Housing has had a moment during the 2020 election cycle, but some are wondering if the nation’s growing need for affordable options can mobilize voters enough to implement policy changes.
Advocates say the sheer impact of the housing crisis, growing political will and increasing support for solutions has put real pressure on policymakers and presidential candidates to push affordability results forward. Those in local and national affordability circles are pleased with the attention the issue has gotten on the trail so far— by way of plans, candidate events and even a targeted question during the last national Democratic debate in Atlanta.
Now, these advocates are looking at how to make candidates realize that those in need of more affordable housing options are a viable voting bloc.
“Some of us have been working on this for years or decades and had hoped to get to a point where presidential candidates were putting forward ambitious plans, talking about those plans on the campaign trail, and even getting a question in the Democratic debate a couple weeks ago, which was a big deal, a big breakthrough,” said Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Nationally, there is no state or county where a renter working full-time at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to the NLIHC. Iowa is rated 45th in terms of highest housing wages.
“Today, just about everybody is impacted themselves by the housing crisis or knows somebody who is,” Yentel said.
Progress On The Trail
The NLIHC had some influence on getting a housing question on the national debate stage. The coalition put pressure on the moderators of each debate to ask a specific question on the issue by engaging in “tweetstorms,” where they and their supporters pleaded with networks and candidates on social media.
The coalition also circulated an online letter — now with more than 1,000 organizations signed on — urging the moderators to ask the debate question. It is working with targeted partners in Iowa, New Hampshire and California, holding events with candidates and voters focused on housing.
“And we’re going to keep the pressure on,” Yentel said. “I would certainly hope and expect that the next debate that’s going to be held in [Los Angeles] California — which is sort of the epicenter of the housing crisis and homelessness — I certainly expect there to be a question for candidates about how they’d address that issue if they were President.”
The goal of all of this work, advocates say, is to elevate the crisis and its solutions on the national dialogue so that whoever the next president is, they prioritize ending homelessness and housing poverty once in the White House.
Recent counts found 13 of the Democratic hopefuls put forward ambitious housing plans as aspects of their candidacies. This does not include everyone running.
“Joe Biden stands out as one candidate who has not yet put forward a comprehensive plan,” Yentel said. “We’ll continue pushing and urging all candidates to put forward their plan and to keep talking about it on the campaign trail.”
Candidate plans have been getting more comprehensive, though, often building off of their competitors’ ideas to tackle the issue.
“We recently had a scenario where Elizabeth Warren, who was the first to put out a big, bold housing plan over a year ago now, followed up a couple of weeks ago and added to that housing plan to make it more comprehensive —to address renters rights and other issues,” Yentel said. “So that is a really positive move in our view because candidates feel pressure even by each other to expand and make sure that their proposals are truly comprehensive.”
What Will Work From A Policy Perspective?
There’s no silver-bullet to end the housing crisis or homelessness, advocates say. While similar themes in the housing crisis play out throughout the country, the issue looks and feels different in varying communities.
In some communities, there are sufficient numbers of apartments for people to live in, but affordability becomes problematic. In that case, rental assistance is what’s needed to help bridge the gap.
Ellen McCabe, executive director of the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County, said this was the type of issue plaguing the Iowa City area.
“Here in Johnson County, we’re not necessarily having a shortage of housing, we’re having a shortage of housing that people can afford with their wages,” McCabe said. “For a person making minimum wage in Johnson County, they would need to work 82 hours a week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment.”
Then, in places like the Des Moines metro, there’s simply a shortage of homes. An increase in supply is needed, or more flexible zoning laws. And building or housing preservation must take place while keeping low-income buyers in mind, according to Burmeister.
A number of suggestions to address the different issues were released as policy recommendations and data, by the NLIHC. The coalition then sent these solutions to all candidates and their campaigns — most have used at least one of the coalition’s recommendations.
Sara Barron, executive director of the Johnson County Affordable Housing Coalition, said she tries to share suggestions like these with members and others in the community.
“We’ve been trying to share those with members and others in the community for the many voters who are prioritizing housing,” Barron said. “We have strong support among voters that affordable housing would be a central issue to campaigns.”
With just under two months until the Iowa Caucuses, members of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund said they were trying to demonstrate the importance of housing by displaying the potential political risk of a candidate not talking about it.
“I’ve said to several of the candidates at events, I think the constituency of potential voters in this country who are rent-burdened or somehow renter-cost burdened, is probably larger than any other constituency that they might want to speak to, and that their issue of high housing costs as a single topic of national concern probably resonates with more people in the United States than any other single topic that I can think of,” said the Trust Fund’s executive director, Eric Burmeister.
Local advocacy work has been successful in having candidates and other decision-makers understand the need for affordable housing, Burmeister said. Now, those voters need to mobilize.
“You can’t tell, standing in an audience, who is cost-burdened and who is not. There’s no outward sign of the size or power of that particular potential voting bloc. So what we need to do, is we need to have candidates understand, even though they can’t see it, the number of folks in this country who are housing cost-burdened,” he said.
For now, housing advocates said they will continue to push candidates to talk about their housing plans on the stump, stage and campaign trail. Yentel said the NLIHC is planning another attempt at a housing-focused candidate forum.
“It’s disappointing to see housing under-represented in some of the debates and in some of the public discussion among candidates, but individual campaigns are taking great care with comprehensive housing initiatives,” Barron said. “As advocates for housing availability, we have to stop and appreciate that affordable housing has risen to the surface of campaign issues. I think our next step is to build our ability to test the differences in affordable housing approaches.”
By Isabella Murray