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Housing should be funded like infrastructure. Now Congress has a plan for that

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New bills and this week’s Democratic debate address the affordable housing crisis

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Today, two representatives introduced housing bills to Congress. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) introduced the $100 billion Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2019 and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced the trillion-dollar Homes for All Act.

Waters’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris, calls for an over $100 billion investment in existing federal housing funds like HUD Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), the Housing Trust Fund, the HOME Investment Partnership Program, and the USDA’s rural rental program.

“Like roads and bridges, affordable housing is a component of the nation’s infrastructure and a long-term asset that helps communities and families by connecting them to resources and opportunities,” the bill’s executive summary reads.

The biggest proposed changes include bringing the public housing capital investment fund to $70 billion, up from $2.7 billion now, and bringing the CDBG fund to $10 billion, up from $3.3 billion now.

“We are in the midst of a housing affordability crisis across the country, caused in part by the lack of affordable and available rental units, rising rents, gentrification, and dilapidated public housing,” reads a statement from Rep. Waters. “Studies have shown that neglecting our housing infrastructure will only hurt our economy, so I urge my colleagues to support this legislation to make the necessary investments in rural, suburban, and urban housing markets, and ensure all future conversations around infrastructure investments include affordable housing.”

Omar’s Homes for All Act would authorize the construction of 12 million units of new public housing and permanently affordable private units, would repeal the Faircloth Amendment, and calls for the federal government to be responsible for the maintenance and operations of all public housing.

“Every American deserves access to a safe and stable place to live, but unfortunately, our current free-market housing system is not meeting the needs of working families,” Rep. Omar said in a statement.

The affordable housing crisis is impacting low-income, working-class, and middle-class renters in America. More than 11 million people pay more than half their income in rent. Nationally, there is a shortage of 7 million homes for the lowest-income renters and in no state is it possible to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment on minimum wage. Fixing this problem—which is due to tax policy that subsidizes single-family homeownership, lack of public housing investment, land-use policy that prevents the construction of new units, and wage stagnation—will require bold, and dramatic action at the federal, state, and local levels.

Through bills like the Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2019, the Homes for All Act, and the Green New Deal for Public Housing—which was introduced by Sen. Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez last week—politicians are beginning to broach the scale and scope of change that’s needed. That change will require a cultural shift in how housing is valued, from our current idea of housing as a driver of wealth to a model in which housing is seen as necessary infrastructure.

Candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination have also been releasing positioning statements and policy proposals that address the housing crisis, but only recently has the conversation become more urgent. At the fifth Democratic debate Wednesday night, moderators finally asked the candidates about housing; only three of them—Tom Steyer, Sen. Warren, and Sen. Booker—had the opportunity to address how central, and flawed, the housing system currently is.

“When you look at inequality in the United States of America, you have to start with housing,” Tom Steyer, the California billionaire and philanthropist, said during the debate. “Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.”

Steyer and Warren discussed the need for building millions of units of housing, and the municipal policies that have stymied new construction.

“Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side,” Warren said. “And that means the federal government stopped building new housing a long time ago, affordable housing. It’s also private developers, they’ve gone up to McMansions. They’re not building the little two-bedroom, one-bathroom house that I grew up in with a garage converted to be a bedroom for my three brothers.”

However, supply is only one part of the problem. Federal policy has promoted housing as an investment.

“But there is one more piece,” she said. “Housing is how we build wealth in America. The federal government has subsidized the purchase of housing for decades for white people. and has said for Black people, you’re cut out of the deal.”

She then outlined her housing plan, which addresses economic mobility and redlining and was recently updated with a more specific focus on renters.

Booker—who was a tenants’ rights lawyer and mayor of Newark, New Jersey, before becoming a senator—addressed the issue of gentrification.

“Low-income families [are] being moved further and further out, compounding racial segregation,” he said. “We need to put more federal dollars in [housing]—but we’ve got to start empowering people. We have to use our tax code to move wealth up.”

Booker proposed a tax credit for renters paying more than 30 percent of their income as an answer to the mortgage-interest tax deduction that subsidizes homeowners.

While these bills are unlikely to pass in the current political climate, and the candidates’ plans are signaling their positions, they speak to a future where housing policy could be more just.