Return of the Renters

Return of the Renters

Homeownership has long been fetishized in American politics. Even when elected officials reach out to renters, it’s usually in the context of getting them to own their own homes.

But as the Democratic primary gets under way, it seems like renters are firmly establishing themselves as a constituency to be courted. Writes Emily Badger of The New York Times:

Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, senators from some of the most expensive housing markets in the country, have proposed substantial bills to alleviate the housing crisis. They’re not talking in gauzy terms about homeownership, the rare housing topic that usually gets a nod. They see unsustainable, raw-deal, skyrocketing rents, and they’re not hesitant to sermonize about it.

In Iowa, Ms. Warren has “wonked out” on housing economics, and in New Hampshire she’s talked about racial inequality in the market. Mr. Booker has evoked the book “Evicted” (he included it in his book club) and his own family’s barriers to housing (a white couple had to pose for his parents when they bought their first home in New Jersey)…

This spring, Ms. Harris, who has proposed a refundable tax credit for renters, walked into a hotel ballroom of housing activists and policymakers in Washington for a conference of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Of course, there’s a right and wrong way to approach the affordability crisis. It is, at the end of the day, a supply-side issue–any solution must handle restrictive zoning and land-use regulations first.

In this regard, Elizabeth Warren’s plan stands head-and-shoulders above the other two Democrats with housing affordability bills, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Warren’s plan would, in addition to investing directly in affordable housing development, provide $10 billion in incentives for local governments that revise restrictive zoning regulations.

On the other end of the spectrum, Harris’s plan would provide a renters’ tax credit. Without a plan to tackle the supply side of the issue, her plan would do nothing to address the crisis while enriching landlords at the expense of taxpayers. Booker’s plan also relies heavily on tax credits (with a few minor differences in implementation), with a modest plan to address zoning codes by changing some provisions of the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act to address “exclusionary zoning.”

So, while Warren gets the solution right compared to her fellow primary candidates, the real story here isn’t just the fact that renters are getting their moment in the sun. Just as important to building a movement to address the affordability crisis is that this is happening at the same time that the YIMBY movement is now mobilizing.

This coalition is drawing attention to the supply side of the issue and drawing policymakers away from the siren’s song of rent control and an exclusive focus on demand-side approaches. While a lot can still go wrong when addressing the affordability crisis, attention by high-profile public officials combined with activists with the right ideas is a recipe for success.

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By |2019-04-25T11:42:25-07:00April 25th, 2019|Blog, Land Use Regulation|