The Rent Is Too Damn High, and Progressives Need to Do Something

The Rent Is Too Damn High, and Progressives Need to Do Something

The Rent Is Too Damn High, and Progressives Need to Do Something

Voters want real housing solutions but aren’t getting them from either party.


Ben Carson is on a mission to shred the federal housing safety net. As secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Carson has actively undermined desegregation and LGBT protections in government-subsidized housing, and has proposed raising rents threefold for many families. The Trump administration’s approach to housing policy would be comical if it didn’t have real effects on real people: Trump picked his personal event planner, who had no relevant experience, to run the biggest regional housing office in HUD. This allowed Trump to gut affordable housing in New York and New Jersey, the very same place his son-in-law Jared Kushner illegally skirted rent-stabilization rules.

In truth, both parties have been terrible on housing policy for many years. Barack Obama favored the interests of bankers over homeowners at the behest of centrist advisers like Timothy Geithner. Powerful banks, which in general became even larger and more powerful after the financial crisis they caused, bought up houses on the cheap and then offered them for rent.

Nine years later, there are persistent racial wealth gaps, driven in large parts by gaps in homeownership rates. More households are renting than ever before in modern history—particularly the key members of the progressive coalition. Fifty-eight percent of black households and 54 percent of Latino households rent their homes. Two-thirds of Americans under age 30 rent. Unmarried women are twice as likely to rent than own.

Recent analysis has suggested that elections in the modern era often hinge on progressive-base turnout, and that balance-tipping base is comprised mostly of renters. Yet elected leaders have paid little attention to housing, and even less to renters. That’s been horrendous policy—and also terrible politics.

Lots of people get screwed by bad housing policy

Consigned to the rental market indefinitely, tens of millions of Americans are locked out of a path to economic mobility. There are more cost-burdened renters (meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent) in the United States today than there were uninsured people before the Affordable Care Act. In the richest country in the world, a full one-third of American households are cost-burdened, including nearly half of the 111 million Americans living in rental housing. A full 60 percent of middle- and working-class renters with annual incomes under $75,000 experience cost burdens.

Across most income brackets, many millions of Americans are at the edge of a personal financial crisis thanks to their crushing rent payments. When a massive chunk of a person’s pay–a third, half, even more–goes to simply providing shelter, they often struggle to adequately feed and clothe themselves and their families.

Given the housing-cost horror stories we often hear about in expensive coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, one might assume rent burdens are potent only in already deeply progressive territory. The data tells a much different story. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s most recent Out of Reach report, a full-time minimum-wage worker cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment in 99.6 percent of American counties. Suburbs–the central battlefield of competitive American elections in 2018–are seeing rents rise faster than urban areas. Even people who do not struggle with housing costs themselves recognize this as a problem. Roughly three in five Americans recognize finding affordable housing as a challenge in their community, and 80 percent see it as a problem for the country as a whole.

Based on data from the US census housing-vacancies and homeownership report and the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, every single Senate swing state sees a larger share of the population suffering from rent burdens than other common economic ills like unemployment/underemployment or lack of health insurance. From the high end of Nevada and Florida (where cost-burdened renters comprise 22 percent and 19 percent of the population, respectively), to the lower end of West Virginia (11 percent), Wisconsin (12 percent) and Montana (12 percent), every single state’s population of cost-burdened renters exceeds other economic strains.

Given the breadth of this problem, it should come as no surprise that polls show voters are very much focused on housing costs. Recent research from the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center revealed that housing costs consistently rank in the top-three economic concerns for voters across 11 red, blue, and purple states. Housing costs only trail health-care costs and wages keeping pace with expenses in the minds of voters, ranking ahead of credit-card debt, student debt, family care, and retirement. For young voters, concerns about housing costs exceed those related to health care.

BISC also found broad support for a hypothetical measure limiting rent increases to once per year and no more than 15 percent above the average monthly rent for the neighborhood–drawing an average of 76 percent support from all voters. The measure tested higher than nearly all economic-reform concepts that were tested—especially among young voters, voters of color, and women.

Some have argued that housing is not a viable national political issue due to variations in cost of living between wealthy cities and economically distressed communities: that in most places, rental affordability is really a wage problem, not a housing problem. But this assumes that a person struggling to pay rent in St. Louis blames their insufficient income, while somebody in Miami blames their expensive housing. In reality, both people almost certainly blame both reasons–when both go to write a rent check, it’s more than they can afford. Politicians or parties can easily speak to both experiences at the same time, because they can feel like the same experience even if macroeconomists might see it differently.

Polling shows that support for affordable housing indeed bridges regional divides. Data for Progress used two polling questions commissioned by the Center for American Progress to model support for aggressive progressive housing policies. The first asked if respondents would support a proposal to “expand rental assistance for all low-income families spending more than half of their income on rent each month.” The other asked if respondents would be less likely to vote for a politician who “Cut funding for programs that provide access to affordable housing.”

How Progressive Politicians Can Capitalize on Housing Concerns

This data suggests housing is an issue Democrats could use to overcome their geographic disadvantage, in which Democratic voters are clustered in urban areas. Colin McAuliffe, co-founder of Data for Progress, said Democrats could campaign on housing policy across the country because “in urban zip codes support for expanding rental assistance is 73 percent, compared with 71 percent in rural zip codes. In urban zip codes, 57 percent of respondents say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who cut rental assistance, compared with 52 percent in rural zip codes.”

As the Democratic Party thinks about how to win back people who voted for Obama but then sat out the 2016 election, housing could be an important issue: 64 percent of Obama-to-Clinton voters own their own home, compared with only 45 percent of Obama-to-nonvoters. So there are a lot of renters who are open to the Democratic Party but don’t feel compelled to show up for every election.

While rent stabilization is far too rare in left-of-center platforms, some elected officials who have kept their ears to the ground are making it a priority, including in unexpected places. Senator Jon Tester of Montana has been placing focus on it, in office and on the campaign trail.

“Access to affordable housing gives young folks the foundation they need to climb the career ladder, live healthier lives, and start a family,” Tester told The Nation. “Unfortunately, the combination of rising rents and attempts to cut critical HUD initiatives is leaving too many Americans without a reliable and affordable roof over their head. This is not a partisan issue. Both parties must work together to ensure that people don’t have to empty their bank account each month to make rent.”

Tester’s focus on housing affordability can likely be credited in part to work done by the local youth-power organization, Forward Montana. The group has identified housing-cost burdens as a “common denominator” of economic struggles for young Montanans, and has spent the last year building local tenants’ unions, organizing meetings, actions, and events to highlight the needs of renters.

Forward Montana’s base of young activists are “passionate about making sure there are laws to address the high cost of rent and the functionally zero percent vacancy we see in rental units in many places in Montana,” says Erin Miller, Forward Montana’s Missoula field manager. They plan on incorporating a “renter vs. homeowner” question in the tens of thousands of voter guides they distribute annually.

In the perpetual swing state of Florida, housing costs are also driving grassroots progressive energy. In a community that’s make-or-break for statewide elections and host to multiple hotly contested congressional races, another youth-power organization sees rent burdens moving youth of color to anger and action. Organizer Gilbert Placeres with Engage Miami says that millennials and Gen Zers increasingly see housing as a top issue hampering their ability to thrive. “We’re faced with a stark choice,” he said. “Take action so that our generation can actually afford to live where we are, or watch as our cities become nothing but a playground for rich people supported by low-wage labor on the edges of their paradise.”

Progressive politicians and parties can and should talk about housing costs in stark terms, and build on the energy of grassroots community organizations that have been talking about this issue for a long time.

Zellnor Myrie, a candidate in New York State’s 20th Senate District, has made universal rent regulation part of his campaign. “When I’m knocking on doors, meeting people at subways, or talking to folks at block-association meetings, housing is always at the top of the conversation,” he says.

But what policy options are there for politicians who want to run on a better housing policy? Affordable housing does not yet have a simple proposal like the Fight for $15, or Medicare for All. But options abound. The most potent and politically winning short-term solution is rent stabilization. In Germany, a central board finds a median price-per-square-meter rate in a given neighborhood, and rents cannot exceed 10 percent of that number nor be raised more than once a year. It appears to be working well—average rent costs in Berlin dropped 3.1 percent in the very first month the stabilization policies were in effect.

Limiting rent increases is no long-term panacea, however. Rent price increases are highly correlated with scarcity of available rental units. Building more housing is absolutely necessary, but boosted supply must also include ample below-market units. The United States is short around 7 million affordable rentals. Elected officials and candidates should pledge to leverage an infusion of federal housing dollars combined with upzoning incentives to build 10 million new homes affordable to middle-class, working-class, and low-income Americans to address the current shortfall and keep pace with growth.

While homeownership is by no means a goal of every renter, 70 percent of renters still want to own a home someday, and federal policies should speak to them too. At the very least, progressives should pledge to bring back and expand the first-time homebuyer tax credit. But they could go further, providing direct down-payment-assistance grants to cash-poor middle- and low-income Americans looking to buy.

Down-payment assistance should go beyond individual buyers, too. Mobile-home cooperatives have emerged as a powerful way for low-income and fixed-income Americans to maintain steady housing costs and build assets. The government should help expand this model, and potentially include other housing cooperatives in their assistance as well.

Ultimately, policy particulars may be less important in the near term than simply speaking to the plight of people with housing-cost burdens. The unfortunate absence of a national political message about housing also makes it an issue without built-in shibboleths. There isn’t a single-payer-or-bust mentality in the national space yet. For now, politicians should just pick their preferred policies (we think the ones above are pretty good) and talk about them. What matters is for cost-burdened voters to register that progressive politicians feel their pain and are will do something about it.

Progressives win when voters believe we understand their burdens and have solutions to ease them. A third of the country needs a more stable, affordable home. If progressives get serious about easing the cost of having a home now, they may just bring those cost-burdened Americans home on Election Day.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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