The New Benchmark for Progressives on Housing

You want to call yourself a progressive? Demand national rent control, just-cause eviction, and billions of dollars of funding for new affordable and social housing, as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have recently endorsed. Anything less is an unacceptable concession.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders released his plan for housing justice in America. Drawing on the ideas of tenants’ rights groups on the ground, it’s the most ambitious housing plan put forward by any presidential candidate in living memory. And it’s set to become the new benchmark for progressive housing politics. Anything less is a concession.

In the United States today, 18 million households pay more than half of their income for a roof over their head. Half a million people sleep on the streets. The median rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,700, but the problem extends far beyond expensive urban centers. As CityLab reports, a forty-hour-a-week minimum-wage job covers a one-bedroom apartment in only twenty-eight of the country’s 3,007 counties. This isn’t just a housing crisis. It’s a housing catastrophe.

Sanders’s solution comes as no surprise: he wants to tax the rich to pay for public investment in housing. In particular, he wants to invest $1.48 trillion over ten years to build, rehabilitate, and maintain 7.4 million affordable homes for low-income renters. He wants to build 2 million mixed-income social housing units, to build and preserve affordable housing in rural areas and Indian Country, to repair and modernize our current public housing stock, to fully fund the Section 8 housing voucher program, and to invest $26 billion in building permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

His plan points out that many of these provisions will create good jobs in construction and maintenance. In addition to his already-proposed taxes on the rich, Sanders plans to help fund these plans by imposing a 25-percent tax on speculators who flip houses for easy money, and a 2-percent empty homes tax on the property value of vacant homes. For reference, an estimated 1.684 million homes sit empty in the United States, more than three times the number of homeless people.

Sanders’s program also contains an ambitious raft of tenant protections. He wants to stop landlords from being able to discriminate based on source of income, and to impose national rent control and national just-cause eviction. These would make it so that landlords can’t turn away tenants because they don’t like how they make ends meet, can’t raise the rent to whatever price they want, and can’t evict tenants for any reason whatsoever.

His campaign team assembled his plan after months of talks with activist and community groups focused on housing justice. It closely tracks the “A Home to Thrive” plan put forward by the group Center for Popular Democracy, particularly its organizational arm, CPD Action. Many of the ideas in Sanders’s plan appear to come from CPD Action, which calls for national rent control and just-cause eviction as well as an end to discrimination based on source of income. CPD Action’s plan also calls for massive investment in public housing as a way to allay the housing crisis, which Sanders’s plan echoes.

Within CPD Action there is a coalition of nineteen organizations across the country that pursue housing justice in a local context — organizations like the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment in California, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization in Chicago, and New York Communities for Change, Make the Road New York, and Churches United for Fair Housing in New York City. These groups have been working on the ground for years to protect working-class people from displacement and eviction in their cities, and they have come together to demand changes on a federal level. In Sanders’s plan, their ideas are reaching a wider audience and a greater legitimacy than ever before.

The demands put forward by local housing activist groups are set to find legislative expression soon, too. Four progressive congressmembers — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Chuy García, and Rashida Tlaib — have publicly backed CPD Action’s program. “We need a complete overhaul of housing policy,” Ocasio-Cortez said at an event promoting the plan, attended by tenants’ rights activists. “We need to stop commodifying the housing market because it’s not a speculative good; it’s a human right. Everyone needs a home to thrive.” Ocasio-Cortez is rumored to be dropping legislation this fall that contains many of the same provisions in CPD Action’s and Sanders’s plans.

Politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are taking the grassroots tenant movement’s boldest visions for housing mainstream. And from here, there’s no turning back. If a national politician wants to claim the mantle of “progressive,” they’re going to have to call for aggressive rent control. They’re going to have to champion just-cause eviction. They’re going to need to present a plan for building millions of units of affordable and social housing. If they don’t, they’re not meeting the new criteria, and they’re failing to keep pace with the escalating fight for tenants’ rights.