Affordable housing has an unofficial figurehead as the national crisis makes its debut as a major issue on the presidential campaign trail this cycle.
Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, served as the Housing and Urban Development Secretary for the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. He’s seen housing from the federal and local level, and said he’s positioned to bring that knowledge to the White House.
“What I saw when I was at HUD as housing secretary was the tremendous need that exists out there, and also, even that the stereotype is that only big cities have a problem with affordable housing; actually, it’s everywhere,” said Castro, in an interview with Starting Line. “It’s in the suburbs, it’s in some smaller towns — that’s reflected in Iowa.”
Following last Saturday’s Polk County Steak Fry, Castro engaged in a full-day swing of the Des Moines metro area before heading to California, where on Wednesday he publicly urged CNN and New York Times reporters, the moderators of October’s debates, to ask the Democratic candidates specific questions on the housing crisis.
“I’m challenging CNN and the New York Times to actually ask a question about housing and homelessness in the next debate. I think I saw a reporter from the New York Times today, I hope she heard,” Castro said, at an event in Oakland, California.
Castro’s housing policies have been called ambitious by advocates. He’s called for the creation of 3 million more housing units in the next 10 years by investing in the national housing trust fund, community development block grants and home funding, while expanding low-income tax credits.
To make sure rent is affordable, Castro called for a refundable renter’s tax credit and the creation of a housing choice voucher program for people who make less than 50% of their area’s median income.
“Right now in communities big and small, we have a rental affordability crisis. We simply don’t have enough affordable units to meet the needs of the middle class, the working poor and the poor — that’s why I’ve called for a significant investment,” Castro said.
Taking The Message To The Doors
Castro’s post-Steak Fry Sunday began in his South Des Moines field office. His supporters had ducked out of the morning’s rain to attend a canvassing training session led by campaign leaders.
Before they embarked on door-knocking crusades, Castro supplied a pep talk.
“As I talk to folks here in Iowa, what I hear is that people want … new leadership,” he said. “This effort that we start today, getting out there and knocking on doors, and bringing the campaign to the people to Iowa is really about taking the campaign to them and letting them know the kind of leader, the kind of president that I would be.”
One of the door-knockers was Gretchen Zatarain, who flew into Iowa from Olympia, Washington, in support of Castro.
“I’m here to support him, he needs Iowa,” Zatarain said. “He walks his talk and he speaks strength to power, especially for the marginalized experience.”
The canvassers may have heard about one top-of-mind affordable housing concern as they made their way around Des Moines. Zoning, and how to better accommodate affordable housing projects, was subject to controversy within the city in recent months.
But door-knockers were prepared to talk about it. Zoning upheaval is included in Castro’s housing proposal.
Castro said he would give some federal grant funding to communities adopting land use codes that would allow for more affordable housing investment.
“I believe that it’s time for us to expect more from local communities when it comes to making smart zoning decisions,” Castro told Starting Line. “We need local communities to make smart decisions about land use, including zoning, that will allow for enough housing to be developed that is affordable.”
Rural America’s Housing Needs
About an hour and 15 minutes away in Jefferson, off a gravel road, a group of eight farmers later gathered with Castro to share their experiences as rural community members.
Pulled together in a semi-circle with members of the media lingering outside, the candidate told the group he came to listen and learn from them.
“During this campaign over the last eight months, I’ve traveled a lot in Iowa, obviously in Des Moines and other cities of size, but also some smaller communities,” Castro said. “I’ve heard a lot more about issues that rural communities face, from hospitals to infrastructure to broadband. Issues related to housing, and of course farming.”
During the meeting, a member of the group expressed his concern over the partisanship of current politics in Washington, asking Castro how he would look beyond party lines to accomplish his policies.
Castro referred to his time as HUD secretary to answer the question.
He said he generally received good reviews from people on the other side Obama’s administration —approaching them with respect and a willingness to hear all ideas.
“A lot of time they talked about cutting red tape — for instance, could we make it easier for landlords who were getting Section 8 vouchers to deal with the program?” Castro said. “I was very willing to listen and make it easier for them, and as president, I’d be willing to do that without sacrificing the principles we believe in.”
Another concern of the group touched on adequate workforce housing in the area. Farmer Chris Henning said there weren’t enough places for those who work near minimum wage jobs — on the farm or elsewhere — to live.
“Iowa has had a terrible record on how well they house workers,” Henning said.
Castro said his investments in the national housing trust fund would work to solve those concerns.
“We would invest in the national housing trust fund that creates affordable housing for people making less than 30% of the area median income,” Castro said. “We need housing that’s affordable at different parts of the income scale. Workforce housing and also housing for the very poor.
The Central Iowa for Castro tour ended with an event in a Perry hotel. Castro began the evening by addressing the community’s growing population, and subsequent housing adjustments.
“If we’re going to prosper in years ahead, It also means investing in things like affordable housing,” Castro said, noting that the community had probably seen the need for it “in this very fast-growing county.”
Castro then pointed to his successes at HUD, where he was part of a campaign that brought down veteran homelessness by 47%. After a recent trip to California, President Trump indicated support for criminalization, sweeps of unsheltered people living on the streets, and potentially moving them to federal homeless camps to address the state’s homeless crisis.
Castro, however, wants to decriminalization homelessness.
“We should not be charging someone with a crime, simply because they have nowhere to live. Instead, we need to work to find them at least shelter. And work toward permanent housing,” Castro said.
Castro and Trump’s housing policies are radically different, beyond how they approach the homeless. Castro said he’d begin to reverse a number of Trump’s housing policies on the first day he was in office.
“We’ll begin by taking to Congress a strong housing package in our first budget that includes much more funding for the national housing trust fund, CDBG and home funding, and also invest funds to work on ending homelessness to work toward ending homelessness in the United States by 2028,” Castro said.
By Isabella Murray
Photo by Emily Ross