Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Housing Plans

 Housing has not been as big an issue as health care in the campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, but several candidates have issued policy platforms. While many of their proposals would have a hard time passing if Republicans retain control of the Senate, they help define where the Democratic party stands on housing issues. Below is a partial summary of the candidates’ positions.

Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s policy agenda says little about housing. The biggest exception is his proposals for housing the formerly incarcerated. As part of his larger policy on criminal-justice reform, the “Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice,” Biden wants to ensure that all people released from prison have access to housing. He envisions using the Department of Housing and Urban Development to encourage developers and other housing entities to accept them. He also calls for increased funding for halfway houses and similar types of transitional housing for the recently imprisoned. These policies would be part of a broader effort to investigate ways that former prisoners are restricted from re-entering society.

Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, has presented a plan that would spend about $430 billion on housing. His campaign claims that it would provide access to housing to 7 million low-income families and result in the construction of 2 million new affordable units.

Rather than starting new programs, it would primarily expand federal investment in programs intended to make housing more affordable, such as the Capital Magnet Fund and the Housing Trust Fund. Created in 2008, these funds draw a small percentage (4.2 cents out of every $100) of business purchases by the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac). The Capital Magnet Fund provides funding for nonprofit affordable-housing organizations, and the Housing Trust Fund subsidies to state housing agencies. Other ideas include offering low-cost mortgages to those willing to occupy blighted or abandoned homes for at least 10 years, and a tax credit to support rental housing for lower-income households. (He has not provided specific details about those tax credits.) He also calls for free lead-paint removal services for homeowners. 

As part of his separate racial-justice plan, Buttigieg proposes offering assistance with down payments to homebuyers in neighborhoods that have been affected by the lingering effects of “redlining,” the policies by governments and banks that denied mortgage and property-improvement loans  in predominantly black or Latino areas. People who make less than the metropolitan area median income and have been a resident of a historically redlined or segregated area for at least three years in the previous ten would be eligible. However, black South Bend residents have criticized Buttigieg, saying his efforts to revitalize the city have left them behind. 

 Bernie Sanders

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Housing for All” plan would dramatically expand public investment in affordable housing. Its central component is the investment of $2.5 trillion to build or rehabilitate as many as 10 million units of affordable housing. Sanders’s policy documents do not define “affordable.” However, the  National Affordable Housing Trust Fund on which his plan is based distributes block grants to states, which determine affordability according to their own metrics—generally based on federal area-median-income standards.

Another major aspect is reviving public housing of $70 billion to rehabilitate current public-housing buildings. It would also repeal the Faircloth Amendment, the 1998 law that prohibits local governments from building more public housing than they already have. 

Sanders’ proposals to protect renters include a national rent-control standard and a federal “just cause” eviction law that would prohibit landlords from evicting any tenant without proving a specific reason. The Housing for All plan also calls for taxing real-estate speculators and for efforts to remove regulatory and zoning requirements that contribute to gentrification. 

Elizabeth Warren 

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s housing agenda has several components. First, she defines a lack of supply as the key cause of the current housing crisis. To that end, her American Housing and Economic Mobility Act would invest $500 billion over ten years to build new housing or rehabilitate or repurpose old housing stock. Her campaign claims that this would reduce national renting costs by as much as 10 percent, and would result in 1.5 million new jobs. 

Warren would finance these plans by raising the inheritance tax and lowering the threshold for when it is assessed to estates of $7 million, as it was before former president George W. Bush raised it. She says that this would mean taxing just 14,000 wealthy Americans. 

Warren also calls for easing zoning and other regulations, such as parking requirements or height limits, that reduce the supply of new housing, and in so doing drive up rents and real-estate values. Her other proposals include special programs for neighborhoods victimized by redlining; relief for homeowners still underwater from the 2008 housing crash, owing on their mortgages than their homes are worth; and reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Specifically, Warren’s plan would sharply curtail the auctioning of mortgages by the two agencies, which activists say plays into the hands of private equity and other predatory entities. 

The Rest of the Pack 

Some of the candidates considered “second tier” have proposed housing policies worth considering. Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Obama-administration Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has a detailed plan he calls “People First Housing.” In a policy world that is often focused on home ownership, it’s distinctive for considering renters. It calls for expanding HUD’s housing-choice voucher program, commonly known as Section 8. Currently, only about 25 percent of those eligible take advantage of those rent-subsidy vouchers, in part due to onerous regulations; Castro’s plan would make every family in the bottom 50 percent of area median income eligible. He also calls for relief for renters in the form of tax credits for those who earn up to the area median income. Additionally, he would expand affordable housing through the Capital Magnet Fund and the Housing Trust Fund, and push for zoning reform. 

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s policy is unique among the Democratic field in that it specifically attempts to address housing issues in rural America. Her plan would expand the number of families with children with access to housing-choice vouchers, target low-income-housing tax credits more towards areas with low poverty rates, provide financial incentives for towns and cities to reform zoning, and provide a right to counsel for everyone facing eviction. 

New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, formerly mayor of Newark, has called for a sweeping entitlement plan for renters, including a tax credit that would cover the difference between 30 percent of their income and the federal market rate for rent in their area. He estimates that the median renter taking advantage of the tax credit would receive as much as $4,800 a year. 

On the other side, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the multibillionaire who entered the race in November, claims that he reduced street homelessness and “created thousands of units of affordable housing in new buildings.” He doesn’t mention that the number of homeless people staying in city shelters rose by 63 percent during his 12 years as mayor, or that his programs created more “affordable” apartments for households making over $100,000 a year than for those making less than $30,000.