2020 Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Shouldn't Focus on Lowering Rents - Here are 3 Other Things

 Frenemies at the gate (usnews)

Frenemies at the gate (usnews)

Along with every housing activist, I have been beating the drum for more attention to housing at a national level for several years now, so on one hand, the recent focus from Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker is a welcome development. Both senators have proposed similar housing bills that would aid renters nationally. On the other hand, neither of the bills, which are very similar, would solve the affordable housing crisis and would likely feed it in other ways. It goes without saying that both bills are largely rhetorical devices for shoring up progressive cred leading up to 2020 and won’t go anywhere, but let’s take them both at their face and see why they don’t excite me.

First, it’s important to point out that the affordable housing crisis is a crisis of late capitalism. In our current era, wealth and opportunity are concentrating in a narrowing pool of individuals, firms, industries, and geographies. Housing costs are skyrocketing in the select few environments where many of these factors overlap and housing costs (and values) are going down in the many more environments where few or none of these factors exist.

That is to say that there is no national housing policy that alone can address those forces AND there are no national economic or social policies that are currently up for debate that come close either. I believe we can absolutely craft smart housing policies at the national level that can help millions of Americans, but the larger crisis of late capitalism must be addressed to end the factors that fuel the housing crisis. That will take big change.

I don’t see Senator Booker or Senator Harris acknowledging the larger fatal flaws in our current iteration of capitalism (though they may have to if they want the nomination). Both have made their careers supporting this system and supporting those who benefit from it. No amount of social progressiveness can erase their explicit endorsement of this economic system even if they say otherwise. If either of them did, these bills wouldn’t look the way they look.

Instead, both senator’s plans aim to treat — or really, manage — the symptoms. That doesn’t mean that either plan lacks good ideas. There are some good ideas and good intentions, which should be acknowledged. Although there is virtually zero political courage behind either of these, so I don’t give either that much credit. The bigger issue is that they accept the basic economic and political premise that the market must drive the solution. That’s just not true or viable in the face of our present reality.

Senator Booker’s plan differs slightly from Senator Harris’s in that it proposes tying community development block grants to efforts to increase density in local jurisdictions. Basically, its a soft diplomacy effort to remove local land-use regulations (things like parking requirements, height limits) while encouraging more construction (density bonuses, as-of-right development). 

Both of these are admirable and necessary policy goals. But it’s a too-cute way to get around the vast limitations the federal government has on local land-use policy and that’s where it ultimately falls apart. The carrot isn’t that great and there is no stick. HUD currently ignores existing Fair Housing laws, so they aren’t going to care about this bill even if it did pass. 

It would take much more political courage to argue that the Fair Housing Act empowers the federal government to supersede restrictive local zoning and create an Eisenhower Interstate Highway System-esque system of federally-funded local development systems (or even just enforcing Further Affirming Fair Housing efforts at the late end of the Obama Administration) but the Senator from New Jersey (of Mount Laurel fame, no less) did not take that opportunity. 

Like Senator Booker’s plan, Senator Harris’s plan proposes a set of interventions that include discounting rents above 30% of income even for six-figure income households up to 150% of HUD’s Fair Market Rent calculations. By covering the difference as a tax credit, it would sort of work like the Mortgage Interest Deduction and would help some low-income families in high rent geographies and even middle-income families. 

That’s also an admirable policy goal. But the MID is a terrible waste of public money (that mostly gets to wealth households) while inflating the value of homes, so doing that for renting is arguably worse since we should know better. It would clearly create an inflated market as landlords would just raise rents even more. It also doesn’t help people outside of the usual suspects of coastal cities with high rents, so it’s impact would miss the vast majority of renters.

Both plans rely on the market with some subsidization. This isn’t a surprise since that’s how housing policy has (not) worked for 80 years. That this doesn’t work seems to have gone unacknowledged. But there are more creative ways to pursue a market-based solution and there are other non-market solutions that should also be included. (I have written about how any housing policy needs to fundamentally remove the advantage of homeownership, so I won’t touch on that for this particular article, though its obviously important.)

Here are three broad areas where the federal government can address the housing crisis right now. These are by no means the only areas or the most detailed analysis of them, but they are great starts:

Build the best public transportation systems in the world

It’s obvious that public transportation is an afterthought in the US. Post-war policy makers bet on homeownership and car ownership and socially engineered our modern landscape around them. That makes it particularly hard for people to get back and forth within most American cities commuter sheds 

Just as a small example of this, even for a transit rich city like NYC, it is a pain in the ass to get to Hoboken, NJ from where I live in the East Village (a 3-mile trip) because it involves two different transit systems (the MTA and the PATH). It would go from a roughly 30-min multiple-seat (and ticket-swipe) trip to a 10-min single-seat trip if they extended the L train into NJ (which has been proposed at various times, to no avail.) Christof Spieler in Houston writes a lot about this particular problem and I highly recommend you check out his stuff and upcoming book.

The more interconnected a commuter shed, the bigger the housing market. High rents are partially a product of land-use regulations and land scarcity in certain markets. But rents are high because people want to live close to things and there are huge cost increases the further out you go. 

If we developed deeper, more frequent rapid transit systems that cut down on time and cost of commuting, we would make surrounding areas more viable. It’s been done before in the US. Look at how the Bronx was developed in the 1920s and 1930s when the subways reached the area. Even if you can’t make the argument for more public intervention in housing in the Senate, you can get transportation networks built.

Fund public housing and expand what it can include

I write a lot about how we need more public housing. It works when the necessary tools and processes are put in place. There is no reason to subsidize private landlords when we can build and manage publicly owned homes directly. 

Most people think of towers-in-the park megablocks that fell into disrepair and became crime riddled. That did happen in many areas, but it also didn’t happen in many public housing complexes, particularly in NYC. Committed funding, competent management, and empowered tenants have been the winning formula for many years with NYCHA even as its funding gap has eroded that in more recent years to tragic results. The playbook exists, however.

There are also new ways to think about public housing. Instead of building new developments, we can preserve exiting communities by converting housing into municipal land trusts. This is already happening in Houston’s Third Ward. The city owns the land and removes it from the speculative market and a community board of elected officials and residents runs it. This would address many of the concerns of displacement and affordability. It would take federal funding to maintain, but would that be as much as subsidizing rent or a massive building program? Definitely not.

Stop wasting public money on dumb shit

The final point is much larger than a few paragraphs, but it warrants repeating. We give away too much public money to powerful, private interests — at all levels of government. We can absolutely afford to address the housing crisis if we stop subsidizing these interests.

We spend trillions of public dollars on our military and national security complexes - enriching contractors, arms manufacturers, and many other private actors. These things murder lots of people, erode our civil rights, and generally keep us permanently afraid. 

We spend billions of public dollars on local pet projects like stadiums, casinos, and privately-owned mixed-use developments — that in most cases turn around and charge us to use them.

There are laws on the books that are supposed to manage these costs or outright prevent them from happening and yet our money keeps getting hoovered up on policies that the majority of us don’t support. Until we hold our elected leaders accountable for spending our public resources on priorities we do support, this will never change. (I have no time for people who think we shouldn’t spend public money in general.)

That goes back to my earlier point. The housing crisis is a crisis of late capitalism. We can’t fix housing without fixing our economy and our politics. That means rejecting the premise that the market is the sacred end all be all that we all must slave away for. It means rejecting the idea that the accumulation of wealth is the best and highest use of our labor and our resources. 

It is encouraging that Senators Harris and Booker are moving in the right direction, even if these bills are dead on arrival and flawed on their face. They are creatures of this system and even the smallest acknowledgement from them that it is failing is reason to be optimistic that our political process can evolve to fix it.