a photo of the 2020 Democratic presidential debate stage.
They have answers. Just ask 'em. David J. Phillip/AP

The Question the Presidential Candidates Don’t Get Asked

Affordable housing is an urgent crisis, and 11 candidates have presented plans for solving it. But you wouldn’t know this by watching the TV debates.

Last night, ten Democratic presidential hopefuls debated their plans for America’s future—with barely a mention of an issue at the top of many voters’ minds: the nation’s severe shortage of affordable homes.

The United States is in the grips of a severe and pervasive housing crisis, one that is hitting rural, urban, and suburban communities alike. Nationally, there is a shortage of 7 million homes affordable and available to the lowest-income renters. Rents have risen faster than renters’ incomes over the last two decades, and while more people are renting than ever, the supply of apartments they can afford has lagged. Fewer than four affordable and available rental homes exist for every 10 of the lowest-income renter households nationwide; people of color are disproportionately impacted. Meanwhile, policy makers have disinvested in the nation’s public housing infrastructure, leaving families living in unsafe, unhealthy, and unacceptable conditions. Racial segregation persists, and concentrated poverty is growing.

And after almost a decade of decline, homelessness is back on the rise, and in the news. Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signaled his administration’s intentions to address California’s homeless crisis in harmful, unjust, and unlawful ways: criminalization, sweeps of unsheltered people living on the streets, and potentially moving them to federal homeless camps. In a week when affordable housing and homelessness was on the front page of newspapers across the country, it is astonishing that the debate moderators neglected to ask any candidates for their solutions to the crisis.

The issue’s absence on the debate stage was particularly glaring given its paramount importance to voters. According to a recent national public opinion poll, 60 percent of people in America say housing affordability is a serious problem where they live—that’s up an astounding 21 points from 2016. More than 60 percent have made at least one sacrifice in the past three years, cutting back on food, healthcare, or learning activities for their children, to make rent.

The public is demanding solutions. Eighty-five percent of people in America believe ensuring everyone has a safe, accessible and affordable home should be a top national priority, and 8 in 10 voters want major action from Congress and the White House. There’s some rare bipartisan agreement around the urgency of this issue: Candidates with a detailed plan to make housing more affordable are more likely to garner support at the polls from Democrats (91 percent), Independents (70 percent) and Republicans (63 percent).

We can end homelessness and housing poverty. We lack only the political will to fund solutions at the scale necessary. While housing challenges differ in different communities, four sets of federal solutions are universally needed.

First, produce and preserve. We must build deeply affordable homes by expanding the national Housing Trust Fund (HTF) and preserve our nation’s public housing infrastructure by investing in needed repairs. The private sector must build more market-rate apartments; the federal government can help by requiring local governments to eliminate restrictive zoning policies and making zoning improvements a condition to receive federal transportation, infrastructure or housing dollars.

Next, we must bridge the growing gap between wages and housing costs by greatly expanding rental assistance. Since 1960, renters’ incomes have increased by 5 percent, while their housing costs have increased 61 percent. Meanwhile, only one in four families receives the housing assistance it needs due to chronic underfunding. Third, we can prevent homelessness with resources to help families absorb a one-time financial shock and avoid eviction and the spiraling into poverty—with all its associated costs—that results. Finally, we must protect renters against arbitrary evictions, rent hikes and discrimination.

So far, 11 presidential candidates have put forward housing plans or proposals that include some or all of these solutions. After decades of federal disinvestment, it’s remarkable to have candidates using their platforms to elevate the housing crisis and advance solutions of a size and scope not seen in generations. In these first early months of the 2020 election season, we’ve seen more sustained attention on affordable housing policy than we have in entire presidential campaigns in history.

Voters are eager to hear the candidates talk about how to make homes affordable and accessible to the tens of millions of people in America who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads, or who have no homes at all. But, once again, last night’s debate moderators chose not to ask them: What’s your plan to end the nation’s housing crisis?

Nothing is more central to our lives than our home. When we are affordably housed, we are healthier, our children do better in school, we earn more over our lifetimes, we even live longer. Voters must continue to urge candidates to talk about the housing crisis, to ask questions on the campaign trail, to push for ambitious solutions, and to hold candidates accountable. If debate moderators won’t ask candidates the housing question, we will. Because affordable homes—and the political will to produce them—are built with ballots.

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