Housing Policy in the 2020 Democratic Primary

Photo by Tom Rumble on Unsplash

by Eli Kahn

Even though housing issues affect everyone, housing has rarely been a top political issue in recent federal elections. However, the increasing cost of shelter throughout much of the country – a major aspect of a cost-of-living crisis that’s also putting healthcare, education and childcare out of reach for many – has made housing affordability the dominant issue at the state and local levels in many places, and candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have been taking notice.

An epidemic of homelessness is highly visible in the U.S.’s wealthiest cities, putting grotesque inequality and a societal failure of compassion on full display. This crisis is the tip of the iceberg, as more and more families are cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their incomes on rent or mortgage payments. The sociologist Matthew Desmond, in his study of evictions, observes that these traumatic upheavals have become far more commonplace than in previous generations. Even those at lower risk of eviction have felt the effects of lost opportunity in the housing market: as housing near job clusters has become scarcer, geographic mobility in the United States has declined to historic lows, and more and more workers are commuting for multiple hours each day, exacerbating global warming – not to mention wasting people’s finite time on earth in what is widely considered one of the least enjoyable of all activities.

Housing policy also intersects with sustainability in other ways. Buildings have a carbon footprint incorporating both the process of constructing them and the power needed to heat, cool, and light them, and they account for a significant chunk of carbon emissions. And the changing climate is upending the value and safety of many people’s homes, from coastal areas that may soon be underwater to the wildland-urban interface, where wildfires have made building increasingly risky even as economic incentives push sprawling development even further.

Housing is also directly connected with structural racism, as the legacy of redlining has kept Black family wealth at a fraction of that of white families. With public schools funded in large part through local property taxes, ongoing residential segregation is a major factor in educational inequality as well. In short, housing policy can be found beneath the surface of almost every major issue in the United States.

The major candidates for the Democratic nomination – Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg, as well as Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, who dropped out of the race as this piece was being revised – have all released housing policies, with varying levels of detail. All of the plans share some elements: all of the candidates promise to restore the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, weakened by the Trump administration in 2018, which is intended to require local governments receiving federal housing grants to study what barriers exist to non-discriminatory housing access and develop plans to eliminate such barriers. All the candidates decry exclusionary zoning and pledge to tie at least some federal housing funding to zoning reform. Each candidate also pledges to reverse Trump administration rules making public housing less accessible (including rules meant to exclude transgender people and families with immigrant members), expand the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and make information on predatory corporate landlords public.

Broadly, the Sanders, Biden and Warren plans are the most complex and fleshed-out, with Klobuchar’s and Bloomberg’s less detailed and Buttigieg’s in the middle. The differences between the candidates’ approach more or less reflects public perception of their ideological positions, though Joe Biden does promise large public investments somewhat larger than Elizabeth Warren’s and much larger than those proposed by Bloomberg, Klobuchar or Buttigieg. With several trillion dollars’ worth of planned expenditures, Sanders’s plan is the most ambitious in terms of spending. All the candidates plan to spend money to encourage affordable housing construction and make public housing more energy-efficient, as well as creating various programs to combat homelessness. All the candidates support guaranteeing tenants access to counsel in eviction proceedings, and pledge funding to ensure it.

All the candidates pledge to fight discrimination against Section 8 assistance recipients; however, Bloomberg merely pledges to provide incentives for landlords to accept Section 8 tenants, rather than banning discrimination outright. One Section 8 reform, proposed by Matthew Desmond and championed by former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro during his presidential campaign, would make Section 8 vouchers an entitlement, guaranteed to all families who meet the eligibility requirements, rather than a program with a set funding limit. All the Democratic candidates have pledged to expand Section 8, but Sanders and Warren fully endorse guaranteeing vouchers for all eligible families, whereas Buttigieg and Klobuchar promise guarantees only for eligible families with children, and Bloomberg promises guarantees only for eligible families in the Extremely Low Income category.

The plans also differ in comparative focus: Buttigieg and Klobuchar express more concern for rural housing and Klobuchar specifically mentions aging in place, whereas Bloomberg, the former mayor of the country’s largest city, pledges to have Section 8 administered regionally and pegged to area rents. The moderates have more of an emphasis on homeownership; Warren pledges to create a Tenant Protection Bureau modeled on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she was instrumental in creating; Biden and Warren take aim at the use of nuisance evictions against survivors of domestic violence. Sanders proposes a tax on house flipping and one on empty homes. Sanders and Warren both favor repealing the Faircloth Amendment, which prevents federal housing funding from being used to increase the stock of public housing; implementing a nationwide rent control standard; and tying federal money to allowing local rent control ordinances.

All in all, Sanders’s and Warren’s agendas are the most ambitious, though Joe Biden’s is also thorough, and every candidate has some interesting ideas. Implementing any of their housing agendas, however, will require political willpower and administrative deftness.

Eli Kahn is a first-year MPP student at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.