Photo: Julian Castro touring a trailer park in Waukee where rents spiked with local activists in June.
Affordable housing as a political issue is taking the stage nationally during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary in a way it never has before.
Experts say this election is the first time candidates are seriously discussing affordable housing during their campaigns, and the recent spotlight has created space for local advocates to highlight the issue as it spans Iowa.
“Affordable housing remains a top issue in most of our communities across the state, in both urban and rural communities,” said local affordable housing developer Anawim Housing’s President Russ Frazier.
And not only public officials or those struggling to find affordable housing care about the issue. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that 76 percent of people polled nationally are more likely to vote for a candidate with a detailed plan on making housing more affordable.
Six of the ten presidential candidates who will take the stage at the September Democratic debates have detailed plans of affordable housing overhauls.
Renters’ tax credits, increases to federal housing funding and eviction protections are among some Democratic presidential candidates’ affordable housing proposals. Local housing advocates cite U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar’s as comprehensive.
Former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s candidacy is also notable for the housing industry. Housing advocates in Iowa said Castro’s plan is the most ambitious.
Housing pain is moving up the economic ladder statewide. More than 58,000 households in the Des Moines metro area need more affordable housing, according to data collected by Capital Crossroads, a group that looks at regional issues affecting central Iowa. And workers in four of the top ten occupations cannot afford the area’s median rent without sharing costs with another worker.
While housing struggles traditionally hurt the service workforce and below, rising housing costs caused another rung to raise their voices, said Polk County Housing Trust Fund executive director Eric Burmeister — a workforce that includes government employees, teachers or police.
“More people are starting to feel pinched. And they’re a little more empowered and connected,” he said. “It’s pretty novel for candidates to come to Iowa and hear about housing. No one ever had enough political power to make it an issue.”
And it’s important for the candidates to realize that affordable housing is a key issue, Burmeister said, because the federal government is a major player in housing funding. HUD is the agency which funnels support to state and local municipalities.
This includes historically successful programs like affordable housing tax credits, home funds, or community development block grant funds.
“We don’t talk to our city government or our state government [about increased funding], we talk to candidates on the federal level who can go to Washington,” he said.
State Sen. Zach Wahls, a Democrat from Coralville, said in his constituency, funding streams from the federal government haven’t gotten better over President Donald Trump’s tenure.
“It’s really disappointing actually, because Donald Trump made his money doing real estate and housing development, so if there has ever been a president who you think would be well-situated to actually lead on this issue, it would be our incumbent in the White House,” Wahls said.
Des Moines is experiencing a similar need for more federal support, said Ward Three Councilmember Josh Mandelbaum.
“Affordable housing tax credits have been successful, but some of the funding has dried out,” Mandelbaum said. “We need more support to tax credit programs.”
Some presidential candidates, like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke incorporate housing as part of larger strategies, such as climate or racial equity plans.
“We must address the root causes of racism, poverty, and crime – and doing so will require resources,” Butigeg’s plan said. He proposes grants to allow states to reduce their incarcerated populations while investing in programs that make communities safer, including affordable housing.
District Three Cedar Rapids Councilmember Dale Todd supports discussion about affordable housing in the context of racial justice. He said he doesn’t think the nation is talking about the issue correctly yet — too much conversation leaves race out of the equation.
“Until folks are able to have real conversations about affordable housing we will continue to limp around without enough,” Todd said.
But just having housing struggles put on a national platform is considered a success, poverty reduction initiative opportUNITY’s Director Seth Johnson said.
“We’ve raised awareness that we need affordable housing and we need workforce housing in the last couple of years. We’re starting to see that this is an economic issue. This isn’t just a social issue, it’s becoming an economic issue,” he said.
Chelsea Lepley is a Polk County Housing Trust Fund board member and Des Moines-based activist who said she’s noticed affordable housing struggles affect more of the community.
“We have a lot of people who are breaking their budgets paying rent instead of things they’d probably rather be spending their money on, like school supplies or clothes for their kids or car payments or student loans,” she said.
“I certainly hope [the candidates] are taking notice. They should be.”
by Isabella Murray
Photo via Lauren Johnson