Housing 2020

March 22, 2019 | Mike Kingsella
Reading time: 11 min

Though the next Presidential election is nearly 20 months away, Decision 2020 is already in full swing. High-profile Democratic candidates are announcing election bids on a near-weekly basis, confirming that the size of the 2020 Democratic primary field will be historic. Diners in New Hampshire, living rooms in Iowa, and churches in South Carolina are already receiving regular visits from candidates seeking the highest office in the land.

Many of the Democratic candidates are current or former elected officials, which provides some insight into their views on housing policy and how they may approach it while occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some have even made the housing shortage and affordability crisis a signature issue during their time in office. And one – Secretary Julian Castro – even ran the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama.

In this week’s Insights report, we’ll delve into several of the announced candidates records on and proposals for housing, and how they might approach the issue as President. But before we take this deep dive, it’s important to note that while housing hasn’t reached the same level of priority as the economy, trade, immigration, or defense under the Trump Administration, it hasn’t fallen completely off the radar.

Most notably, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has been labeled as one of the more surprising YIMBYs for his support for tying a reduction in exclusionary zoning policies to the receipt of federal housing dollars – a proposal on which he recently doubled down. And the nominee to be director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Mark Calabria, is a libertarian economist committed to overhauling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both of these proposals would represent a major shift in how Washington approaches housing policy, though Secretary Carson has already announced that he will leave office before a potential second term for President Trump.

But what about the people seeking to unseat President Trump? Here’s a quick rundown on several of the announced candidates who have a track record on housing.

Secretary Julian Castro, former Mayor of San Antonio and former HUD Secretary

Former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has perhaps the most direct experience in housing, both as the leader of HUD and as a mayor. While at HUD, his most notable policy achievement was the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which sought to combat discrimination in HUD-backed housing. He also focused on both providing additional monies for affordable housing programs and reducing rates for FHA-backed loans. As San Antonio Mayor, he championed downtown revitalization through public-private partnerships.

Thus far, he hasn’t made housing a central plank of his campaign, other than touting his work at HUD and casting it in broader economic terms. “Together, my team and I made housing more accessible, lessened homelessness among our nation’s veterans and even offered internet access to families in public housing,” reads the bio page on his campaign website.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Senator Warren has the most clearly defined and comprehensive housing policy, the product of legislation she introduced last Congress and again this year – the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. The legislation takes a shotgun approach to housing policy, addressing historical inequities and discrimination in housing and as well as direct funding for affordable units, primarily for lower-income Americans. The legislation also proposes a $10 billion grant program for communities to build new infrastructure as long as they tear down some of the exclusionary zoning policies that hold back affordable housing construction. Her goal is to build or rehabilitate 3.2-million-housing units and bring down rents by 10%. Like many of her other proposals, her housing plan is a combination of public investment, private sector and/or market reforms, and unique policy prescriptions to solve a current challenge.

From her press release: "The cost of housing is squeezing American families in communities all across the country -- rural, suburban, urban -- whether they're struggling to pay rent or trying to buy a home. The legacy of government discrimination and negligence means that communities of color have been hit the hardest. It's time to stop nibbling around the edges and, instead, pass this big, bold proposal to solve our housing crisis and take the first steps to address the legacy of housing discrimination head on."

Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA)

Senator Harris introduced the Rent Relief Act in 2018, which would create a refundable tax credit available to individuals who live in rental housing and pay more than 30% of their gross income for the taxable year on their rent, including utilities. While the bill would no doubt provide at least some relief to many rent-burdened families, it could create another rent-related problem – rent-seeking. Landlords would likely raise rents under such a scenario, preventing the full benefits of this legislation from reaching those who need it most and driving up costs for those who don’t fall into the rent-burdened category. Still, it’s clear that housing affordability is high on Senator Harris’s agenda – both as a Presidential candidate and as a Senator from a state with a severe housing shortage and crippling affordability crisis.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ)

Senator Cory Booker has also proposed major housing legislation, the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility and Equity (HOME) Act. Senator Booker’s bill contains elements of both Senator Warren’s and Senator Harris’s legislation. It would provide a renters’ tax credit while also taking aim at exclusionary zoning by requiring communities that receive Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to develop policies to reduce barriers to housing as a means of increasing supply. Potential reforms include removing off-street parking requirements, eliminating height and lot size restrictions, creating density bonuses, and authorizing ADUs. The latter half of Senator Booker’s proposal reads like a wish list for many urbanists and YIMBYs.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

Unlike the other announced candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders has previously run for President, providing us with a better indication of how he may approach housing in the 2020 race. In 2016, Senator Sanders released a housing proposal that focused on increasing support for renters through the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, as well as reforms designed to assist future homeowners – loan assistance, counseling, credit score reform, combatting predatory lending, and preserving and expanding mortgage interest tax benefits for middle and low-income Americans. He also proposed revamping the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) to assist families whose mortgages are still underwater from the 2008 financial crisis. Similar to his campaign’s broader theme, Senator Sanders’s approach to housing can be viewed as an almost laser-focus on how to make housing more affordable and accessible for the middle class.

Governor Jay Inslee (D-WA)

Current Washington Governor Jay Inslee is running as the “Climate Change Candidate,” and his recent announcement and subsequent interviews have been almost exclusively focused on how to tackle what he views as an existential threat to the country and planet. It will be interesting to see if Governor Inslee uses his platform to make an argument about how climate change affects and is affected by many other issues. For instance, any discussion about combatting climate change should necessarily entail an examination of how and where we build housing, as Alex Baca smartly notes in a recent piece about the Green New Deal’s shortcomings. Will Governor Inslee champion housing reforms as part and parcel to protecting our climate? We may get a better sense of where the Governor is in the coming weeks, as the Washington legislature is considering myriad housing legislation, including Up for Growth-supported SB 5363 to preserve affordable housing units in mixed-income communities. Similar to Senator Harris, Governor Inslee cannot afford to ignore housing because it is a critical issue for many of the people he currently represents.

But… there are more candidates! Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke is the most recent announced candidate and has the potential to be a major factor in the race. Former Colorado Governor and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who as the leader of a fast-growing city and state is no stranger to the importance of sound housing policy, jumped into the race several weeks ago. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is seen as a potentially strong candidate and hails from the city with perhaps the boldest vision for housing in the country – Minneapolis. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) represents a large and diverse state with unique housing needs and is an original co-sponsor of Senator Warren’s housing legislation. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), and former Congressman John Delaney (D-MD) have also announced bids or exploratory organizations. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is exploring an independent bid for President and has prominently featured his childhood spent in a Brooklyn public housing project in his rags-to-riches story (though the veracity of his claims have been questioned).

And of course, former Vice President Joe Biden – who leads many early polls – is expected to eventually join the race.

Will housing become a focal point of the 2020 election? It’s still early, but a large and diverse field means Democratic primary voters will have a range of options to pick from when it comes to housing policy. Up for Growth will continue to provide analysis on where these candidates stand as we inch closer to the Iowa Caucuses and First-in-the-Nation primary.