I have asked when the candidates for president will address housing and homeownership. Apparently, six Democrat contenders have – but it does not come out in public very often.
Last week, Amy Klobuchar became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to say out loud that cities and towns need to let people build more housing. She joined Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren in proposing a more active federal role in getting state and local governments to loosen zoning rules—a topic that, up to now, has not figured prominently in campaigns for the White House…
The Democratic candidates’ housing policies offer several insights into their broader political priorities. The states that Booker, Harris, and Warren represent in the Senate have some of the nation’s highest housing costs and are home to many young, urban renters. Booker, Castro, and Buttigieg are current or former mayors, and Castro was secretary of housing and urban development under President Obama. These candidates have also made racial equity a central issue in their campaigns across a range of policy areas. Klobuchar’s proposal highlights affordability problems in rural areas—a substantial part of her home state—and makes reference to groundbreaking zoning reforms recently adopted by Minneapolis. While most candidates focus primarily on high rents and supply constraints, Buttigieg’s proposal is oriented toward helping blighted cities reduce their inventory of vacant properties—a bigger concern for cities like South Bend, Detroit, and Baltimore than for Boston or San Francisco.
Most proposals advanced by Democratic candidates do not fit neatly along the traditional ideological spectrum from “laissez-faire” to “activist government.” Some of Warren’s proposals could be described as classic Democratic tax-and-spend policy making—she would use proceeds from raising the estate tax to increase funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development substantially. Yet Warren’s plan to address “state and local land-use rules that needlessly drive up housing costs” is decidedly pro-competition—in keeping with her stated philosophy of making markets work better through stronger rules. Booker, Castro, and Klobuchar likewise balance more government spending with calls to reduce anticompetitive regulations. Only two candidates, Harris and Buttigieg, call for more demand-side subsidies without addressing supply constraints.
One idea notable for its absence among the candidates’ plans is the furthest-left option: an expansion of traditional public housing. Sanders, as a self-identified socialist, would seem the most likely to call for building more public housing, as some left-leaning think tanks have suggested. So far he has leaned toward fairly modest housing interventions, emphasizing local government tools such as community land trusts and inclusionary zoning.
There is still an opportunity here for at least one candidate to really push on this issue. As the article notes, the cost of housing is one that many voters consistently think about, particularly in higher-cost cities and regions. Even in markets with lower housing costs, the price of a mortgage or rent is one of the biggest expenses a household will face.
Perhaps the issue is that no candidate has found a simple tagline or slogan regarding housing that could apply everywhere? Since so much about housing and regulations is local, even large-scale government programs might require some complicated explanations. In the current debate format, this might be hard to relay. At the same time, these candidates are making plenty of speeches where they could hone a pitch about housing.
One way to do this would be to introduce housing as an inequality issue on multiple fronts. Where people can afford to live affects all sorts of life outcomes as well as long-term wealth. There is not a free market in housing: housing outcomes are the result of federal policy, local decisions made by municipal officials and business people, and the actions of consumers.