Both Parties Are Looking for New Homes

This is not a normal election for actual policy reasons too (

This is not a normal election for actual policy reasons too (

Now that Republicans and Democrats have each held their national conventions, voters should have a clear idea of each party’s vision for the nation.  The contrasts between the two are vivid, even startling, but not entirely surprising given the bizarre and unprecedented nature of this election cycle. 

Homeownership is a useful policy to examine this contrast, particularly because both parties have historically agreed on promoting it.  I’ve written about why this policy consensus has been a disaster for our country, but there are substantial differences in each party’s 2016 platform that show how divergent the future could be. I will highlight three differences that show why the changing base of each party is causing changes in their positions.

(I recognize the limits to examining party platforms. They are committee-designed documents meant to paper over major inter-party conflicts before the party convention and don’t play a role in the campaign afterwards.  Apples to apples comparisons aren’t easy because they are speaking to different audiences.  They are also partisan documents that frame issues and their opponents in sometimes comically distorted fashion. However, I think both platforms are expressions of the shockwaves rippling through both parties this year.)

Owning vs. Renting

“Homeownership expands personal liberty, builds communities, and helps Americans create wealth.” (Republican Platform)

“We must make sure that everyone has a fair shot at homeownership.” (Democratic platform)

Both parties have supported the virtue of homeownership (and the virtue of access to homeownership) for decades, but see the subtle difference now? The Republican platform maintains that homeownership is the bedrock of American communities and prosperity.  The Democratic platform (for the first time that I can find) instead focused on the importance of renting and renters - who make up 35% of Americans.  A “fair shot” might seem like a vague term, but it is actually a radical policy shift away from promoting homeownership as the sole end-goal.

Both platforms acknowledge the affordable housing crisis for renters. Neither can afford to ignore it given that a recent survey from the Enterprise Community Partners shows that 71% of Americans want affordable housing policies included in party platforms. The difference is the Democratic platform offers multiple policy proposals to help renters as well as owners.  The Republican platform appears to view renting as an unfortunate and hopefully temporary state before homeownership.  They offer no policies to help the rent burden of Americans or to expand rental-housing options.

For the first time, we have a fundamental difference between parties on this issue – one party has a housing policy, one has a homeownership policy. This reflects political reality: the Democratic base is increasingly young, urban, and likely to be renters whereas the Republicans’ base is increasingly older, suburban/rural, and likely to be homeowners.  If platforms are designed to rally the base, then the 2016 platforms are clear about whom their bases have become.

The Federal Role in Housing

“The Federal Housing Administration…should no longer support high-income individuals and the public should not be financially exposed by risks taken by FHA officials. (Republican Platform)

“We will expand programs to prevent displacement of existing residents, especially in communities of color; create affordable [rental] housing; and preserve neighborhood-serving nonprofit organizations and small businesses.” (Democratic Platform)

As you would expect, there are major philosophical differences between the parties about the role of the Federal government in housing.  Broadly speaking, Republicans think the market is the best judge to allocate resources and should be left alone, while Democrats think the market has many built-in problems that the government should address.

However, for decades both have been guilty of holding contradictory positions: Democrats have decried the financial industry for preying on lower-income homeowners while requiring them to promote homeownership to these buyers, distorting the mechanics of the housing market.  Republicans have decried expensive government intervention in the market but have consistently failed to address the massive subsidies ($130 billion annually) wealthy Americans receive in mortgage tax deductions and other policies. Both parties have made surprising steps to address at least some of these contradictions.

The Democratic platform has clearly stepped back from promoting low-income homeownership and has instead emphasized the government’s role in building and supporting more affordable rental housing.  They have also included policies for addressing the foreclosure crisis and homelessness that show a forceful reliance on the state over the market.   This is a big departure from the more neoliberal elements of the party and a clear win for progressive elements.

The Republican platform acknowledged the advantage housing policies have given to wealthy homeowners and has committed to removing it.  Their proposal is a bit of a word salad and appears just as likely to remove quotas helping poor borrowers, but this is still a remarkable admission for a party that has traditionally appealed to the wealthy. Though the rest of the platform maintains traditional Republican rhetoric on housing, this is an obvious nod to the populist, working-class base the party increasingly relies on rather than small government conservatives.

Contradictions still abound within both parties over the role of the federal government in housing: Can Republicans promote homeownership without subsidizing it? Can Democrats promise a path to wealth creation without owning a home?  Both parties place their faith in different, flawed institutions: the market or the state, but they offer clear options.

Local Control over Zoning

“Zoning decisions have always been, and must remain, under local control. [The current Administration] threatens to undermine zoning laws in order to socially engineer every community in the country.” (Republican Platform)

“We will preserve and increase the supply of affordable rental housing by expanding incentives to ease local barriers to building new affordable rental housing developments in areas of economic opportunity. (Democratic Platform)

It is difficult to summarize the role zoning laws play in the affordable housing crisis and the greater economic inequalities in our suburbs and cities. If a town doesn’t allow multi-family dwellings, it is harder for poorer Americans to live there.  If a neighborhood doesn’t allow construction passed a certain height, it is going to be harder to build more housing to address demand (and lower rents.)

The Republican platform isn’t entirely accurate to say that zoning laws have always been under local control (see Mount Laurel I and II) but their point is clear: they don’t want ‘social engineering.”  You can say that is a dog whistle towards racial discrimination, but there are plenty of racially tolerant (and politically liberal) Americans who simply don’t want the Federal government to determine local ordinances that might affect their property values or lifestyles.

The Democratic platform isn’t in direct opposition to local control in zoning and used ‘incentivize’ purposefully, but it asserts a federal obligation to ‘socially engineer” greater economic opportunity for many Americans that have denied this previously.  Logically, this will likely mean superseding local laws in some situations.  However, the platform outlines a concurrent commitment to supporting and empowering local organizations working on various housing causes.

Views on zoning don’t breakdown easily into conservative and liberal camps in America even if the parties have clear differences.  Zoning won’t sway voters to jump party lines, but it does reveal how difficult it could be for coalitions to govern after the election. 

Housing policy won’t decide this election.  Frankly, it’s hard to see any polices outlined in either parties’ platforms deciding this election.  You can lament how crazy this election cycle is and how scary the implications for the future are, but it’s not all doom and gloom.  Despite how vicious and how ugly elements of the debate have been, it’s undeniable that the American political system is in need of a major reboot.  That’s happening in big and small ways, good ways and bad.  Housing policy is one of them. Homeownership is a scared cow of American politics so it is remarkable that for the first time, a major party has introduced the idea that not owning a home is just as viable and just as virtuous as owning one.  This is an immensely healthy element to add to the political discourse.