In the fifth Democratic presidential debate last Wednesday, candidates were finally asked about the nation’s affordable housing crisis.
But the discussion lasted less than five minutes, and only three candidates — U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker along with philanthropist Tom Steyer — answered.
“It’s unfortunate affordable housing hasn’t been on the debate stage,” said J.D. Klippenstein the executive director of the Reno-based housing organizing group ACTIONN. “Housing is an important issue and even some of the candidates have put out plans to address it.”
While it might not be a topic candidates get to spar over on the debate stage, housing accessibility, affordable rents and even homelessness have been topics on the campaign trail.
It’s a topic especially important in Nevada, which consistently ranks among the worst in the nation for the lack of supply of affordable units. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are only 19 homes per 100 extremely low-income renters.
“Nevada was hit the first and the worst from the housing crisis,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of PLAN Action.
Candidates have been getting a better sense of the impacts of housing in Nevada, which Klippenstein said gives “localized examples to the national challenges we’re seeing from the housing crisis.”
“(The candidates) have to have an actual conversation about housing on our turf beyond campaign optics” he added.
Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro spent time in the tunnels under Las Vegas where homeless individuals live, and toured homeless service providers like Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.
In Reno, Klippenstein and members of ACTIONN spoke with Mayor Pete Buttigieg about housing insecurity and introduced him to folks living in weekly motels.
Several candidates including Sen. Kamala Harris, Buttigieg and entrepreneur Andrew Yang have toured the Veterans Village homeless housing complex.
Make the Road Action, an immigrants’ rights group that has done organizing around housing, has talked with Sens. Warren and Bernie Sanders as well as Castro. Most recently, Warren sat down with Make the Road members, some of whom have been formerly homeless or struggling with housing, to hear their stories.
“We talked with her about affordable housing for seniors and those with disabilities and how affordable housing plans should keep those who are undocumented and how they are hit hard by rents going up,” said LaLo Montoya, the political director for Make the Road Action. “Our members asked her to talk about housing justice issues at the debate.”
Two days later, Warren did.
Seven candidates even sent out statements opposing a City of Las Vegas proposal to ban homeless people from sleeping on city sidewalks, which both local and national homeless outreach groups along with civil rights activists say criminalizes poverty.
Yet, not all of the candidates who weighed in on the city ordinance, or even the ones who have met with people struggling with housing, have plans to address housing insecurity.
“It’s a little ironic, but not surprising,” Martin said. “I think it was something they could just attach their name to.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading the polls in Nevada and was among those opposing the city’s ban, doesn’t have a policy toward tackling affordable housing. His website acknowledges the need to make housing for low-income communities more efficient and closer to public transit as well as the importance of helping those formerly incarcerated access housing, but his website doesn’t detail how he would address those issues.
Klippenstein said it’s not nearly enough for candidates to agree to increase the amount of affordable units. “If their plan doesn’t lay out how much they are going to invest, the proposal is going to fall short,” he said.
Castro, Booker, Warren, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg have all come out with plans to invest in affordable housing units. Steyer released his affordable housing plan today also calling for more investment.
Part of the problem with developing more housing, Klippenstein noted, is that many local governments haven’t taken steps to create more housing.
“Both Castro and Booker have been insightful on this and how the government can do more to leverage cities to implement things like inclusionary zoning,” Klippenstein said. “I think it makes sense both of them would do that. Castro oversaw HUD so has probably thought deeply about it. Booker was a tenants’ rights lawyer.”
To incentivize local governments, both candidates as well as Warren have suggested tying federal Community Block Grants to zoning law reforms.
Yang has also called for overhauling zoning practices that prevent affordable housing, but hasn’t released any specific proposals.
As housing rights advocates note, rapidly increasing rent prices, the eviction process and a lack of tenant protections also contribute to the housing insecurity people are facing.
PLAN Action, Martin said, has collaborated on nationwide work to reform housing policies through an effort called Homes Guarantee. Activists supporting Homes Guarantee have pressed candidates to look at a range from policy proposals, from implementing a Tenants’ Bill of Rights to adopting plans that reverse systemic racism in housing policies.
Sanders has proposed national rent control, part of the Homes Guaranteed plan, while Harris, Booker and Castro have included rental subsidies and tax credits in their plans. “I’m not sure if (rent subsidies) are a good approach,” Martin said. “I’m not sure if I agree with the idea that you charge someone more than 30 percent of their income and at the end of the year they get a tax refund. Some people can’t wait until then.”
Klippenstein highlighted Booker’s plan to create a National Eviction Right to Counsel Fund as an important step to address tenants’ rights abuses. Castro and Sanders have similar proposals to ensure those going through the eviction process have legal representation.
Warren also released a plan to create a Tenant Protection Bureau, similar to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she helped craft during the Obama Administration.
“Tenants need an advocate for them,” Montoya said. “We need the federal government to provide some sort of real accountability for tenants.”
Groups are still looking at how candidates respond to the intersection between housing and other issues such as immigration. “We are looking at how these plans ensure undocumented people benefit and making sure they aren’t left out,” Montoya said. “It should be affordable housing for all not just for a specific group.”