2016 Election

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.

Trump Won One America, Clinton Won the Other - and Both Lost for Now

But looks are deceiving (nytimes)

But looks are deceiving (nytimes)

The narrow election of Donald Trump as our 45th president has come as a shock to many Americans.  This is partly because of the faith put into the polls and the tealeaf reading abilities of people like Nate Silver who suggested a comfortable victory for Secretary Clinton.  It is also partly because many could not imagine a man with Mr. Trump’s inflaming rhetoric and utter lack of policy detail securing the votes of enough people.  A large amount of Americans would also blame the usual suspects of coastal elites, establishment politicians, and corporate media for creating and taking permanent residence in a ‘bubble’, leaving them blind to the broader concerns of flyover America.

There is some truth to all of these points of course, but what has also become clear from this election is that there are two distinct, insulated bubbles in this country.  As I have discussed in previous blogs, economic and cultural forces have conspired to gradually divide America into two countries largely unknown and unrecognizable to each other.  Never before in the modern era has an American election been so easily parsed along a cultural fault-line – the city vs. the country.

Though geographically this divide has been self-evident through recent election cycles, the demographics that make up these two (admittedly broad) categories have increasingly parted ways with each other.  Glancing at the exit polls and election results, it is easy to see that diverse counties in and around urban cores overwhelmingly supported Secretary Clinton while white-majority counties along the exurbs and further in to rural areas overwhelmingly supported Mr. Trump.

You can point to various explanations as to why this particular election tipped towards Mr. Trump: Republican-leaning white women came home to the party; Black turnout in some key swing states didn’t match previous elections featuring President Obama; the Latino vote proved to be less hostile to Republicans than anticipated; (less convincingly) Gary Johnson and Jill Stein took just enough votes away in other key swing states.

You can also point to the candidates themselves and specifically how Secretary Clinton’s perceived flaws seemed to harm her more than Mr. Trump’s.  How much was that due to anger towards the establishment? How much of this was fueled by sexism (or racism or xenophobia for that matter)?  If this election boiled down to a referendum on the former, the result might be less disheartening, even understandable, but if it was a referendum on the latter, we have revealed something about our country that is deeply disturbing.  A person inclined to outright dismiss one of those narratives shouldn’t be so quick to do so.

No doubt this election will be studied for generations, but the immediate point of concern is how evenly divided these two ‘countries’ are - a tiny change in any one of those previously mentioned variables and the electoral college tips back decisively for Secretary Clinton.  How does either candidate declare a mandate in that environment?

What has been painfully clear is how little contact each of these countries has with each other, despite close geographical proximity. This has left supporters of both candidates fearful and resentful of each other, prone to believe the worst not only of the other candidate, but also of the other group of supporters.   A supporter of one simply cannot understand how a supporter of the other could do so, how he or she could not see what was so clearly true.

As many others have commented on, there is also no national media serving as a gatekeeper to public discourse.  In the interest of ratings and clicks, elements of new and old media alike have devolved, whether consciously or unconsciously, into echo chambers for each worldview, leaving little overlap or exposure to the other.  The media has a lot to answer for going forward.

There are few, if any, other national institutions that inspire trust in the majority of Americans.  This leaves the country with no shared source of information trusted by both constituencies to serve as a jumping off point for policy debates.  The Post-Truth Age has arrived. This makes it nearly impossible for anyone representing one of these countries to govern the other, let alone both collectively.

However, despite the vast gulf between the two, it is clear that they agree on one thing: the neo-liberal consensus of the past 30 years has failed.  Both party establishments have long accepted the core principles of neo-liberalism – privatization, deregulation, financial austerity, increased global trade – while using the culture war to differentiate themselves to the American electorate. Voters have repudiated both parties and Mr. Trump has laid waste to most of the political assumptions both relied on.

But who is President Trump? We have never known less about an elected candidate – his personal qualifications or his policy positions. On the surface he is undeniably an agent of change, but will he form a new, coherent political ideology beyond neo-liberalism? Or once he inevitably faces the obligations and limitations of his office will he fall back into a generic Republican role (maybe with some continued nationalist rhetoric)? How much has the slow bi-partisan emergence of an imperial presidency laid the groundwork for those limitations to fall away? No one knows, least of all his supporters.

This is a trying time for America and, in truth, our institutions have never seen the type of stress test that could come with a President Trump.  Will they stand up against the worst authoritarian instincts of Mr. Trump or will they buckle as much of the Republican Party already has?

And what of the two countries Mr. Trump is assuming power over? Can he effectively bridge the gap between both of these distinct countries and forge common ground? Does he think he even needs to try? In such a deeply divided political and cultural environment, can our institutions even function with or without someone like Mr. Trump as president?

In the wake of such a bitter election, it is hard to see the appetite for rapprochement from either country within America.  There are many structural obstacles to overcome even if one emerges.  But there must be a coming together.  As other countries in the west experience the same type of backlash against neo-liberalism, the very idea of liberal democracy is under siege for the first time in a century.  History has warned us what turning inward from the world and turning against one another can lead to.  America must serve as a source of hope in a troubled world and offer a way forward based on honoring its basic ideals.  One America can survive a President Trump or even help a President Trump succeed. One America can serve yet again as a beacon of stability and prosperity that the world can look to. Two Americas cannot. 

Housing Advocates Should Remain Wary of Clinton

One has walked the housing walk. One hasn't so far. (styleweekly)

One has walked the housing walk. One hasn't so far. (styleweekly)

Recently, I published a blog discussing the major differences between the Republican Platform and the Democratic Platform in regards to housing.  While both parties have historically promoted homeownership as a core policy – with disastrous results – for the first time, they have split dramatically. The Democratic Party has acknowledged that homeownership does not need to be the end goal for all Americans and has outlined a number of rental assistance programs.  However, the fundamentals of this election cycle, and the Clinton campaign's reaction to them, should have all housing advocates wary of these promises.  A recent Op-Ed by Vice Presidential Candidate Tim Kaine offers a good case study. 

Senator Kaine has a long history of housing advocacy first as a pro-bono attorney in Richmond, then as the city’s mayor, and then as the state’s governor.  In fact, he has the most experience on housing of any major party candidate that I can recall. He is a natural and I think sincere spokesperson for the party’s housing policies.

The policy proposals outlined in Senator Kaine’s Op-Ed are more or less a rehash of the party platform (CityLab has a great breakdown) with a focus on providing more assistance for low-income renters, first-time homebuyers, and a general nod to more federal assistance for public housing.  Though they are light on specifics, I can’t stress how new the inclusion of these policies are as talking points in a national election.  Neither party has ever outlined detailed rental assistance proposals in their party platforms and rarely has housing been discussed at length on the campaign trail. 

Though I welcome this spotlight on housing, my concern is that it is more of a political weapon for the election than a policy commitment for the administration.  Senator Kaine and his history on housing are of course in stark contract to Republican Nominee Donald Trump and his history on housing.  Mr. Trump’s father, while Donald was working with him, was prosecuted under the Fair Housing Act for discriminating against minorities in his complexes.  Additionally, Mr. Trump sought to exploit the mortgage market and subsequent crisis.  In case you weren’t aware of these facts, Senator Kaine points them out.

Certainly talking the talk anyway. (newyorktimes)

Certainly talking the talk anyway. (newyorktimes)

There is much to dislike about Mr. Trump’s history on housing even if you ignore the rest of his baggage.  But, to be clear, the purpose of highlighting Trump’s history on housing is not to contrast policies as much as it is to add to the narrative that the Clinton campaign is pushing – that Mr. Trump is a con-artist who exploits the working class and is unfit to be President.

This is not a particularly hard narrative to push (indeed Mr. Trump seems more than capable of pushing it himself) but it reveals what audience the Clinton campaign is targeting: disaffected Republicans.  You only have to look at Pennsylvania to see this strategy clearly.  There are an estimated 1 million votes in suburban Philadelphia, and if Clinton can attract even a decent number of Romney voters, she will cruise to victory there at an even greater percentage than President Obama did in 2012.  By pushing the narrative of Trump as a con-artist (regardless of its veracity), rather than running for or against any specific policy proposals, the campaign is trying to make it safe for Republicans to vote for a Democrat.

Maybe this is why Clinton is afraid? (fivethirtyeight via cook political report)

Maybe this is why Clinton is afraid? (fivethirtyeight via cook political report)

This also reveals what group they are not targeting: progressives and ‘safe’ Democratic voters.  “Vote capture” pops up in every national election because certain voters are simply not going to vote for the other party.  Mr. Trump will likely do worse than Governor Romney among minorities, women, and young voters, all of whom overwhelmingly backed President Obama in 2012 (although less than 2008). Secretary Clinton could probably win the election without disaffected Republicans, but clearly thinks there is the possibility of a safer victory if she can attract some Republicans. 

The “boogie to the middle” is generally an accepted practice in Presidential elections after the primary season and there is clearly a predictable path to victory for Clinton with this strategy.  But housing advocates should be weary for two reasons.

First, this is not a normal Presidential election.  Certainly one can point to the boorishness of Mr. Trump as a candidate to see that, but the larger reason, masked both by Mr. Trump and by the Clinton campaign’s response to him, is that the political status quo has failed to address the economic and social conditions facing the country, nowhere more clearly than with the affordable housing crisis.  The populist outburst represented by Trump supporters on the right and by Senator Sanders supporters on the left are real, justifiable, and imperative to address.  By making this election about how fit or unfit Mr. Trump is (and to a lesser degree about how trustworthy or not Secretary Clinton is) both parties have pushed aside those issues despite the majority of Americans demonstrating their anger over the status quo. 

Will either candidate take housing seriously this fall? (cnn)

Will either candidate take housing seriously this fall? (cnn)

Other than Senator Kaine’s Op-ed, when has housing been discussed at length? Will it even come up in the debates? The millions of Americans struggling with housing costs deserve that discussion and subsequent action.  The primaries at least offered competing policy visions and bold ideas for the future.  That type of leadership is in desperate need for this country but it is decidedly off the table in this election.  This is a potentially tragic lost opportunity with severe consequences for millions of Americans. It calls into question if our current political framework is even capable of addressing these issues.

Second, Secretary Clinton is taking a significant risk by courting disaffected Republicans instead of focusing on the progressive base (or the Sanders coalition.)  It might win this election, but there is no governing coalition between disaffected Republicans and the progressive base of the Democratic Party. Will suburban homeowners really support allocating more tax dollars to rental housing assistance or even public housing? Most of the housing proposals in the party platform and Senator Kaine's Op-Ed would be dead on arrival.

Consider this thought experiment: what if the Republicans had nominated a 'normal' Republican this time?  Would Secretary Clinton try to reach disaffected Republicans or try to fire up the Obama coalition that has just won the last two elections? When it already seems likely that she could win based on this coalition, why reach out to disaffected Republicans? Does the Clinton campaign think she can't win without them? What is that calculation based on? In either case, what chance of major policy changes in housing are already off the table as a result of this strategy?

The Clinton campaign must know that a Republican voting for Secretary Clinton is doing so out of disgust for Trump rather than supporting her agenda. This means that the Clinton campaign/potential administration also knows it is eventually going to underserve if not abandon one of these segments of voters.  Given what strategy Secretary Clinton has chosen this time around, it’s not hard to see where President Clinton might focus in order to get re-elected.  Winning now on this strategy seems like the safe play, but if the Republicans self-correct and nominate a ‘normal’ candidate next time, Republican voters will rally and the progressive base might not forgive her.  In the meantime, it's hard to picture what housing policies would get enacted through Congress. 

It seems likely that Secretary Clinton will win this fall given Mr. Trump’s obvious shortcomings as a candidate and as a human being.   But the way she is trying to win, largely on the margins of disaffected Republicans, shows at best a lack of vision and at worst a deep cynicism.  The time for political triangulation is over.  The time for creating a new vision for housing is long overdue. The Democratic Party platform and Senator Kaine’s background offer glimpses of a transformation in housing policy that our country needs desperately.  If the Clinton campaign is already busy courting disaffected Republican voters (many of which are suburban homeowners), these glimpses might be all we see.

Both Parties Are Looking for New Homes

This is not a normal election for actual policy reasons too (history.com)

This is not a normal election for actual policy reasons too (history.com)

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.