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Despite hype, Democrats don’t address housing at presidential debates

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What crisis?

AFP/Getty Images

Health care. The economy. Gun control. Climate change. Race and gender equality. Congressional gridlock. President Trump.

Twenty Democratic candidates kicked off the 2020 presidential election cycle with two two-hour debates on Wednesday and Thursday, and while NBC’s moderators questioned the candidates on a wide array of issues, one was notably absent—housing affordability.

Affordable housing for people making the federal minimum wage doesn’t exist and rising rents in urban areas have turned the issue of housing affordability into a crisis, leading political pundits to forecast housing would take center stage in the 2020 presidential election.

But if this week’s debates were any indication, housing is further down the pecking order than previously believed. Health care was the most discussed issue over the course of the two nights, followed by President Donald Trump, gun control, and climate change.

Few candidates have a concrete housing proposal, as only Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro have presented anything other than talking points.

Warren has the most comprehensive housing plan. Her plan calls for a roughly $500 billion investment in various federal housing funds to build and preserve affordable housing. It includes a new $10 billion fund accessible to local governments that reform zoning laws, and takes numerous measures to advance housing for African Americans previously subject to discrimination and redlining.

Harris, Castro, and Booker have all proposed a renters tax credit, which would reimburse taxpayers for any portion of rent they pay that exceeds 30 percent of their income.

Booker’s plan includes a “baby bonds” program that would give babies born in the United States $1,000 in seed money, to be managed by the Department of Treasury and accessible when they turn 18.

Both Castro and Booker propose using federal block grant money to incentivize local governments to reform zoning laws that impede the construction of more housing, as well as legal representation for people facing eviction.

Although housing was absent from the debates, climate change, which was virtually absent from the 2016 debate stage, has now taken center stage in the 2020 campaign. This has been largely due to the work of advocacy groups like the Sunrise Movement, which are still calling for a separate debate for climate change.

Moderators asked candidates direct questions about the subject during a dedicated section. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is basing his candidacy around the issue, was asked if the city of Miami could avoid inundation due to sea level rise, and used his closing statement to explain his policies in depth.

Harris voiced support for the Green New Deal but quickly pivoted to other issues. Marianne Williamson also mentioned the Green New Deal. None of the other candidates mentioned the Green New Deal explicitly, although a majority of them have said they support it. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper mentioned the Green New Deal in the debates as something he admires but doesn’t ultimately support, as “we can’t promise every American a government job.”

When asked in the second debate what their first priorities would be, the only candidates to mention climate change were Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Hickenlooper. Yet both candidates believe the U.S. should keep using fossil fuels; Bennet believes in using natural gas, and Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, thinks the country should continue hydraulic fracking.

Also completely absent from the debates was the topic of infrastructure, something which had been a much larger issue during the 2016 election. The only mention of infrastructure this week came during a question to Castro, former housing and urban development secretary, who was asked who should pay for climate mitigation infrastructure like sea walls.