As Democratic presidential contenders start announcing their candidacies—kick-started by Sen. Elizabeth’s Warren’s announcement on January 1—pundits have begun to handicap the race. And in a potentially crowded field, everyone will be looking for ways to stand out and solidify their connection with the party’s energized progressive wing.
Affordable housing advocates see this as an opportunity to elevate the policy issues they’re most enthusiastic about.
“After decades of chronic underinvestment by Congress, it is remarkable that presidential hopefuls are now using their platforms to elevate the housing crisis for the lowest-income people,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Housing measures won big in the 2018 election
Yentel’s optimism about housing getting more attention in upcoming debates and policy statements was born last November: Local and state victories on 2018 ballot initiatives to address homelessness and housing concerns suggest those issues are winning ones, at multiple levels. Many freshman members of Congress ran and won on platforms that addressed housing issues, including proposals to expand housing vouchers and increase funding for the national Housing Trust Fund.
Warren has made housing a big part of a campaign grounded in economic issues, introducing comprehensive housing legislation with co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and writing a story on The Root about the nation’s history of racial discrimination in housing.
This renewed attention comes after decades of congressional inattention to an issue usually left to state and local governments. Housing costs, however, have become too big a problem to ignore. For every 100 lower-income renters, only 35 units were affordable and available, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s a shortage of 7.2 million units nationwide. More than 2.5 million units priced below $800 per month disappeared between 1990 and 2016.
“The increasing severity of the housing crisis, combined with advocacy, organizing, and increased media attention, means policymakers at all levels are feeling increasing pressure from their constituents to put forward and advance solutions,” says Yentel. “Local momentum and a national spotlight provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build the broad-based political support needed to enact transformative solutions.”
The field of potential Democratic candidates has picked up on this issue as part of a wider shift towards addressing economic issues and inequality. Both Senator Warren and Senator Kamala Harris, two leading candidates for the nomination, proposed housing bills last fall. Warren’s plan, the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act to the House, would create three million new housing units, improve access to affordable housing through anti-discrimination laws, and invest in families living in historically redlined communities. Harris’s proposal, the Rent Relief Act bill, would grant renters a credit for any rent costs above and beyond 30 percent of their annual income.
While both bills had slim chances in the Republican-dominated Congress last year—and an uphill battle with a Republican-controlled Senate in 2019—they both demonstrated serious commitments to elevate housing as an issue in a campaign season likely to be shaped by issues of social and economic justice.
Will a new Congress address housing challenges?
With so many members of Congress running or considering a run, this year may see a number of additional housing proposals that double as positioning statements for candidates.
The incoming Congress will have several opportunities to increase federal funding for affordable housing solutions, says Yentel: a potential budget deal, housing finance reform, or even a possible infrastructure spending package.
Other expected or announced entrants to the 2020 race—including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (who also proposed a housing bill last August); former HUD secretary Julián Castro; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Maryland representative John Delaney; and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown—have shown leadership on housing issues, according to Yentel.
Interest groups also see 2020 as a chance to influence housing policy. The Home1 advocacy group, a coalition of housing groups and nonprofits which formed last year, wants to make the “silent crisis” of affordability a bigger issue and has focused efforts on 2020, according to a spokesperson. People’s Action, a national network of community organizing groups, plans to make a list of policy “demands,” including housing, for 2020 candidates, reports Politico.
“People with presidential ambitions recognize that housing is an issue that has to be addressed,” Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, told The Hill.