Editor’s Note: Affordable Housing Online’s Senior Housing Analyst Chris Holden had a unique opportunity last week to attend one of CNN’s televised town hall events in Manchester, New Hampshire. Below is his personal account of his experience, with reactions to what candidates said about housing policy.
Growing up in New Hampshire, I felt lucky that every four years I could meet presidential candidates in the state for its first-in-the-nation primary. When I started my career, I taught political science at Keene State College. It was great seeing my students out grilling the candidates. But I have never been part of a live national broadcast. When CNN called and told me I might get to ask a question at their New Hampshire primary town hall broadcast, I jumped at the chance.
CNN was hosting two town hall meetings leading up to the New Hampshire primary. They had invited New Hampshire residents to submit questions for the candidates. I submitted affordable housing questions for all of the candidates. CNN called and told me that they selected one of my questions, and they wanted me to pose it to Senator Amy Klobuchar.
My question they selected for the senator was, “The nation is facing an affordable housing crisis, with rents outstripping incomes. What would you do to increase the supply of affordable housing?”
In the end, they did not have time to include my question, but they did pick another person who asked about affordable housing. The question was very similar to mine. Even if I did not get to ask my question personally, I was glad that at least one candidate would have to talk about affordable housing that night.
It was an exciting night! You can see a video here of my reactions right after the town hall ended:
The candidates got a taste of true New Hampshire weather, as a snowstorm hit the day of the town hall. When I got to the venue on the campus of St. Anselm College in Manchester, people were already lined up to get in. I was pleased that so many people had showed up even with the bad weather.
The audience included many students from St. Anselm, but also a good cross section of people. I sat near a couple of retired teachers and a St. Anselm history major. The people asking candidate questions included social workers, students, business people, and several teachers. Most in the audience were undecided, and looking forward to seeing the differences between the candidates. Among the students, there was a lot of energy for Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
I had never been part of a TV production, so it was also pretty cool seeing the crew at work. You do not realize how much preparation goes into it when watching on TV. There were people to hand off microphones, camera operators prepping equipment, and a stage manager who led the audience in applause each time a commercial break counted down.
CNN had four of its anchors hosting each segment of the broadcast. Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, Don Lemon and Dana Bash were the moderators for the night. Each of them took time to answer questions from the audience before their segment. Favorite books, music, food and places to travel topped the list of questions. The personal questions for the moderators were a real contrast to the policy questions that the candidates faced the rest of the night.
Seeing the candidates up close, responding to questions, was really awesome. It gave me a chance to not only hear their ideas, but to also see their energy. I could see when they struggled to answer a question, and when a particular issue really fired them up. Although the stage manager cued the audience to clap at commercial breaks, while the candidates spoke all the applause was spontaneous and genuine. And the audience really paid attention, comparing what the candidates said between commercial breaks. Sanders and Buttigieg definitely got the most applause lines.
I attended the second night of CNN Town Halls. We heard from Senator Bernie Sanders, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Amy Klobuchar was the only one who got a question directly about affordable housing, and Bernie Sanders was the only other candidate that night who brought it up. This was a little disappointing, since every major candidate except for Joe Biden has put out a detailed affordable housing plan.
Sanders mentioned affordable housing needs when making attacking inequality. He pointed out that, “In the richest country in the history of the world, it is not all that hard to say that all of our people can have a decent standard of living.” He said how his plan would do this:
“Yes, if you work 40 hours a week, you can make at least 15 bucks an hour. Yes, your kids, regardless of your income, can go to college. Yes, of course, health care is a human right. Yes, of course, you don’t have to spend half of your income for housing because we’re going to build affordable housing. This is not utopian stuff. This is stuff we can do.”
I liked Sanders’ passion, and he has an ambitious affordable housing plan. I only wish the format left him time to explain his Green New Deal for Public Housing and his housing plan that includes a proposal for national rent control.
Amy Klobuchar was the only candidate to get a question specifically about affordable housing. She was asked, “So how do you propose to create more affordable housing? And what are some of the strategies to do so?”
I liked that Klobuchar said that both urban and rural areas have a big problem with affordable housing. Housing needs in rural areas often get overlooked, even though they are often more poor than large metro areas. She also supported expanding Section 8 to serve everyone who is eligible for the program. She called this taking care of the “backlog of Section 8 housing.” Klobuchar said she would increase the affordable housing supply by creating “incentives for building more housing.”
Klobuchar was a measured speaker, and did a good job weaving her policy proposals with personal stories. I was a little disappointed that she was not more specific about what incentives she would provide to promote more housing construction.
Although I did not attend the first CNN Town Hall the night before, I do have some reactions to what the candidates had to say about affordable housing. You can read what they said about housing here in Affordable Housing Online’s summary of the CNN Town Hall meetings.
Joe Biden did not get any questions about affordable housing. He did support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour so that no one working 40 hours a week would be living in poverty. Biden is the only major candidate without a detailed affordable housing plan, so it did not surprise me he did not mention the issue.
Although Elizabeth Warren did not get asked directly about affordable housing, I liked that she wove it into one of her answers. When asked about what she would do to empower people with disabilities, she talked about the need for affordable housing across the spectrum.
“We have a terrible housing problem in this country,” she said. “We just have a shrinking housing supply and a growing population, among middle-class families, working-class families, the working poor, the poor poor, the homeless, formerly incarcerated people, seniors who want to age in place, and also people with disabilities.”
I liked that she addressed affordable housing needs across the population. Warren also has a comprehensive affordable housing plan that focuses on producing new housing. I also like that she has a concrete proposal to pay for it without raising the deficit.
Tom Steyer was the only candidate asked directly about affordable housing on the first night. He was asked what he would do about rising housing costs and the lack of inventory. He said he would “hundreds of billions of dollars” building affordable, “climate-smart” housing units. This would meet affordable housing needs and “create millions of good-paying union jobs.”
It’s hard not to like Steyer’s commitment to building a lot more affordable housing. He is kind of vague here about where these funds will come from. He does have a detailed housing plan, though, and it would have been good if he talked more about it at the town hall.
Prior to this election, major presidential candidates hardly ever mentioned affordable housing as a key issue. This year, though, all but one major candidate put together an affordable housing plan. At least one debate this fall featured an affordable housing question, posed to three candidates. Both of the town halls leading up to the New Hampshire primary asked one candidate about affordable housing. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is a start.
You can read about all the candidates’ housing plans in Affordable Housing Online’s 2020 Presidential Candidate Housing Plans page here.
Affordable housing advocates have been working hard to make presidential candidates pay attention to housing needs around the country. This work has paid off, with journalists asking more questions and candidates putting together housing proposals.
I had a great time at the town hall, even though I had to drive home the next day through the snow. I learned a lot by seeing the candidates in person. Most states, however, do not see the presidential candidates as much as we do in New Hampshire. But as the primary season goes on through the Spring, candidates will be doing events and the media will still be hosting town halls and debates.
The more that candidates hear from people about rising rents and the lack of affordable housing, the more likely they will pay attention to this issue in their campaigns. You can check the candidates’ campaign websites for updates on their schedules, especially if your state’s primary is coming up soon. If you are lucky, you may be able to share your affordable housing concerns directly with a candidate.