Thursday night is the last primary debate of 2019 for Democrats vying for the presidency, and to this point in the race, we’ve heard only sparing mentions of housing policy from those who want the country’s top job.
What better place than the debate stage in Los Angeles – a city at the epicenter of the housing affordability crisis – for a full-throated conversation about the problem and real solutions to bring relief to millions of Americans feeling squeezed by rising housing prices?
California’s population has exploded by 6.2 percent since 2010, with 6.5 million Californians calling apartments home. That level of demand has meant that, without adequate supply, more people on the margins are struggling to afford to put a roof over their head. Statewide, 76 percent of extremely low-income renters are stuck paying more than half of their income on housing.
The people described above are California Super Tuesday voters, who will have a great deal to say about who the Democratic nominee is in 2020. They deserve to hear where candidates stand on an issue that impacts them directly and that touches every American community. Do candidates support serious, commonsense policies that will reverse this unaffordability trend, or will they throw their weight behind pie-in-the-sky ideas like rent control that may seem good in a sound bite but will unfortunately only make the crisis worse?
In a referendum in 2018, the people of California loudly rejected a ballot initiative for statewide rent control, but the state legislature and the governor pushed it through this year anyway. Would the candidates mimic that approach on a national scale?
We know Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want national rent control, but as New York and California have learned the hard way, extreme rent-capping policies have the unintended consequences of limiting development of new and updated housing, reducing supply and ultimately increasing prices. If a low-income family isn’t lucky enough to secure a rent-controlled apartment, they’re suddenly stuck paying a higher price. Not to mention property owners who surrender their rights under the policy.
But others have proposed a whole host of policies and programs that would actually make a meaningful difference for American families, without the harm of rent control. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has called for increased federal investment in affordable housing. Sen. Warren has argued for softening prohibitive zoning rules to make construction easier. Some candidates have floated expanding tax credits for low- and middle-income Americans who spend more than 30% of their income on rent. And multiple candidates believe in using federal dollars in different ways to incentivize construction on the local level.
Voters deserve to hear how each candidate would approach the crisis. Continuing to ignore the problem is unworkable for too many Californians and Americans.
So much of presidential politics these days seems to be about being more extreme than the next person. But on the issue of housing, pragmatism should be celebrated. One-size-fits-all mandates and grand promises from Washington won’t bring housing prices down. Solutions need local buy-in and broad support.
Everyone agrees we need to build more housing. But how do we do it? It requires smart investments from the federal government and targeted assistance for families who just can’t make ends meet while paying for rising prices. It requires getting rid of outdated local zoning regulations that prevent the construction of a variety of housing options at multiple price points. And it requires standing up to those at the local level preventing development projects from taking hold even as people need more housing options. These things together would result in real relief for millions.
The American people deserve to hear a housing vision from each of the candidates on stage Thursday. Too many families are being hurt by rising prices. If not in California, then when?
Doug Bibby is president of the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC), a national organization of more than 1,400 member firms involved in the multifamily housing industry.