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Can Housing Find Its Moment In Tonight's Iowa Debate?

A road sign reading "2020 Election"

The first Democratic Presidential debate of 2020 is poised to kick off tonight, January 14, in Des Moines, just 20 days short of the state's caucuses. Iowa, the first of four early states to caucus or primary for a presidential nominee, has seen major fluctuations in its polling since candidates began their statewide campaigns last March. 

According to RealClear Politics’ polling aggregation, Vice President Joe Biden had dominated in Iowa until October, when Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) began gaining traction among voters. This was followed by the meteoric mid-November rise of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who led in the state until the end of 2019. 

A combination of character-bashing and declining support among minority voters for Mayor Buttigieg ushered in Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), who now holds Iowa by a narrow margin. Sen. Sanders, champion of a proposed national rent cap, has experienced incremental bumps in support that have also lifted his national polling average. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has maintained a solid fifth place since Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) suspended her campaign, while businessman Tom Steyer secured a spot after two recent polls in South Carolina and Nevada qualified him to participate in Des Moines. 

Regardless of who is ahead in the polls, tonight’s debate will likely be marked by a number of domestic and international developments that have occurred during the last two weeks. Impeachment trial proceedings and foreign policy surely will be discussed. The historical priorities of the past six debates signal that these issues will take center stage, while critical domestic issues, like the housing affordability crisis impacting nearly 39 million renters and millions more seeking housing, will fall by the wayside. 

Iowa voters deserve to hear how their housing needs will be met. Nearly half of Iowa’s housing stock was built before 1980 and will require significant investment to remain affordable, healthy and competitive. Moderators must press the candidates on their plans to preserve housing affordability in light of rising construction costs and candidates must communicate to voters their plans to identify and eliminate onerous requirements that act as barriers to development. 

The shrinking supply of available land has severely restricted new housing development in Des Moines, forcing increased pressure on cost-burdened families who are already spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Most communities losing out on housing are located in the rural parts of the state, leading to greater migration toward Iowa’s urban centers or out of the state completely. Unfortunately, record housing demand is not being met and Iowans continue to suffer. 

It is unlikely that housing will be addressed tonight. A candidate may try to pivot a question to talk about the “bread and butter” issues of America, where housing sits nicely, but the topic probably will not receive the honest and open discussion it deserves. The end of 2019 heralded in too many headline-worthy stories, though a shrinking housing stock and deep affordability challenges have yet to grab attention at the debates, save for one question asked in November. Therefore, it must be the responsibility of the housing industry to advocate for renewed attention to this pressing issue and ensure that housing is properly addressed in 2020. 

The National Apartment Association will provide ongoing coverage of the 2020 Presidential Election Cycle highlighting its importance to the rental housing industry. Stay tuned for more spotlights on candidates’ housing policies, debate analysis and much more. For more information on the 2020 Presidential Election, please contact NAA Manager of Public Policy, Sam Gilboard.