Where Is the National Conversation on Housing?

As democrats come off a relieving, if not entirely satisfying, midterm election season, focus has shifted to the issues that will define the 2020 elections. Chief among these seem to be healthcare. It was a winning issue for democrats across the country in 2018, and one which candidates hammered incessantly down the home stretch of the campaign. While there is certainly plenty to fix in the American healthcare system, and it’s a good issue for Democrats to campaign on in 2020, there are other social problems that remain overlooked and could aid Democrats’ election hopes, chief among these is housing.

When surveying the policy challenges currently facing America, it’s astonishing that housing, specifically the lack of affordable housing, hasn’t received more attention. About half of American renters, some 50 million people, live in a cost-burdened household paying more than 30% of their income for rent. These people face a host of issues related to the (un)affordablity of rental housing.

Paying a high percentage of income to rent leaves less resources for other necessities such as food, transportation, or education. It also leaves families vulnerable to exploitive landlords, who in some states face very little regulation, to provide substandard or unsafe housing. This can lead to health effects such as asthma among young children. These have very real effects that echo across our society. Given the importance of housing and the central role it plays in our lives, there are very few social problems that don’t relate back to housing. The stability and quality of neighborhoods, food insecurity, access to quality education, housing impacts all of these issues and more.

While coverage of this issue usually focuses on major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, New York, and Washington, there is an affordable housing shortage in virtually every county in America. Here in Madison, WI, rents have gone up nearly 14% in the last two years, and policymakers project a shortfall of almost 30,000 units over the next 10 years. This is a problem that affects both red states and blue states.

A thoughtful national discussion about an issue affecting millions of Americans might be unrealistic in today’s political climate. But, you’d expect someone at the national level to say something about this. So far, cities and counties have taken the lead on this issue. This is promising and it shows that there is a clear grassroots desire for leadership and change. However, the vast majority of funds for affordable housing comes from the federal level and very few federal politicians seem to be talking about this. Local governments have a huge role in fixing this issue, but it’s largely up to Congress to determine the level of funds local authorities can access. It’s a real shame federal policymakers have failed to talk about this.

All politics are local and there are few issues that have more immediate effect on the character and health of a neighborhood than the presence of affordable housing. This is a huge issue, affecting millions of Americans, that could seriously boost Democrats’ chances in 2020.

By Will Maher


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