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Primary Residence: Virginia

Primary Residence is an in-depth look at housing policy and its critical importance for voters in Democratic primary states, in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential election. In this edition, we speak with Tommy Herbert, Manager of Government Relations, Virginia Apartment Management Association (VAMA), about the state’s housing battles and candidate strategies in Virginia. 

Super Tuesday is here. The country is now focused on the 14 states that will play a vital role in determining the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. With 99 pledged delegates at stake, Virginia is the fourth-largest among Super Tuesday states and holds immense value for candidates seeking to increase their political viability. After four early voting contests that have pointed to progressive darling Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as the frontrunner, housing providers should be aware of the impact that the next presidential hopeful will have on the state of housing. 

Political Balancing Act

Since 1992, Republicans have held majorities in both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly 15 times, including four trifectas. The Democrats carried both houses in the mid-90s but hadn’t held a majority until claiming the House in 2008. This helps explain the current Democratic trifecta’s urgency to move through adverse legislation quickly and with broad support. It has also handed the Virginia Area Management Association (VAMA) new barriers to overcome.

“We’re building new relationships and find ourselves still with a seat at the table while negotiating,” says Tommy Herbert, VAMA’s Manager of Government Relations. But the reworking of certain legislative committees has also brought other advocacy groups into the fold, including vocal tenant advocacy groups who now hold greater influence over the legislature. 

However, this influence has not necessarily translated into a staggeringly progressive agenda in Richmond. “There is a move too fast-move too slow dichotomy between progressive advocates and the Democratic establishment,” says Herbert. Progressive legislation is working through both houses, but not at the breakneck speed with which advocacy groups would like to see. Meanwhile, Virginia’s moderate Democratic establishment is not willing to expend valuable political capital so close to elections.

The Candidates Come to Town

How does this political tug-of-war play out for the presidential candidates? Local polls have placed Sen. Sanders in the lead, followed by moderate Michael Bloomberg, illustrating the ideological division found within Virginia’s Democratic electorate. Super Tuesday marks the first foray into the primaries for the former New York City Mayor. Bloomberg, who opted out of consideration in the early state primaries, has spent most of his time establishing a large presence in Virginia, opening eight offices, hiring nearly 100 staff, and selecting it as his first campaign stop after he announced his intentions to run for President. According to Herbert, Bloomberg’s state apparatus also consists mainly of rising stars in Virginia’s Democratic circles, which has no doubt increased his popularity with voters and given him the inside track to support from state and local lawmakers. 

This could spell trouble for Sen. Sanders, who was squashed by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Virginia Primaries. The former Secretary of State took home more than 64 percent of the vote. However, Bloomberg has taken a reputational hit nationally over closely held non-disclosure agreements with women, his administration’s stop-and-frisk policy and controversial remarks made about redlining. Former Vice President Joe Biden is on the heels of Bloomberg, riding the momentum from his breakout performance in South Carolina. Biden also has a strong reputation with the state’s communities of color and Northern Virginian moderates. Such a combination of factors could distance Bloomberg from capturing Virginia, thus ensuring victory for Sen. Sanders or energizing the state’s moderate base for a surprise Biden win. 

The Price of Fame

Amid a nationwide housing crunch, Virginia has been fortunate enough to see a high rate of development starts in its three urban hubs, Richmond, Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach. “Our housing really revolves around these metro areas, which cover a large portion of the voting populace, but not a very large portion of developable land available in the state,” says Herbert. “As Virginians begin concentrating in those areas, we’re finding that there is a lot of necessary construction that we are only just starting to catch up with.”

The demand for housing in Virginia has grown exponentially, further amplified by high profile commercial landings such as Amazon’s selection of Arlington for its new headquarters. Demand has created a pronounced wealth inequality gap, felt throughout Virginia’s cities and towns. In Richmond, the city’s high rate of evictions has been disproportionately attributed to its local housing providers rather than the state’s housing squeeze that has caused such market conditions to occur. This misleading narrative has exacerbated a divisive misunderstanding between the state’s newly progressive legislature and its housing providers. This has led to legislative proposals that greatly disrupt a housing provider’s ability to safely and effectively manage their properties and their residents. 

“So, what we’re really looking at have been the circumstances that have followed the change in both House party majorities, which are more operational issues and changes to landlord-tenant law,” says Herbert. Earlier this month, HB 6, which establishes source of income (SOI) as a protected class in the state’s fair housing law, was approved by the House with a 61-37 vote. SOI legislation prohibits discrimination against individuals who receive housing subsidies, but in practice forces housing providers to participate in the federal Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program. Because of the HCV Program’s administrative requirements that could be challenges for some owners to operationalize, Congress intended for the program to remain voluntary and the industry agrees. HB 6 now awaits vote in the Senate. 

When it comes to VAMA’s membership, however, “we are categorically opposed to practically any of the operational barriers that have been presented,” says Herbert. The Democratic candidates have brought forward a number of concerning housing policies that will exacerbate the housing strain felt by our nation’s renters and housing providers, including the establishment of a national rent control standard proposed by Sen. Sanders. 

Still, Virginia housing providers are encouraged by the rhetoric some candidates have delivered on the need to identify and eliminate regulatory barriers to developing and operating housing. “We’re far more sympathetic to the way candidates will hold out carrots in the form of prioritizing grant funding to localities who initiate policies that allow for more starts,” says Herbert. 

Virginia housing providers may not concern themselves with the candidates on Virginia’s primary ballot, and rightfully so. The housing policies from many of the candidates will create new barriers to housing operation and development, rather than provide the long-term solutions that are so desperately needed. But the challenger who does emerge on top after Super Tuesday could be slated to be the next Democratic nominee for President of the United States. If that is the case, housing providers must be ready for the sweeping changes that could disrupt the industry. 

The National Apartment Association (NAA) 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.