Wednesday, August 17, 2016

No time for nostalgia: Why both parties must focus on housing and opportunity

by Chris Estes, National Housing Conference 

Despite the efforts of many organizations, including at the Republican and Democratic conventions, the shortage of rental housing affordable to lower-income households has not made its way into either of the presidential candidates’ campaign speeches. It seemed during the primaries there was a fair amount of attention on people who are struggling, but only glancing attention paid to housing issues. Last week, the New York Times took both campaigns to task, pointing out their lack of attention to poverty and housing.

It strikes me that when confronting issues of poverty, the default position for campaigns often seems to be to talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs using a model of large-scale production that is not now the norm in the U.S. Today’s American manufacturing is smaller-scale, higher-tech and higher-skilled. Yet somehow this seems to be the only way many candidates address poverty and opportunity. As a field and a movement we must continue to challenge these ideas and educate candidates and policymakers on the central role of housing quality, affordability and location to economic and social success. Imagining that we are somehow going to solve all of our economic and housing issues by bringing back large-scale manufacturing is incredibly irresponsible and unrealistic.

I certainly understand why campaigns, and both parties, resort to this frame. It is much easier to give a simple, nostalgic answer than to more directly confront the problems of poverty, low wages and the systemic barriers that keep people trapped economically. Matt Desmond’s book “Evicted” shines a light on some of these barriers. And as the Washington Post reported recently, these struggles with housing are everywhere, and thus are something the affordable housing community has to be ready to engage in if we are going to get the level of investment and support we need to meet our communities’ housing challenges.

The presidential campaign has featured some attention to these issues. In this CNN op-ed, Democratic vice presidential candidate and senator from Virginia, Tim Kaine, details the Clinton-Kaine plan to address affordable and fair housing. Kaine frames the op-ed around his personal experience as a young fair housing lawyer representing Lorraine, an African-American woman who was denied housing at a similar point in her life as Kaine. Highlights from the policy proposals include expanding LIHTC, increasing rental assistance, funding public housing along with economic development, adding homeownership help and expanding fair housing enforcement. 

While this is encouraging to see, the housing movement should advocate for both parties and both presidential candidates to take leadership on these issues. NHC believes that to be successful, we need both Republicans and Democrats to understand and support the investments and changes needed to improve housing outcomes, and in turn, improve outcomes in economic mobility, health and education.

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