The housing crisis in this country—with its half a million homeless people and its hundreds of thousands of annual evictions—continues to swell. Its sources are various: a real-estate lobby that relentlessly undermines rent regulation and other tenant protections; a right-wing federal government beholden to the wealthy and at war with public housing; a devastating financial collapse a decade ago; and an influx of international capital, tech bros, and mega-landlords into urban cores. Thanks to these forces and others like them, the United States currently contends with a shortage of more than 7 million deeply affordable housing units nationwide, and low-income renters everywhere are suffering for it.
With their stratospheric rents and runaway gentrification, cities are the epicenter of this crisis—and for too long urban officials haven’t adequately addressed it. They haven’t managed to protect renters effectively or build enough deeply affordable new units. This, however, is finally beginning to change. Across the country, new local housing movements are pressing cities to start combating this scandalous status quo in creative ways. And many municipalities have responded in recent months with a slew of policies—taxes, bond initiatives, tough regulations—that promise to take a bite out of the housing crisis.
In Seattle, for instance, the City Council last month shrugged off stiff opposition from corporate heavyweights like Amazon and Starbucks and unanimously passed a new tax on the city’s largest employers that will raise $47 million a year over five years to fund new affordable housing and services for homeless people. In Oakland, the progressive City Council member Rebecca Kaplan is pushing an aggressive proposal that would levy a tax on the city’s vacant properties and funnel the proceeds into new housing development and other measures to combat the affordability crisis. In both New York City and San Francisco, new initiatives guarantee legal counsel to every tenant who comes into housing court. And in Philadelphia, local officials have proposed a 1 percent tax on the cost of new construction in the city in order to fund affordable residential development.
Then there’s Austin, Texas, where a coalition of progressive City Council members, socialist organizers, housing nonprofits, and other community groups have launched a grassroots effort to pass the largest affordable-housing bond in the city’s history. They want Austin officials to approve a bond initiative—to be voted on by local residents—that would provide $300 million to create new affordable units, finance public housing upgrades, and purchase a large swath of land to be used by the city for future housing development.
“For us to address the current crisis, we need something much larger than our traditional $50- or $60-million housing bonds,” says Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who is one of the bond proposal’s principal backers. “From social housing to public housing to mixed-income subsidized units, all of that is on the table for us right now.”