The subject of the affordable housing crisis finally made the stage last night at the fifth 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta. Many housing industry professionals agree that this may be the first time a presidential debate moderator has asked candidates about their plans to address homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.
NBC News moderator Kristen Welker posed the housing question first to billionaire Tom Steyer, saying, “Millions of working Americans are finding that housing has become unaffordable…Why are you the best person to fix this?”
Tom Steyer responded by saying that inequality starts with housing. “Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.”
He pointed to the affordability crisis in his home state of California, saying that the state has millions too few housing units. Steyer said that while it starts with the homeless crisis, it includes skyrocketing rents affecting every working person in California. He went on to say America needs to build millions of more units, but also build them sustainably. Steyer also said he would force local governments that have kept out new housing to allow more housing development and direct federal dollars so that those units are affordable.
After Steyer’s answer, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker also responded.
Senator Warren said, “Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side, and that means that the federal government stopped building any new housing a long time ago, affordable housing.” She went on to point out how the private market is not serving low-income families, with private developers focused on “McMansions” instead of small two-bedroom starter homes like the one she grew up in.
Senator Warren’s plan calls for building 3.2 million new affordable housing units. These housing units are “for working families, for the working poor, for the ‘poor poor,’ for seniors who want to age in place, for people with disabilities, for people who are coming back from being incarcerated. It’s about tenants’ rights.”
The senator also said that the federal government must not just support building new units. Housing is how most people build wealth in America, and minority communities have been left behind. She said, “The federal government has subsidized the purchase of housing for decades for white people and has said for black people you’re cut out of the deal. That was known as redlining.” Her plan would address this history of “government-sponsored discrimination” and take action to reverse it.
Affordable Housing Online has written about Senator Warren’s housing plan, and you can read more about it here.
Senator Booker started by highlighting his experience with affordable housing. He was a mayor during the housing crisis and started his career as a tenants’ rights lawyer. He said that the other candidates had good points, but that we also need to talk about gentrification going on all over America. It’s led to “low-income families being moved further and further out, often compounding racial segregation.”
Senator Booker’s proposal is to use the tax code to help low-income renters. This would be similar to how the mortgage interest deduction helps build wealth for homeowners. He described his proposal for a renter tax credit. “My plan is very simple. If you’re a renter who pays more than a third of your income in rent, then you will get a refundable tax credit between the amount you’re paying and the area median rent. That empowers people in the same way we empower homeowners.”
Affordable Housing Online has written about Senator Booker’s renter tax credit, and you can read more about it here.
Affordable housing supporters have been working long and hard to get housing issues into the national spotlight. For more than a year, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has led an effort to bring America’s affordable housing crisis into the spotlight of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Through their Our Homes, Our Votes initiative, NLIHC has worked with partners around the country. These partners have held town halls and meetings, published op-ed pieces and directly questioned candidates about their housing plans. So far, 12 candidates have put forward what NLIHC calls “bold proposals to address homelessness and housing poverty in America, most centering the needs of low-income people in their plans.”
Over 1,000 organizations signed onto a national Our Homes, Our Votes letter. It urges presidential debate moderators to ask candidates about their affordable housing plans. Now that we’ve come to the fifth debate, the housing crisis faced by millions of low-income renters is finally getting some attention.