Upstart candidates and 2020 presidential hopefuls alike are putting the perennially ignored issue at the top of the agenda
Housing is an urgent but typically unsexy issue. It rarely, if ever, pops up in campaign debates or flashy political events. Yet that may be starting to change. While Bunkeddeko and Ing didn’t win their primaries, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose platform included calling housing a human right, did, toppling New York Representative Joseph Crowley, who has been in Congress for nearly two decades and hadn’t faced a primary challenger since 2004. As America’s housing crisis has become more acute—nearly half of renters are spending more than what’s considered affordable on the roof over their heads, and over half a million people are homeless every night—young candidates like Bunkeddeko, Ing, and Ocasio-Cortez have seized on the issue as they’ve run for office this year.
Their embrace of the issue is shared by some elected officials already in Congress, with prominent members—including several seemingly contemplating White House runs in 2020—recently unveiling a variety of ambitious plans to tackle the housing crisis. Senator Elizabeth Warren has put forward perhaps the biggest and boldest recent plan, what she’s calling the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. The bill would have the federal government invest hundreds of billions of dollars in building up to 3.2 million new housing units. Compare that to, say, the 1.1 million existing units of public housing, or the 2.3 million affordable-housing units created between 1987 and 2016 through the largest federal tax program. She calls on a number of financing vehicles to get there, including the Housing Trust Fund—which was created in 2008 to fund affordable-housing projects across the country, but has still mostly been left empty—funding streams specifically for rural and tribal areas, and a brand new Middle-Class Housing Emergency Fund. “The rising cost of housing affects almost everyone,” she said. “This is a crisis—and all levels of government need to work together to address it.”
Warren’s bill would also dedicate $10 billion to a competitive federal grant for infrastructure projects that would only be available to local governments that change land-use restrictions that stymie the construction of new affordable housing.
It’s no accident that the people introducing housing bills in Congress are also those rumored to be contemplating runs for the White House in 2020. “Voters would vote this issue far more than politicians give them credit for,” said Celinda Lake, president of political consulting firm Lake Research Partners. “The politics of this issue at every level are really 50 years behind.… The voters have been way, way ahead of the policy-makers and politicians.” That’s particularly true for two groups whose support Democratic presidential hopefuls will need: millennials, and the increasing number of people living in cities. Young people who would otherwise be expected to be buying houses are instead saddled with student debt and working precarious and low-wage jobs; one in five likely voters ages 18–34 support investing in public housing, compared to just 3 percent of those 35–64. And cities are becoming so crowded that housing prices keep rising beyond anything remotely affordable.
If the attention paid to housing in Congress and on the campaign trail is new, so is the scale of ambition. Warren describes rising cost of housing as “a drag on the whole economy.… The problem…is not only that it leaves less money for child care, retirement, and college savings, but also that it limits people’s ability to move to areas with better jobs and schools.” So she put forward an expansive plan, not an incremental one. “I wanted to introduce a bill that is as big as the problem we’re trying to solve. For generations, housing policy has failed working families—driving up prices and excluding whole communities from building strong economic futures,” she said. “The federal government must take responsibility for its failures and work to fix them.”