When Adem Bunkeddeko decided to mount a primary challenge to Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, who represents New York’s Ninth Congressional District, in Brooklyn, he made affordable housing—and the lack thereof—a key issue in his campaign. “Adem believes suitable housing is a right,” his website announced.
Bunkeddeko, age 31, lives in a rent-stabilized apartment, which he says enabled his congressional run. The son of refugees from Uganda, Bunkeddeko was raised in a one-bedroom apartment in Elmhurst, Queens, along with five siblings, and an affordable place to live allowed his father to continue his education while working and supporting his family. Running for office years later, Bunkeddeko called for federal investment in building high-quality affordable rental and owner units, spending more money on public-housing upkeep, and a program to help people afford to buy homes, among other measures.
“Housing is the central bedrock of the place from which people are able to start to live out their version of the American Dream,” he said. “If you don’t have a place to live, it’s hard to imagine how you’re going to be able to succeed.”
When Kaniela Ing, a 29-year-old state representative in Hawaii, ran for Congress this fall, he made housing a central focus of his campaign, too. He was motivated not only by the more than 7,000 homeless people in his state but also by his own inability to afford to become a homeowner. “In my district [the median home price] is like $1.2 million,” he said. “We’re in a crisis.… For our generation, the stakes are really high.” He campaigned on “housing for all,” calling on the government to build 10 million units of what he called “social housing” over the next decade, to keep rents affordable, and to “provide a home for every American.”
Housing is an urgent but typically unsexy issue. It rarely, if ever, pops up in campaign debates or flashy political events. Yet that may be starting to change. While Bunkeddeko and Ing didn’t win their primaries, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose platform included calling housing a human right, did, toppling New York Representative Joseph Crowley, who has been in Congress for nearly two decades and hadn’t faced a primary challenger since 2004. As America’s housing crisis has become more acute—nearly half of renters are spending more than what’s considered affordable on the roof over their heads, and over half a million people are homeless every night—young candidates like Bunkeddeko, Ing, and Ocasio-Cortez have seized on the issue as they’ve run for office this year.
Their embrace of the issue is shared by some elected officials already in Congress, with prominent members—including several seemingly contemplating White House runs in 2020—recently unveiling a variety of ambitious plans to tackle the housing crisis. Senator Elizabeth Warren has put forward perhaps the biggest and boldest recent plan, what she’s calling the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. The bill would have the federal government invest hundreds of billions of dollars in building up to 3.2 million new housing units. Compare that to, say, the 1.1 million existing units of public housing, or the 2.3 million affordable-housing units created between 1987 and 2016 through the largest federal tax program. She calls on a number of financing vehicles to get there, including the Housing Trust Fund—which was created in 2008 to fund affordable-housing projects across the country, but has still mostly been left empty—funding streams specifically for rural and tribal areas, and a brand new Middle-Class Housing Emergency Fund. “The rising cost of housing affects almost everyone,” she said. “This is a crisis—and all levels of government need to work together to address it.”
Warren’s bill would also dedicate $10 billion to a competitive federal grant for infrastructure projects that would only be available to local governments that change land-use restrictions that stymie the construction of new affordable housing. It would create new programs to offer down-payment assistance to two particular groups: black borrowers, who have historically been cut out of government housing largesse, and families who saw their wealth evaporate in the housing crisis. It would also strengthen current rules that are meant to ensure lenders give loans to the poor, as well as adding new protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, and source of income to antidiscrimination lending laws. “Her bill recognizes the need for increased production as well as increased subsidies,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, as well as “removing barriers to access to existing housing.”
Warren is not the only person in Congress talking about housing. In July, Senator Kamala Harris introduced the Rent Relief Act, which would create a new, refundable tax credit that would help people who pay too much for rent afford their housing. It would reach approximately 20 million households. Both Harris and Warren hope their legislation will attract Republican support. “Providing Americans with affordable housing should be a bipartisan issue,” Harris said. “No middle class or working family is immune from housing insecurity, and it’s about time we did something to help them out.” Meanwhile, Senator Cory Booker also has introduced a measure that would offer new assistance to those who can’t afford housing while tackling housing supply in a more traditional way than Warren’s bill: His approach would require state and local governments to develop new inclusive zoning policies, already in existence in 886 jurisdictions, that tie affordable-housing construction to market-rate or luxury development.
“I don’t think any of the bills on their own would completely end the housing crisis, but some combination of them could,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Warren’s bill focuses on building new housing, tackling the supply side of the issue. In 1970, before the modern crisis of mass homelessness existed, there was a 300,000-unit surplus of available homes for the lowest-income Americans. Today there’s a 7.2 million shortage. Harris and Booker, for their part, are focused on ways to make rent affordable, subsidizing the demand side so that people can afford what they need. “It’s not a very complicated problem, really,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “Both of these things are needed.”
The energy around finding solutions to the housing crisis represents “a sea change,” Roman added. Housing is not an issue that usually makes waves in Congress. “Housing has always been at the bottom,” she said. And that “showed in terms of what gets done.” But the depth of the problem is changing that political calculus. “The bad news is that the crisis has gotten so bad that it’s finally come to people’s attention,” she said. “The good new is that it’s come to people’s attention and they’re starting to do things about it.” In some large cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s become particularly visible as street homelessness has ballooned. The public has also started to finally connect homelessness and a lack of affordable housing. But even outside of those particular places, housing has become an issue of increased urgency; most mayors now say housing is their top concern.
It’s no accident that the people introducing housing bills in Congress are also those rumored to be contemplating runs for the White House in 2020. “Voters would vote this issue far more than politicians give them credit for,” said Celinda Lake, president of political consulting firm Lake Research Partners. “The politics of this issue at every level are really 50 years behind.… The voters have been way, way ahead of the policy-makers and politicians.” That’s particularly true for two groups whose support Democratic presidential hopefuls will need: millennials, and the increasing number of people living in cities. Young people who would otherwise be expected to be buying houses are instead saddled with student debt and working precarious and low-wage jobs; one in five likely voters ages 18–34 support investing in public housing, compared to just 3 percent of those 35–64. And cities are becoming so crowded that housing prices keep rising beyond anything remotely affordable.
If the attention paid to housing in Congress and on the campaign trail is new, so is the scale of ambition. Warren describes rising cost of housing as “a drag on the whole economy.… The problem…is not only that it leaves less money for child care, retirement, and college savings, but also that it limits people’s ability to move to areas with better jobs and schools.” So she put forward an expansive plan, not an incremental one. “I wanted to introduce a bill that is as big as the problem we’re trying to solve. For generations, housing policy has failed working families—driving up prices and excluding whole communities from building strong economic futures,” she said. “The federal government must take responsibility for its failures and work to fix them.”
Candidates running on these kind of bold, aggressive platforms “pushes the conversation in a new direction, pushes it further than I think the national conversation has been in a really long time,” said Yentel, “which makes me hopeful that when we get to compromising [on actual legislation], it’ll be closer to the full solution that we need than we would if we didn’t have them.” These ideas aren’t necessarily new; advocates have been talking about many of them for decades. What’s new is politicians standing behind efforts—spending federal money on development, creating new rental subsidies, and tackling local regulations—that are more aggressive, and more effective, than just funneling more money to the Section 8 rental-subsidy program or expanding the low-income housing tax credit.
Also notable is that these plans aren’t just targeted at the poor, but also at the middle class. That’s fine with Foscarinis, so long as the poor aren’t left out. She points out that none of the bills addresses the criminalization of homelessness and the growing clampdown in cities on the daily life of homeless people. “You can’t both be trying to increase affordable housing for everybody and seeing it as a way to end homelessness and not also be advocating for an end to criminalization,” she explained.
Advocates also point to a shift in how the up-and-coming crop of candidates are talking about housing—as a human right. “We [advocates] have been talking about housing as a human right for a long time,” Foscarinis said. “Operationalizing that is really what needs to happen to truly end and prevent homelessness in this country.” Finally, that language is being echoed by young candidates staking out the progressive wing of the party. “We’re saying health care is a human right, finally,” Kaniela Ing pointed out. “If that human need is going to be considered a human right, then why not all human needs? Housing is just as important as healthcare and food.” To solve the housing crisis, “You need massive, massive investment,” Ing added. “Like we’ve never seen before.” That inspired him to put forward a universal proposal. “When you means-test these sorts of policies you pit groups against each other,” he said. “Good policy is good for everyone.”
It’s also notable that candidates have begun calling for the government to simply build housing itself—what Ing calls social housing, or in other words, more units of public housing. “It’s not something that anybody has really wanted to touch for years,” said Matthew Lasner, associate professor at Hunter College’s Urban Policy and Planning Department. “Everybody is talking about Medicare for All, everybody’s talking about the expansion of the welfare state in all these other directions,” he added. Now housing may be getting its deserved spotlight.
The potential political popularity of these initiatives, of course, doesn’t mean any of them are on the verge of becoming law. There were 83 housing-related bills introduced in the House and 32 in the Senate between 2017 and 2019, and none of them made it to the president’s desk. “It’s easy to get lots of people to agree to the idea that they’re paying too much money for their housing,” Lasner said. The conversation gets thornier when it veers into the details of how to build housing and what it will cost, particularly when the private housing market—so intrinsic to the American Dream—comes into question. But it’s a start. “It’s taken us a long time to get us into the hole that we’re in on housing and it’s going to take a while to get out of the hole,” Roman said. “I don’t have a short time frame.”
By introducing legislation now ahead of potential presidential runs, Warren, Harris and Booker ensure that the issue gets a hearing in the run up to the 2020 election. “It tells us that at the least affordable housing and the crisis and its solutions are likely to be a topic of discussion and debate on the campaign trail,” Yentel said. “That will be the first time maybe ever that we’re actually able to elevate it to that level.… It has never happened in my lifetime.” In fact, the country hasn’t had a discussion about such a large influx of government spending into building affordable housing since the 1930s and 1940s. “When you’ve seen the most significant public efforts to deal with affordable housing in this country, it’s been around some sort of national crisis,” Lasner said. The Great Depression led to a New Deal program that built model homes; the housing shortage after soldiers came home from World War II engendered the GI Bill. Now, we’re in the midst of our own emergency.
Still, “a lot of [politicians] are intimidated by housing” as an issue, said Celinda Lake. There aren’t simple solutions. “It doesn’t lend itself to sound bites and 30-second spots.” That’s why a bill like Warren’s can have a larger impact. She “is such an agenda setter on economic issues,” Lake said. A bill like hers “emboldens and empowers politicians.… They feel like if a candidate who really knows economics can talk about it and come up with a proposal, then I can talk about it, too.”
Bunkeddeko didn’t win, but he came within 1,852 votes of toppling a 12-year incumbent, in Yvette Clarke’s first substantive primary challenge. Ing finished fourth out of seven primary contenders, but many of his competitors also talked about affordable housing during the race. They both argue that others should follow their lead and make housing a key issue. Housing “cut across race, class, gender, socioeconomic background,” Bunkeddeko said. “No one is inoculated from it.”
“Housing is one of the bedrock issues that I believe the government has a responsibility to ensure alongside education, health care, infrastructure, national defense,” he added. “Otherwise, society has failed.” Our generation “is going to have to tackle some issues that, for a long time in our politics, we’ve tended to avoid,” he said. “Housing is one of those issues.”
“We’ve got to do something more than simply say that people are on their own,” he added. “No. We’ve got to do more.”
Editor’s Note: This article initially reported that Adem Bunkeddeko grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In fact, he grew up in Elmhurst, Queens. The article has been corrected.