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Housing Affordability Must Take Center Stage At Tonight’s Debate

Two microphones in front of an American flag

The National Apartment Association (NAA) was pleased to see housing affordability issues discussed during the Nov. 20 Democratic Primary Debate after months of neglect at prior debates. 

The question, which referenced the high cost of housing in America’s largest cities, challenged the candidates to answer how this could be fixed. Tom Steyer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) offered responses. Both Steyer and Sen. Warren correctly acknowledged that a lack of housing at all price points was a major cost driver and could be cured with the development of millions of affordable housing units and significant increases in federal assistance, approximately $500 billion according to each candidate’s housing plan. Sen. Booker’s response highlighted his proposed federal renters tax credit and right-to-counsel incentivization fund. While well-intentioned, these solutions miss the true root of the problem, cost-burdened renters’ ongoing financial instability and the severe shortage of new construction.  

As the candidates prepare for the sixth and final Democratic Primary Debate of 2019, the rental housing industry will be watching closely, hopeful that moderators will build off of the momentum that housing has generated in the last month. Just five days after the last debate, Mr. Steyer released his housing plan, pledging 3.5 million new affordable housing units under his administration. Sen. Warren also released an updated housing plan that places a renewed focus on increasing tenant protections federally, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg and newcomer Michael Bloomberg have both released plans that tackle housing affordability. 

Tonight’s debate offers its participants an opportunity to elaborate on their plans to ensure affordable housing for all America’s renters. In particular, the candidates should discuss their proposals for eliminating local barriers that inhibit new development. Many, if not all, of the seven debate participants have acknowledged the detrimental effects that NIMBY-ism and exclusionary zoning policies can have on the quality and quantity of a jurisdiction’s affordable housing. 

Unfortunately, candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Sen. Warren continue to call for the repeal of state preemptions on inclusionary zoning and rent control, policies that have artificially distorted the rental market, disincentivized new construction and hurt housing affordability.  In light of the near unanimous condemnation of rent control by economists across the philosophical spectrum and 50-plus years of experience with the debilitating impacts of such policies on local communities, debate moderators should push back on these proposals. A national conversation like this should focus on serious and sustainable solutions that focus on the long-term health of our housing markets. 

Regarding the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program, most candidates have advocated for increased funding to the program to expand the number of vouchers available to eligible families. However, their plans do not acknowledge the inefficiencies that plague the program and disincentivize housing provider participation. The candidates should provide greater insight on what can be done to encourage greater program participation.

Finally, plans for addressing energy and the environment continue to dominate the national discussion, prompting ambitious goals from the candidates. In many proposals, buildings will be required to undergo significant structural retrofits at a significant cost to owners and operators in order to comply. The housing industry would like to know how candidates plan to keep housing affordable while meeting formidable climate milestones. 

While housing affordability has gained traction on the debate stage, there are still many questions left unanswered. If the issue of housing is not raised tonight, NAA encourages candidates to continue discussing their solutions with voters and, especially, among industry professionals. Rental housing providers must have input into the policies that put their livelihoods at risk and dictate how their businesses are operated. 

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.