During a significant few weeks for the nation’s widening affordable housing needs, several federal bill proposals and candidate plans were rolled out to address the crisis.
In her role as a California senator, 2020 Democratic candidate Kamala Harris introduced last Thursday legislation for more than $100 billion in infrastructure investments focused on bettering the country’s housing stock, including building new affordable housing units and updating existing ones.
More than two-thirds of the “Housing is Infrastructure Act” will go toward building and rehabilitating public housing. The bill comes about a week after another Iowa frontrunner, Sen. Bernie Sanders, also vowed to better public housing as an iteration of the Green New Deal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Tom Steyer this week put out additional housing plans focused on affordability and renters, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg addressed the issue in a recently released economic agenda.
The topic was also directly addressed for the first time last week on the national debate stage.
“I believe, having traveled the country, that the issue of affordable housing is probably one of the biggest issues we are not talking enough about, and that’s what I hope to address, which is the issue of it, with my proposal,” Harris told members of the media at a recent event in Muscatine.
Harris’ bill gets Iowa-specific as it sets aside $1 billion for the Rural Multi-Family Preservation and Revitalization Demonstration program of the Rural Housing Service, which is estimated to fully address the backlog of capital needs for the farmworker housing and rural housing stock. The nation’s housing crisis is hitting rural areas especially hard, according to Iowa housing advocates.
“The issue of affordable housing is an issue that impacts the entire country, whether it is an urban region, a suburban region or rural,” Harris said. “In terms of what I’ve experienced in rural areas in Iowa and in other states — New Hampshire, places that seemingly might not have this issue — they actually do have the issue.”
The Green Angle
Water and energy efficiency projects, along with other strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from public housing infrastructure, is also prioritized in Harris’ bill. The crossover between housing and climate was the focus of Sen. Sanders’ proposed Green New Deal for public housing.
Daniella Knox, a 28-year-old nanny from Des Moines, said she’s worried about her impact on the environment and wishes she could buy more expensive, sustainable products more often, if not for rising housing costs. Knox currently rents a home with two other roommates for about $1,500 a month.
“Our pay isn’t rising but everything else is. I feel like apartments are getting smaller but you pay more,” Knox said. “It’s difficult not just paying rent, but our earth is dying, I want to buy more sustainable products. Your rent leaves you just enough to buy the essentials, it doesn’t leave you with much choice to buy items that would make a better impact on the earth.”
Sen. Warren was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal for Public Housing. Monday at an event in West Des Moines, the presidential candidate addressed how housing plays a significant role in climate-related issues.
“Climate change affects every living thing on this planet,” she said. “We’ve got to be willing to use regulation. By 2028 we could build houses or buildings that don’t have any carbon footprint … and by 2035, no electricity that has any carbon footprint.”
Raising Minimum Wage, Supporting Tenants’ Rights
Warren last Monday released an additional housing plan, separate from her $500 billion pledge to build and rehabilitate around 3 billion housing units. The new proposal is centered around the nation’s renters and aims to invest in safe, green public housing and to fight corporate landlords in an effort to address the growing cost of rent and protect tenants’ rights.
Taylor Bacon, a University of Iowa student studying criminal justice, was concerned about housing as a young person trying to navigate her rights as a renter.
“In my experience, the landlords in Iowa City have an easier time manipulating people when they’re so young. A lot of people don’t know their rights,” Bacon said.
Bacon’s mother is executive director of IMPACT Community Action Partnership, a local nonprofit working with Iowa residents in poverty. Anne Bacon said she has noticed a large need for affordable housing in the communities she serves.
“I’m absolutely seeing the need for more affordable housing,” she said. “My entire career and life centers on poverty issues, and looking at wealth inequity and income inequity, that is always my priority … I vote on any issue that deals with folks who are financially struggling.”
Anne Bacon said she’s skeptical to vote on housing as an issue because she’s not sure if the public is ready for such drastic overhaul — she’d rather advocate for minimum wage raises.
“The housing issue, I’m a little skeptical about because it would require a huge swing in our approach nationally on housing, and I’m not sure the will is there in the House and Senate,” Bacon said. “So, instead of working on housing issues as much as increasing people’s incomes so they can afford housing.”
Warren often speaks of raising the minimum wage — an idea that would help those struggling to pay for housing find relief — both in her plans and on the stump.
At events, she tells attendees that the minimum wage job at Sears her mother got after her father had a heart attack and couldn’t work saved their family’s home during her childhood in Oklahoma.
“When I was a girl, a full-time minimum wage job in America would support a family of three. It would pay a mortgage, it would cover the utilities and it would put groceries on the table. Today, a full-time, minimum wage job in America will not keep a mamma and a baby out of poverty. That is wrong and that is why I am in this fight,” Warren said, Tuesday at an event in Knoxville. “I want a government that works for our families.”
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also wants to help American families level up. He released last Monday his economic agenda for them, which included a section on housing.
“Pete will invest $430 billion to unlock access to affordable housing for over 7 million families,” his plan states, with investments in local infrastructure, education, and business development.
Holli Milosevic works in insurance and rents an apartment for her and her 14-year-old son, Cadem Gahan, in Des Moines. Milosevic said she needed a more affordable housing option for them.
“I think we pay too much for our apartment and we don’t have any leftover to live on, so anything that can help that,” Milosevic said. “Housing costs are going up and you don’t make any more money, so you’re just paying more for rent.”
Her son also expressed concern over rising housing costs.
“I’m definitely not looking forward to when I grow up and have to find a housing situation,” Gahan said.
Housing On The National Stage
After strong pressure from housing advocates, the issue was for the first time directly addressed on the national debate stage last week, in a question for Steyer, the retired businessman and philanthropist from California.
“When you look at inequality in the United States of America, you have to start with housing,” Steyer said during the Atlanta debate. “We need to change policy and we need to apply resources here to make sure that we build literally millions of units.”
Steyer released his comprehensive affordable housing plan Monday in Charles City, which details proposals to boost the national Housing Trust Fund, a housing resource for low-income residents, by $47 billion and increase low income housing tax credits.
“Tom Steyer’s housing proposal represents another example of presidential candidates recognizing that bold action is needed to address the nation’s housing affordability crisis,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
By Isabella Murray