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Housing Finally Addressed at Democratic Debates

Pamela Atwood, Director of Housing Policy

It happened! For the first time in recent memory Presidential candidates were asked about affordable housing directly by a moderator. During last night’s debate of Democratic party candidates NBC News White House Correspondent Kristen Welker posed the question to Tom Steyer of California:

“Millions of hard-working Americans are finding that housing is becoming unaffordable, especially in metropolitan areas. It is particularly acute in your home state of California, in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Why are you the best person to fix this problem?”

Tom Steyer, a businessman and climate activist, was ready to answer the question and pledged to invest resources to construction. Steyer also called for new construction to be sustainable, pointing out the link between the construction and operation of buildings and its impact on the environment. 

Affordable housing’s moment in the spotlight continued with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts raising her hand to also talk about housing! Senator Warren added some historical context to the conversation by pointing out that the federal government has long since stopped building housing for low-income people and explained redlining briefly. Warren also discussed some of the highlights of her housing policy plan.

As Warren was wrapping up her remarks, three candidates had their hands raised wanting to add to the conversation on housing: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The moderator handed off to Senator Booker who introduced the concept of gentrification (dictionary.com reported a spike in searches of the term) and explained his plans for a renters tax credit. Booker closed out the segment before moderators segued to a commercial break.

Last night’s discussion of affordable housing was made possible by the more than 1,000 organizations that signed a letter asking debate moderators to talk about housing as part of the Our Homes Our Votes campaign led by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. Hopefully this is just the beginning of the national conversation on the Presidential level. 

You can watch a video clip of the entire segment here: https://youtu.be/b68qnvn-VOs

Read below for the complete remarks from Steyer, Warren, and Booker:

Tom Steyer:
“When you look at inequality in the United States of America, you have to start with housing. Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.

What we’ve seen in California is, as a result of policy, we have millions too few housing units. And that affects everybody in California. It starts with a homeless crisis that goes all through the state, but it also includes skyrocketing rents which affect every single working person in the state of California.

I understand exactly what needs to be done here, which is we need to change policy and we need to apply resources here to make sure that we build literally millions of new units.

But the other thing that’s going to be true about building these units is, we’re going to have to build them in a way that’s sustainable, that, in fact, how we build units, where people live has a dramatic impact on climate and on sustainability.

So we are going to have to direct dollars, we’re going to have to change policy and make sure that the localities and municipalities who have worked very hard to make sure that there are no new housing units built in their towns, that they have to change that and we’re going to have force it, and then we’re going to have to direct federal dollars to make sure that those units are affordable so that working people can live in places and not be spending 50 percent of their income on rent.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren:
“Think of it this way. Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side, and that means that the federal government stopped building new housing a long time ago, affordable housing.

Also, private developers, they’ve gone up to McMansions. They’re not building the little two bedroom, one bath house that I grew up in, garage converted to be a bedroom for my three brothers.

So I’ve got a plan for 3.2 million new housing units in America. Those are housing units for working families, for the working poor, for the poor poor, for seniors who want to age in place, for people with disabilities, for people who are coming back from being incarcerated. It’s about tenants’ rights.

But there’s one more piece. Housing is how we build wealth in America. The federal government has subsidized the purchase of housing for decades for white people and has said for black people you’re cut out of the deal. That was known as red-lining.

When I built a housing plan, it’s not only a housing plan about building new units. It’s a housing plan about addressing what is wrong about government-sponsored discrimination, how we need to address it, and we need to say we’re going to reverse it.”

Senator Cory Booker:
“I’m so grateful, again, as a mayor who was a mayor during a recession, who was a mayor during a housing crisis, who started my career as a tenants’ rights lawyer, these are all good points, but we’re not talking about something that is going on all over America, which is gentrification and low-income families being moved further and further out, often compounding racial segregation.

And so all these things we need to put more federal dollars in it, but we’ve got to start empowering people. We use our tax code to move wealth up, the mortgage interest deduction. My plan is very simple. If you’re a renter who pays more than a third of your income in rent, then you will get a refundable tax credit between the amount you’re paying and the area median rent. That empowers people in the same way we empower homeowners.

And what that does is it actually slashes poverty, 10 million people out. And by the way, for those people who are facing eviction, it is about time that the only people when they show up in rentals court that have a lawyer is not the landlord, it is also low-income families struggling to stay in their homes.”

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