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What a Bernie Sanders Agenda on Affordable Housing Should Look Like

The United States is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. We need a bold new housing agenda that includes millions of new social housing units, universal rent control, an end to speculative profiteering, the elimination of homelessness, and a federal homes guarantee.

Democratic presidential candidate US Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the Democratic Presidential Committee summer meeting on August 23, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Earlier this year, I was asked to testify in Congress in favor of the radical Homes Guarantee platform developed by People’s Action, a nationwide federation of community and tenant organizations. At the briefing, Reps. Chuy García and Ayanna Pressley heard not just from me, but from people who have suffered unimaginably at the hands of a housing market that only cares about profit, and a government which is always either asleep at the wheel or actively working to make things worse.

A grassroots leader from Chicago, David Zoltan, spoke about his struggle to find affordable disability-accessible housing after an injury on the job, and the need for universal rent control. Debra Miller, a leader with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, spoke of the unconscionable conditions in her public senior housing, a legacy of decades of federal neglect and “managed decline” since the 1970s. Daisy Vega, a formerly undocumented immigrant who organizes with POWER in Los Angeles, spoke of the need to fight the Trump administration’s cruel and inhumane policy of evicting mixed-status families from public and subsidized housing.

These people, and many like them around the country who are heavily impacted by the housing crisis, today released a comprehensive platform for a Homes Guarantee — a transformative platform which democratic socialists, including the Sanders campaign, should adopt alongside community and tenant leaders.

These fights are sometimes seen as separate — but they should be seen as part of a coherent whole, an emerging nationwide movement to fight for a real right to housing, implemented through a federal Homes Guarantee. The housing crisis is tightly bound up with the wider social crisis in neoliberal capitalism. Tackling it will require a sustained and aggressive challenge to the gentrification and segregation machines that have long dominated our cities and suburbs.

A mass movement which builds tenant, union, and electoral power for working-class people will be required to implement the ambitious Homes Guarantee agenda outlined below. Democratic socialists — those running for presidential, federal, state, and local office, as well as those organizing in DSA and elsewhere — should recognize that this fight is a crucial one in building a multiracial working-class coalition capable of challenging those who hoard land and capital for themselves while the vast majority suffer under stagnant wages and soaring housing costs.

Guarantee 12 Million New Social Homes

The government should commit to delivering 12 million social housing units permanently outside the private market over the ten years after a democratic-socialist president takes office — enough to provide social homes to all those currently living with extreme cost burdens. The majority of this target could be achieved through a large new investment in municipally owned social housing, and the remainder could be provided using public investments in community land trusts, cooperatives, and regulated nonprofits.

Measures to stop the immediate crisis by cracking down on slumlords and repairing our existing public housing will have a massive impact at first, but without massively increasing the public investment in new social housing, the government will continue to rely exclusively on private developers to deliver housing supply. These developers, interested in profits rather than providing a socially necessary good, could easily place demands on the state to eliminate new fair housing laws, rent controls, and tenant protections by slowing the pace of housing investment.

The federal government has a choice: either limit the extent of the protections it provides to working-class tenants or carry out a historic program of social housing construction which substantially reduces our reliance on private capital to deliver affordable housing at scale. This method has been pursued by democratic-socialist governments in Vienna, Finland, and Sweden; but it is also surprisingly the policy of the capitalist government of Singapore, where 80 percent of the population live in public housing.

Nonprofits, community land trusts, and cooperatives have a role to play in this program (though there are certainly bad and unaccountable actors in the nonprofit sector who should not receive federal funding; more oversight of these groups is needed) but the most slack is in direct public construction and management of social housing. In a paper last year, Ryan Cooper and I suggested that the federal government could provide loans and grants to municipalities and housing authorities that could spur the development of 10 million new municipal housing units. Community land trusts, pioneered in Burlington under Mayor Bernie Sanders, can create and preserve permanently affordable units under democratic control, and the federal government should do what it can to scale up this proven model rapidly.

This goal sounds wildly ambitious — but it is nowhere near the per-capita amount of homes constructed by Sweden’s democratic-socialist government in the 1965–74 Million Homes Program. And even if the government fails to achieve the target (though Sweden succeeded), a near-miss would have an immensely significant positive impact on the housing market.

Additional grants should be made available to ensure that an adequate number of units accessible to people with disabilities and mobility issues are available; and in areas where there is demand, units staffed by people fluent in the languages of communities in which English is not the primary language spoken. The social housing program should accompany a major program of transit investment in bicycle lanes and publicly owned bus and rail infrastructure, so that people living in social housing can access high-quality transit with low (or ideally free) fares.

Crucially, new homes should be built to high environmental standards. This will have a massive benefit to the climate: the NRDC has said that greatly increasing residential home energy efficiency could cut carbon pollution more than any other single policy. But it will also help the new tenants in their cost of living — fuel poverty as a result of high energy costs is a major source of racial and economic inequality in America. As part of a Green New Deal, our expansion of social housing should take strong account of the need for deep decarbonization and focus on constructing sustainable, transit-accessible, green buildings.

Guarantee Universal Rent Control

The most immediate path to staunch the bleeding of affordable units would be to impose effective rent controls on landlords across the country.

At the moment, most discussion of rent control is on a local level, where tenants are occasionally able to force cities in very liberal states to regulate rent increases. In most states, however, rent control is banned at the state level — and even in states where it is nominally legal, state governments often restrict how effective rent control ordinances can be. For instance, California does not allow local governments to enact vacancy control or to control any rents for single-family homes, condominiums, or units built after February 1995 or the enactment date of each city’s prior rent control ordinance (whichever is earlier).

Federal policymakers should impose a national rent control law. This existed in the 1940s through the Office of Price Administration; which controlled rents as part of wartime and postwar price controls. The new law would have to be carefully designed to take account of varying local conditions, but controlling rents across the board would limit the ability of US-based developers to threaten to move their business elsewhere when a new rent control law is passed.

At an absolute minimum, the federal government should preempt state laws banning and restricting local rent control ordinances. States should be allowed to impose stricter rent control standards than localities, but not looser ones. Allowances for higher rents due to capital improvements in a property should be temporary and strictly limited to prevent “renovictions.”

This should be combined with a nationwide “good cause” law, prohibiting no-fault and disproportionate evictions, and a publicly funded universal right to a trial and free eviction defense counsel before an eviction for cause is carried out. These standards should also be applied to public and subsidized housing, which have seen a range of extreme disciplinary codes introduced in recent decades, enforced with the threat of eviction and homelessness.

We should see eviction for what it is: a profoundly violent, traumatic, and harmful experience. It should be extremely rare and never done lightly or to make a quick profit.

Guarantee Repairs for Public Housing

Our existing public housing stock has been largely neglected, even by proposals from progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren, whose housing legislation offers a meager $3.6 billion for the Public Housing Capital Fund — significantly less than one-tenth of what is likely needed across the country. Tenants in public housing deserve safe, healthy conditions in their homes; and cash-strapped housing agencies across the country require federal funding to give that to them. Without this funding, governments have attempted to address the conditions through privatization of management and conversion of units into mixed-income and Section 8 properties, which has often led to displacement and broken promises along the way.

A democratic-socialist administration should make $150 billion available over the next five years to address the immediate backlog of repairs and maintenance required in existing public housing, as well as improvements to infrastructure and accessibility. These funds should be offered conditional on the one-for-one replacement of units which are beyond repair in the same neighborhood: federal funds should never be used to displace poor tenants. Repairs should also bring buildings up to the highest possible environmental standards.

The Faircloth limit, which bans agencies from expanding their stock beyond 1999 levels, was introduced based on the stated belief that public housing was always poor quality and segregated — ironically, by Congress, the body which made the decision to reserve public housing only to those who could not hope to afford private housing, and to segregate housing projects. Of course, the stated justification covered for a widespread desire to roll back the state in general, and in particular to free up land for private developers to establish “mixed-income” communities by displacing a portion of the poor tenants to replace them with richer ones paying higher rents.

A democratic-socialist administration should clearly recognize that segregation, disinvestment, and poor living standards were and are political choices; and should repeal the Faircloth limit so that agencies which have cleared their backlog should be allowed to expand their public housing stock and start clearing their massive waiting lists. Public housing funding should be permanently left at a level which ensures that repairs happen in a timely fashion to ensure that we never build up such an immense backlog again.

At the same time, corruption and mismanagement at public housing authorities should never be tolerated. Tenants and those on the waiting list should be given a significant say in the governance of housing authorities — including a right to elect a significant proportion of board seats, and a legal obligation that building management recognize and bargain collectively with tenant unions. The federal government should make an example of any officials found to be treating their PR image as more important than the lives of the tenants they serve — as seen in the shocking corruption scandals in the NYC Housing Authority.

Guarantee Fair Housing and Reparative Justice

Tentative steps by the Obama administration to implement the requirement in the Fair Housing Act to prevent facially neutral statutes having a disproportionately negative impact on people of color (the “disparate impact” regulation) and desegregate affluent white-only areas (the “affirmatively furthering fair housing” rule) have been rolled back by Ben Carson’s HUD. These rules should be immediately reintroduced as a matter of urgency upon a new administration taking office.

But even under Democratic administrations, attention has too often been placed on integrating areas of concentrated poverty, which are often majority people of color, rather than on integrating racially concentrated areas of affluence. The federal government should begin to tackle segregation by offering funding to purchase sites in these areas — and heavily tax wasteful land uses which mainly benefit the rich, such as suburban golf courses and country clubs.

Additionally, any social and public housing proposed to be built in a rich, segregated, white area should be exempted from local regulations and controls which give avenues for residents to block or delay construction. There should, of course, be strong federal controls to ensure safety and environmental sustainability, but power should not be given to wealthy people who will misuse it to minimize the number of poor people of color in their area.

In supply-constrained hot markets, gentrification pressures in working-class areas can be further limited by cracking down on vacancies owned by rich people who are using the units as investment vehicles rather than places to live and short-term rentals that take units off the market, while requiring rich segregated neighborhoods to build both social housing and market-rate supply (some affordable units can be obtained from private developers through inclusionary zoning requirements, though certainly not an unlimited amount).

The federal government could encourage this by imposing a high minimum rate of tax on vacant units, prohibiting the use of short-term leases for more than twenty-one days in a year (and allowing the HUD secretary to prohibit such leases entirely in jurisdictions where companies are flouting the rules); and imposing a “McMansion tax” on landowners in zip codes with a median income above $100,000 that do not meet a threshold of new housing development (ideally using a weighted points system, with social housing units close to public transit counting the most).

Additionally, a wide variety of screening tests that disproportionately penalize poor people and people of color should be eliminated. Landlords, whether public or private, should not be allowed to ask questions about criminal background during the application process — nor should it be permissible to use someone’s numerical credit score, immigration status, or source of income as a factor in judging applications. Rules which restrict immigrants’ access to public and subsidized housing should be eliminated, starting with the disgraceful mixed-status eviction rule that stands to evict over 100,000 people including 55,000 documented children.

Fair housing, anti-vacancy, and tenant protection laws should be given a fully staffed and dedicated enforcement agency that is empowered to investigate and prosecute discriminatory practices by developers, landlords, and local governments, and punitive exemplary penalties should be the norm for violations.

The federal government should provide principal reduction to low-income homeowners who are still underwater over ten years later, and provide significant direct assistance through grants and zero-interest loans to the communities of color which have been worst affected by racist housing discrimination — both historically and recently.

The communities which have been worst affected by our racist and discriminatory housing policies must be provided with assistance in order to repair the wounds of segregation, redlining, mortgage discrimination, and the failure to provide assistance to the disproportionately black victims of predatory subprime lending and the 2008 recession. Any policy of reparations and justice for communities attacked by racist housing policies will have to include measures like these (among others).

Guarantee an End to Homelessness

In addition to this, the social housing program should include the construction of hundreds of thousands of units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people with onsite services provided — a massive investment in a proven model which says that homelessness and associated social issues are not the fault of homeless people, but the system which has failed to give them housing.

The widespread availability of social housing combined with a Housing First homeless housing model in Finland has resulted in the near elimination of long-term homelessness and a massive drop in homelessness in general. These programs have been implemented in some US jurisdictions, with significant success for the beneficiaries. But due to the depth of the housing crisis and the limited resources provided, most major cities have massive populations of homeless people.

This should never be accepted as a natural state of affairs — it is a profound betrayal of the most vulnerable, allowing them to fall below a basic minimum standard of living.

A democratic-socialist administration should make ending mass homelessness in America one of its primary policy priorities. This will include providing free mental and physical health care through Medicare for All so that the immense damage wrought to homeless people’s bodies and minds can begin to be repaired.

Guarantee an End to Speculative Profiteering

The financialization of land and housing has been a key driver of upwardly spiraling costs. We must put a stop to predatory mortgage lending that provides high-interest loans with very low down payments to people, enabling developers and reselling homeowners to ask for higher prices and gradually pumping up the cost of owner-occupied housing.

The growth of corporate landlords and real estate investment trusts which treat housing as a financial asset rather than a human need must be stopped and reversed. Many of the above reforms will assist in this, but we should go further: by requiring the central bank to target a low (between 0 and 2 percent) rate of home price inflation as well as general inflation by using credit controls as proposed by British economist Grace Blakeley, such as altering capital requirements (which limit the proportion of risky assets on lenders’ books), requiring higher down payments, and enforcing debt-to-income ratios which would ensure people are capable of paying back the loans they take out.

Some will argue that these measures will limit people’s access to homeownership by making it harder to get a mortgage (since you would have to save up for a larger down payment, and people would be restricted from taking out large loans if their income is low). We disagree: loose credit with onerous repayments have done far more damage than good to black and brown people, as demonstrated by housing scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. A democratic-socialist housing policy would prioritize affordable shelter for everyone above wealth-building for some — and with secure homes, people could always invest in other wealth-building assets. Restrictions on mortgage lending would prevent credit-fueled appreciation of land and housing, while universal rent control and widely available social housing will ensure that people are not denied access to safe, stable housing as a result.

A land value tax could also socialize the benefits of high-value urban land. While this idea has been proposed by liberal economists for well over a century, the fact that it has never been implemented by the politicians they support shows that its famous proponent Henry George may have been wrong to decouple the fight against landowners from the fight against concentrated wealth and power in general. But this is no reason to avoid capturing the wealth that landlords obtain simply through enclosing a free gift of nature.

Fight for a Homes Guarantee

All of these policies could be instituted using federal policies and levers of power. This agenda, developed by grassroots organizers and tenant activists around the country, cannot be passed without a president and Congress that are willing to fight for it. The Homes Guarantee vision was not developed in Washington by politicians or academics — it was the collective product of organizers and tenants who have been worst affected by the crisis of unaffordable housing, mass evictions, and gentrification around the country.

Progressive political leaders should listen and fight alongside us. Democratic socialists like Del. Vaughn Stewart in Maryland are fighting for key components of this agenda to be implemented within their states, working with organizers and movements to push forward ambitious legislation on social housing. A coalition of democratic socialists, tenant and community organizations, and progressive legislators in New York state (spearheaded within the state senate by Marxist state Sen. Julia Salazar) won strong vacancy controls, sharp limits on renovation-related rent hikes, and the right for rent control to spread to manufactured housing and many upstate cities. Socialists in Washington, DC are organizing tenants across the city through their Stomp Out Slumlords campaign, Kansas City tenants won a commitment from their new mayor to implement a tenants’ bill of rights written by grassroots organizers; and in San Francisco the local DSA won ballot measure campaigns to provide universal eviction defense counsel and funding for permanent supportive housing (though the latter is currently tied up in litigation).

And recently, tenant organizers from Community Voices Heard fought for New York City to provide funding to rehabilitate units owned by NYCHA, the city’s public housing authority — and won over $1.2 billion in city investment. All across the country, activists are organizing for the demands in the Homes Guarantee on a local level — including the aforementioned upstate/downstate coalition which won new tenant protections in New York.

A presidential candidate adopting a transformative housing agenda like the Homes Guarantee could focus attention by people across the country on the deep structural issues in housing. We will need to transform our housing market through a Green New Deal regardless, in order to reduce our reliance on building and vehicle emissions (and indeed, as Andre Gorz wrote, to reclaim our streets and commute times).

It will require us to take on the forces of real estate capital — the landowning rentier class who have privatized our cities and made them inhospitable to working people. But we can take them back, with a powerful grassroots movement outside the corridors of power, and a democratic-socialist administration to push these measures over the line. It will be an immense challenge, but the potential prize is well worth the fight.