Data for Progress platform may be unpalatable for mainstream candidates. References to “greedy landlords” and “parasitic capital” sprinkled throughout the report stand at odds with the group’s claim that their proposals test well with moderate voters. Kraemer and Harrison’s larger claim is that swing voters are taken with the progressive platform, once they learn about it.

“This is meant to speak to anybody that wants to either gauge the housing platforms of folks running for office in 2020 against what is the progressive ideal, and for the campaigns that want to convince voters who are looking for progressive bona fides that they’re putting those forward in their housing plan,” Kraemer says.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition is also pushing housing affordability as a national concern: The group boasts hundreds of members across the country and dozens of state partner organizations. On Saturday, the nonprofit launched Our Homes, Our Votes 2020, an effort to promote housing affordability as an election issue, with its first housing town hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, featuring Castro, the Obama-era housing secretary.

Julian Castro speaks to supporters during a rally in San Antonio in April. (Eric Gay/AP)

This week, Castro is rolling out his People First Housing program, a three-part plan to address rental affordability, housing discrimination, and homeownership. A former mayor of San Antonio, Castro means to make housing a signature plank of his campaign (along with his immigration platform). Most notably, his plan would turn the Housing Choice Voucher program into a fully funded federal entitlement for very low-income households, ending waitlists for Section 8 vouchers by granting aid to those families who qualify.

Castro has also called for creating a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform, which would tap experts from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency as well as HUD and DOT. The secretary wants to expand housing block grants but tie the new funds, as well as existing housing and transportation grants, to policies that combat segregation in local public schools, for example.

Our Homes, Our Votes hopes to give candidates like Castro a forum—and force other candidates to take their own stands. In addition to tracking every candidate’s position on housing, the campaign provides factsheets on the national Housing Trust Fund and how investments in affordable housing work. The idea is to give voters the basic tools to navigate this rather wonky landscape and figure out how the candidates’ housing prescriptions will affect them.

By conducting a sweep of the early primaries, the campaign means to put pressure on candidates to address housing in Iowa and New Hampshire (and possibly beyond). But the pressure may not be necessary: Voters are already asking policymakers about their preferred solutions. So many attendees in early forums and town halls are raising the issue that candidates who ignore affordable housing do so at their own peril, according to Coalition president Yentel. “The goal is to keep the conversation going so that ultimately, whoever is in the White House next prioritizes ending homelessness and housing poverty once they’re there,” she says.

* * *

Voters have a number of ambitious housing plans to weigh between now and 2020. From Harris’s renter tax credit to Booker’s baby bonds to Warren’s down payment assistance—and all the many other bullet points in between—the Democrats are calling for a lot of new spending on housing. (Socialist organizers are asking for much, much more.) But even if one of these plans comes to pass, housing is first and foremost the province of state and local government. And right now, it’s subject to bitter local debates about how best to balance the needs of older, wealthier, white homeowners and those of younger, less affluent renters who are more likely to be black and brown.

This can be an ugly and contentious debate, but to date, it’s largely a debate within the left. The terms would quickly change if and when President Donald Trump weighs in on one side.  

According to two sources, the Trump administration is working on its own housing plan, a joint project between HUD and the Domestic Policy Council, the principal domestic policy forum for the White House. Details are scant, but those sources say it’s being framed as a project to promote zoning deregulation, rather than a platform for addressing housing affordability per se.

That would square with what the administration has shown us so far. Last August, Housing Secretary Ben Carson told The Wall Street Journal that his department was looking to tie HUD grants to less restrictive zoning. His comments in that interview sounded similar to efforts by policymakers such as California Representative Maxine Waters to tie CDBG funds to zoning restrictions.

“There are certain regions of the country where there are enormous restrictions, zoning restrictions, all kinds of regulatory problems—those are the places where the [housing] prices are the highest,” Carson told Politico on June 11.

Using the power of the purse to push local governments to adopt less-restrictive zoning policies runs into the problem outlined by the Brookings Institution: Few of the most exclusive communities receive enough in housing grants for withholding these funds to affect their decision-making. But were the White House’s Domestic Policy Council to arrive at the same solution as Booker—to withhold the road grants so cherished by exclusive communities, unless they choose to be less exclusive—then the administration’s policy could work as an effective wedge.

And at that point, all hell might break loose. Take the housing debate now raging in Montgomery County, Maryland—a liberal suburb of Washington, D.C., and just the sort of exclusive community that progressive pro-growth zoning policies have in mind. Facing pressure to address the housing crisis, County Executive Marc Elrich is denying that there’s any problem for zoning to fix. That NIMBY position may be more persuasive, or at least more politically salient, when Elrich or Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch or dozens of other mayors and community leaders who have pushed back against upzoning can frame their opposition to density and change as resistance to Trumpzoning.

If the White House and Carson were to use the stick more indiscriminately—by targeting CDBG funds alone, for example—then they would be punishing large cities and poor cities. This could align with another Trump administration priority, which is to use policy to hammer liberal metro enclaves, such as it did with a cap on state and local tax deductions that primarily hit wealthy households in high-tax coastal states.

Advocates for density, affordability, and solutions for homelessness hope that the 2020 election is an opportunity to elevate the profile of housing as a political issue. Democratic candidates are showing that they think housing is key. But one way or another, the next election also stands to influence the ongoing fight on the left over an increasingly urgent crisis. As the sticky motto for the Our Homes, Our Votes campaign read, “Affordable homes are built with ballots.”

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