What Trump Means for Housing

How should I know? (rollingstone)

How should I know? (rollingstone)

Before I jump into the question of housing over the next 2-4 years, I want to talk about normalizing.  There is a very real concern that our media and political structures that were incapable of checking Mr. Trump’s unprecedented bad behavior as a candidate risk normalizing very dangerous rhetoric, policy proposals, and potential threats to our institutions once he assumes office.  I share those concerns.  I have found much of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, temperament, and personal history to be disqualifying full stop.  I have found his lack of policy detail and evident lack of interest in policy detail to be confounding.   I have also found his contempt for many of our civic institutions and cultural norms to be alarming. 

Our system of government is built on a competition of ideas during the election, and on compromise and restraint during the session.  I hope that the ugliness of this election season can be cured throughout the next congressional session, but it won’t be unless we address that ugliness and remain vigilant for and protective of the larger principles that our republic are built on.  It will be a very dark period for our country and the world if we fail those principles. We cannot allow the actions of Mr. Trump as a candidate to become normal when he becomes President Trump.

A number of articles have come out about what the election of Donald Trump could mean for cities in general and they all basically say the same thing: nobody knows.  This is true for two reasons. First, Donald Trump has risen to power without outlining specific policy proposals on most subjects, while outlining flawed policy proposals on some, and dangerous proposals on a few.  How sincere he is on any of these remains to be seen.  We don’t know what “Trumpism” as an ideology means or if it even exists. 

Second, we also don’t really know what kind of Republican Party Mr. Trump has brought to power with him.  He blew through the primary and general election on a wave of vague populism but the deep divisions in the Republican Party didn’t go anywhere. Far from mending the divisions between ‘the establishment’ and the ‘drain the swamp’ crowd, it already looks like the Trump Administration will be the frontline in a bitter fight between the two. 

Could President Trump turn into a more or less generic Republican and isolate the more fringe elements of his base or emerge as a distinct nationalist wiping out the establishment?  Given what we’re seeing in the transition team, it could also be a disorganized, muddled grab bag with no centralizing rationale other than the personal mood of the president. That’s not a formula for coherent executive action.

It’s also entirely plausible that Mr. Trump will continue to show little interest in policy details and the drudgery of the office, conceding actual governing power to the Republican majority in Congress. Speaker Ryan has been chomping at the bit for this scenario and has a conservative agenda waiting in the wings that would reshape American domestic policy in ways that would likely shock many Trump voters (particularly older ones).  

It isn’t clear that Mr. Trump agrees with this message (he certainly campaigned against it) but, come January, if only one body of government is ready to govern, it isn’t hard to see him going along with it. It is clear that Mr. Trump wouldn’t allow for the perception that he isn’t in control, but reality is a very different matter for him.

All of this is to say that, although we don’t really know what cities should expect in terms of housing policy, there isn’t a lot to be optimistic about in the immediate future.  Best-case scenario, President Trump emerges as a slightly more populist Republican with a predictable agenda that does little for affordable housing.  Worst-case scenario, he emerges as a vindictive nationalist that harms cities economically and socially (intentionally or unintentionally) by continuing to ‘other’ the types of people and ideas that congregate in them, largely in rental housing.  How our other civic institutions respond to him will determine how far to one or the other we drift.

I spent much of the campaign season lamenting how little housing came up as an issue, despite how important it is.  Let me quickly restate why:

-       Half of American renters are rent-burdened (30% or more of their income goes to renting - and a quarter of those pay over 50%.)

-       Millions of homes are still underwater 8 years after the mortgage crisis “ended.”

-       As a nation, our productivity as dropped for the first time in 30 years because economic output is concentrated in dense coastal cities where housing costs/policies are eating income gains or blocking more people from being able to move to those opportunities.

The scale of the problem is staggering for renters and homeowners (and renters wishing to be homeowners).  Our economic output is concentrating in fewer places where it is prohibitively expensive to live in.  This puts huge pressure on all income levels and drains the future earning and savings potential of everyone.  It is outrageous that this isn’t a bigger issue in the media and in political circles.  It clearly is for most Americans.

Mr. Trump has said little about housing, despite his background in the industry. That background is worth revisiting because it tells us two things that will probably define his approach to housing.

First, that the private sector should lead the process, but with massive government handouts for developers.  Mr. Trump’s ability to squeeze out decades worth of tax breaks for his developments is well documented. It’s one of the rationales for his ‘business genius.’  But this philosophy has proven to be a terrible deal for the public.  Hundreds of millions of tax dollars were ‘spent’ on developments that produced a vanishingly small amount of affordable housing units.  Having built a fortune over 40 years based on these policy assumptions, it’s hard to picture President Trump entertaining alternative methods of creating more housing, which is exactly what we need to do.

Second, Mr. Trump burst out on to the national scene for being sued by the federal government for racially discriminating against potential tenants in his father’s complexes. Despite settling for millions of dollars based on an abundance of evidence, Mr. Trump never admitted to any wrongdoing.  Perhaps he can claim that as a victory, but it has made Mr. Trump’s racial rhetoric difficult to dismiss.  Politicians, particularly Republicans starting with President Nixon, have exploited racial anxieties around housing policies to electoral success for decades.  Clearly Mr. Trump is not above this tactic, and given the connection most Americans make between affordable/fair housing policies and minorities, what type of attention, if any, will be given to this issue?

We don’t have much to go on yet.  Early rumors about who will be the HUD Director center around Westchester Country Executive Rob Astorino. He has been extremely hostile to affordable housing and fair housing policies and comes from a region with a long history of hostility to it.  If Mr. Trump does choose Mr. Astorino, we can start to picture a policy agenda that might confirm the lessons Mr. Trump has learned over his career.  This could lead to more ill-advised efforts to promote homeownership against prevailing economic trends.  It could mean less federal money for housing-assistance programs.  It could mean less focus on desegregating communities that lock many people into cycles of poverty and isolation. This could be a disaster for housing and for the country.

Housing advocates have a long road ahead.  The first job to do is to hold the media accountable for ignoring affordable housing on the campaign trail despite the enormity of the problem.  The second is framing the issue as one that affects all Americans – whether renters or homeowners, middle-class or poor, suburban or urban.  The third is to offer far-reaching policy proposals that can capture the national conversation and perhaps finally make housing as central an issue as it needs to be.

The stakes are high.  Our economy can’t grow and our country can’t heal with these types of pressures on housing remaining in place.  The cost of inaction extends to our environment as well.  We must find better ways to organize ourselves and to power our economy.  These are not normal problems facing a normal president, so they require abnormal means to address them.