All of a Sudden, Housing Is on the Agenda

Despite years of a deep crisis across the United States, affordable housing has never been a major issue on the national agenda. That’s changing.

Daniella Pierre joins other protesters across the street from a condo that is being built as they ask for affordable housing to be set aside in the city and county on July 27, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

In the brief yet seemingly endless time between the 2016 primary and the 2020 primary, the issue of housing grabbed attention on the national stage. Shockingly, given the devastating effects of the 2008 recession on the housing market across the country, presidential candidates in the 2012 and 2016 elections did not release detailed housing plans or campaign on promises to solve the housing crisis. In this year’s primary, that’s changed.

Early in her campaign, Elizabeth Warren relaunched the housing plan she had introduced in 2018, which proposes the construction of 3 million new housing units, a down-payment assistance program for people in formerly redlined neighborhoods, and limits on investor purchases of single-family homes, among other things. Julián Castro, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris have also introduced less visionary housing plans. And in September, Bernie Sanders introduced the Housing for All aspect of his platform, which includes a national rent-control initiative (something none of the other candidates have proposed), construction of 2 million new social housing units, full funding of public housing, and restrictions on inclusionary zoning. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently released a housing bill that is similar to Sanders’s, and Rashida Tlaib is preparing to release another bill later this fall.

So why is housing a presidential campaign issue in 2020, when it barely merited a mention in the aftermath of the housing crisis? Conventional wisdom makes housing a tricky issue for a national campaign: unlike health care, for which the needs and desires of voters look relatively similar across the country, the housing needs of working people in rural areas, postindustrial cities, gentrifying urban cores, and sprawling suburbs look very different. A homeowner in foreclosure and a cost-burdened renter may both be victims of the housing market writ large, but there hasn’t been a coherent framework that places both of them in the same context and identifies corporate landlords and government disinvestment as the root causes.

Much of the work of creating this framework has been done by national coalitions who have built alliances among grassroots housing groups in the last ten years, and who have started to develop relationships with candidates and policy platforms to bring housing to the debate stage. These coalitions largely emerged following the 2009 collapse of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which had a long history of organizing around housing issues and connecting them to larger economic concerns, including targeting predatory lenders and absentee landlords. ACORN also mobilized thousands of poor and working-class homeowners and renters across the country to participate in electoral politics — had they still been around in 2016, their organizing might have helped Hillary Clinton defeat Donald Trump.

But although the national umbrella no longer exists, most of the state and local member organizations still do, and they, along with other progressive organizations, have formed a series of post-ACORN coalitions that are emphasizing the importance of rent control, social housing, eviction and foreclosure prevention, and fair housing enforcement.

Right to the City Alliance, formed in 2007, has highlighted the gentrification of urban neighborhoods, the increase in renter households, and the “rise of the corporate landlord,” while seeking to tie housing issues to environmental and racial justice issues. Right to the City’s strongest local chapters are in Boston and Los Angeles, where they have a high degree of influence over the political landscape. Right to the City Boston endorsed a slate of six candidates for city council in 2019, four of whom were elected.

People’s Action was founded in 2016 through a merger of three preexisting national organizations, including National People’s Action, and incorporates a number of statewide 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) member organizations. National People’s Action member organizations fought for the Community Reinvestment Act in the late 1970s and the National Affordable Housing Act in the early 1990s. They recently released a plan for a national homes guarantee, a plan that overlaps significantly with Sanders’s Housing for All platform.

Sanders’s platform also benefited from the contributions of the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), established in 2012. (CPD staff also worked on Ocasio-Cortez’s bill). Like Right to the City and People’s Action, CPD is a coalition of state and local member organizations from across the country, with its strongest chapters in New York and Texas. CPD includes many former ACORN affiliates (although some of them are members of Right to the City or People’s Action) and is linked to the Working Families Party.

CPD also houses an organization of more than a thousand local elected officials from around the country known as Local Progress. Originally a network of big-city progressives, the group has broadened to include councilmembers from smaller cities like Spokane, Washington, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In October, Local Progress held their first ever national convening of members specifically focused on housing (another issue-based convening, on police reform, was held in 2017).

The bold policies that we need to combat the housing crisis in this country — rent control, eviction protections, funding for existing public housing, investment in new affordable units — can decidedly not be accomplished at the local level. From 1937 to 1973, the federal government spent billions of dollars to create hundreds of thousands of public housing units across the country. Fully funding existing public housing, not to mention the creation of new social housing through nonprofit developers and community land trusts, will require investment on a federal scale.

Meanwhile, the HUD budget has continued to decline, with a $26 billion backlog for public housing alone, while state aid to municipalities has also declined. Many state constitutions actively preempt policies like rent control and inclusionary zoning. And while local governments generally have jurisdiction over land use and zoning, giving them the ability to implement inclusionary zoning requirements or place conditions on tax incentives, discriminatory policies like exclusionary zoning flourish at the local level without strong enforcement of a national fair housing agenda. Without support from the federal government and with limited tax revenue, cities float bonds to fund housing efforts. These bonds generally must be approved by voters, forcing local politicians to overcome the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) atmosphere of local politics.

Still, many people look to their local government as the front line in dealing with affordable housing policy, and many local elected officials, whether progressive or socialist, make housing a key part of their campaign. Attendees at the recent Local Progress conference, many of whom struggle to implement the needs of their constituents with the dwindling support of the federal government, spent a great deal of time discussing the challenges of preemption and the need to overturn state bans on progressive policy and spending.

In Durham, North Carolina, a slate of left-leaning council candidates and the incumbent mayor ran successfully on a platform that included a $94 million housing bond bill, which also passed. The bond will pay for upgrades to Durham’s public housing stock, investment in new affordable housing units, and housing-first programs for homeless people, among other things. Jillian Johnson, one of the reelected councilors, a board member at Local Progress, and the cofounder of Durham for All, put it this way:

What we’re doing is subsidizing the state and federal government’s inability to hold corporations accountable. We’re going to spend money to provide affordable housing for people who have jobs that don’t pay them enough. We are subsidizing the inability of our federal government to take action in solving the housing crisis . . . We’re asking local people to provide resources that our federal government should be providing. If our state government did a better job, we could do rent control, implement a progressive property tax, a real estate transfer tax, we could raise the minimum wage. [But preemption leaves] this type of intervention as our only real option.

Statewide coalitions in Illinois and Washington, among others, are campaigning to overturn their states’ rent-control preemptions. Many are also pushing back against other statewide restrictions: Colorado’s was the first state legislature to reverse a preemption on cities raising their minimum wage above the state level, and officials from Denver spoke about the need to build on that victory to overturn a statewide ban on rent control. Last month, Minneapolis city councilor and Local Progress member Jeremiah Ellison cosponsored an order directing the city’s staff to study the impact of rent control on the city, which could boost the campaign to overturn Minnesota’s preemption.

Even when state housing laws favor tenants, enforcement of those laws is another challenge for local elected officials, especially when enforcement agencies are funded by limited state budgets. Members of Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board spoke about the challenges posed by California’s recently passed Assembly Bill 1482. The bill extends good-cause eviction protections and rent-increase limits to cities without rent control, but it doesn’t include funding for local jurisdictions to enforce.

Along the same lines, housing organizers in New York are pushing for more funding in next year’s state budget to be allocated to the agency that oversees the enforcement of the newly strengthened rent laws. When enforcement agencies are controlled by the same state governments that preempt progressive policies at the local level, getting funding for enforcement can be tough.

Even in states where rent control and other progressive measures aren’t preempted, Local Progress leaders were eager to emphasize to their colleagues that change does not happen without strong grassroots organizing campaigns. City councilor Helen Gym of Philadelphia, who is the vice chair of Local Progress, emphasized that:

We need a broad-based organizing campaign to raise consciousness about the need for renter protections. If you look at housing in isolation, you’re not going to win. Medical bills are one of the number-one reasons people fall behind on rent. When people move, their kids have to change schools, and it destabilizes their education. Find the health-care groups and the education groups and make them part of the coalition. The market system naturally favors the powerful over the disenfranchised; absent massive organizing, it will tip the other way.

Policies like rent control and social housing are on the national agenda in a way they haven’t been in fifty years. As people come to appreciate the depth and breadth of the housing crisis, they are becoming more cognizant of the need to build and rebuild powerful organizations that can politicize working people, influence policy, and promote a new vision of what’s possible.

Unfortunately, the right wing has a head start, as well-funded networks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are deeply entrenched in many state legislatures and have passed legislation preempting not only rent control but workers’ rights, environmental protections, and progressive taxation. If we’re going to defeat them from the left, we need to promote bold plans like the national homes guarantee and Housing for All, but we also need to continue to pressure our local elected officials to be part of and accountable to this movement.