During the presidential debates, President Obama and Mitt Romney successfully avoided (with an assist from the debate moderators) addressing several prominent issues, including climate change, gun control, drone strikes, poverty and the housing crisis.
While the candidates occasionally discussed these gravely important issues in an indirect way—Obama mentioned “folks who are striving to get into the middle class,” Mitt Romney paid homage to the poor by promising to make the social safety net “more efficient,” i.e., privatize it, and Obama paid his usual lip service to wind and solar energy—the candidates were largely able to skirt and parry actually confronting these issues in any meaningful way.
In fact, during the last debate on foreign policy, which on more than one occasion strayed into the domestic policy arena, the candidates agreed on several issues: Iran is the greatest threat ever known to the planet, drone strikes are necessary and tools for peace, the United States would back Israel if it were attacked and China is abusing trade. Afterwards, in discussing the last debate, MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted that there was very little substantive disagreement between the candidates.
And while Obama occasionally strayed into domestic territory and talked about rebuilding US infrastructure, missing from the debate was any real conversation about poverty and the ongoing housing crisis. The candidates prioritized the subjects in this fashion, even during the prior debates, despite the fact that in recent polls the economy and unemployment rank as the issues most important to Americans—not Iran’s “spinning uranium,” as Romney puts it.
ABC’s Jordan Fabian noted the conspicuous lack of discussion on the housing crisis, stating housing policy must be “less sexy” than Iran or the “47 percent.”
“It’s…a really complicated subject and neither candidate has a strong plan of how they would go forward, so they would prefer not to talk about it,” said Janis Bowdler, director of the Wealth Building Policy Project at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation’s largest Latino civil rights group.
NCLR recently sponsored an effort to drop off more than 30,000 postcards at the Obama and Romney campaign headquarters on Tuesday asking each to explain their housing plan. Part of the problem, however, is that popular support doesn’t have any impact on the debates themselves. Every minute detail of the questions and audience members is groomed, edited and censored by both campaign staffs to the point where there’s absolutely no chance of an audience member asking a tough, surprising question, protesters getting the ear of the candidates or anything else remotely interesting happening.
Meanwhile, the housing crisis is still very real and affecting millions of Americans. As ABC notes, Obama’s 2009 housing plan, which he said would “help between 7 and 9 million families restructure or refinance their mortgages so they can afford—avoid foreclosures,” actually fell dramatically short of that goal, only helping around 1 million homeowners receive permanent modifications on their mortgages, just one-quarter of those who applied for help.
Bowdler calls Obama’s mortgage modification and refinancing program the administration’s “Achilles heel.”
Romney’s plan has been criticized for lacking fundamental details, much like the rest of his economic plan.
“The major question is: how do they envision housing as a part of our economic recovery and growth in the future. And if they do, then what are you going to do about it?” Bowdler said. “We haven’t even gotten the candidates to say that much.”
Ana Casas Wilson is one of the Americans currently struggling to stay in her home. In April, Wilson, along with at least eighty supporters, attempted to deliver her mortgage payment directly to Tim Sloan, the top financial officer for Wells Fargo, which is servicing Wilson’s loan). She was arrested for her trouble.
Wilson lives in her childhood home with her husband James, a school employee, and her mother, who is a retired factor worker who now works as a home care worker. In addition to having stage-four breast cancer, Wilson suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair.
Most recently, she has informed Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca that she will refuse to leave her home if his deputies try to evict her.
“This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” said Wilson, who missed making a mortgage payment when she was in the hospital undergoing treatment for her breast cancer. “I can’t believe that Wells Fargo, US Bank and Sheriff Baca would take my family’s home away because I was ill and in the hospital.”
Like in many eviction cases, and perhaps the most absurd reality of the housing crisis, Wilson’s family is trying to work with the bank to continue giving them money. Wilson and her supporters have been trying to reach Wells Fargo and US Bank to find out why the banks are so keen to throw out a family fully capable and willing to make mortgage payments.
In 2009, Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Her husband quit his night job as a security guard—and reduced the family’s income—to tend to her. While Wilson was in the hospital and undergoing chemotherapy, the family fell behind on its mortgage payments and Wells Fargo started to foreclose on their property.
Once the family’s financial situation stabilized, they repeatedly attempted to renegotiate their mortgage with Wells Fargo, but the bank eventually began rejecting their payments and foreclosed.
According to the most recent estimates, around 15 million homeowners are “underwater,” and while many economists agree that the most effective solution would be for the federal government to require banks to renegotiate mortgages (both for the homeowners and the banks—why pass up payments for an empty house no one is going to buy?), the issue of the housing crisis has been consistently ignored in the debates.
To be sure, 15 million Americans would have much rather heard the candidates’ ideas for easing the housing crisis than they did hearing bizarre theories about spinning uranium.
For more on the fight to save American homes from foreclosure, check out Allison Kilkenny’s coverage of the Occupy Our Homes movement in Atlanta.