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Will the candidates talk housing, transportation at the next Democratic debates?

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The candidates face off Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit

Detroit’s elevated people mover moves diagonally across a busy downtown street.
Detroit’s housing and infrastructure challenges are setting the tone for the debates.
Shutterstock.com

The next round of Democratic presidential debates are being held in Detroit on Tuesday, July 30 and Wednesday, July 31, offering Americans another chance to hear the candidates’ plans for critical issues facing the country‚ including climate change, transportation, and housing.

Like the first debate series in Miami in June, the candidates are split into two groups and will be asked questions by journalists, this time from CNN. Curbed will once again be live-tweeting and sharing relevant stories on the topics we cover. Including some topics that were surprisingly not addressed at all during the first debates.

Here’s how to watch—and what we’ll be watching for.

What’s happened since the candidates last met?

Most candidates debuted the bulk of their housing and climate platforms before the first debate. But just in the last few weeks, additional key proposals in various policy areas have been introduced—some of which seem specifically targeted to the audience in Detroit.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar released a housing plan that would significantly expand the federal housing voucher system so that anyone with children who met the income thresholds would qualify for assistance. Both Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren added more details to their housing plans that would incentivize cities to add more affordable units, endearing them to the YIMBY movement.

Jay Inslee, who is running as a single-issue climate candidate, just announced an environmental justice component as the fifth plank of his sweeping climate policy platform—and he happened to announce it at a refinery outside of Detroit. On the same day, Sen. Kamala Harris—who does not have a climate platform as a candidate— introduced a climate equity bill in Congress.

Additionally, Harris has unveiled her Water Justice Act, a $250 billion infrastructure plan to protect access to clean drinking water. This seems explicitly timed to the Detroit debates with the way the state of Michigan has grappled with the Flint water crisis.

The last debates also saw a heated exchange between Harris and former vice president Joe Biden on using busing to desegregate schools, which created a national conversation on the effectiveness of the policy. The topic will likely come up again this week as Detroit has a long and complex history of busing (and Harris and Biden will share the stage again).

When will candidates finally get to debate about housing?

Although the affordable housing crunch is confronting most Americans, housing was not addressed at the last debates. With a city like Detroit in the spotlight, which has been rocked by economic segregation and high vacancy rates, it would be a timely moment to talk about both the high cost of living and the availability of housing.

The topic of hypervacancy is also top of mind after last weekend’s exchange between President Trump and Maryland Sen. Elijah Cummings about blighted buildings in Baltimore. Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently introduced a plan targeting hypervacancy and the racial wealth gap, something that he has addressed in South Bend, Indiana.

Ten candidates were recently in Detroit for the NAACP convention in July, where they were asked very specifically about their housing plans in a series of questions about displacement, gentrification, and the government’s role in creating public housing.

Sen Bernie Sanders also authored an op-ed for CNN on rent control: “That most minimal form of economic security was crucial for our family.”

A colorful tram runs in front of an ornate theatre on a downtown Detroit street.
The debates will be held in the historic Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit.
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Will there be more talk about climate change?

Just since the last debate, the country has seen historic flooding, the strongest hurricane to hit New Orleans since Katrina, and an epic heat wave that exposed two-thirds of the country to dangerous heat. Any of those events would provide a good opportunity to talk about climate policy, including how to protect the country’s most vulnerable residents.

Although there were several targeted questions about climate policy at the last debates, critics claim the limited time climate is being given in the general debates isn’t enough. In Miami, members of the Sunrise Movement, the organization backing the Green New Deal, camped out at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters to demand separate debates focused on climate change. A major Sunrise Movement rally is planned in Detroit.

There are now at least two climate-focused debates scheduled. CNN has just announced it will hold a town hall-style debate on climate change in September for candidates polling at 2 percent or above. Also in September, MSNBC and Georgetown University will have a multi-day climate forum with all presidential candidates, including Republicans running against Trump like former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld.

A separate climate forum for the candidates being organized by The New Republic and Gizmodo Media Group was put on hold after The New Republic published a homophobic diatribe about Buttigieg (it was later taken down). After the other forums were announced, the publications decided to cancel the event.

Why aren't we hearing anything about transportation?

Modernizing the U.S. transportation system has become a crucially important issue for the country as transportation is the largest and fastest-growing contributor to climate change. Major changes to the way Americans get around can both reduce emissions and make transportation more resilient to the effects of a warming climate.

During the 2016 campaign, candidates proposed transportation infrastructure plans to create jobs while fixing the country’s bridges, roadways, transit, and railways (although such a plan has still not materialized under the current administration). Of all the 2020 candidates, only Klobuchar has a detailed, $1 trillion plan which she says will be her top priority as president.

The topic has been largely absent from the Democratic debates, too. In fact, the only mention of infrastructure at the first debate was a question aimed at Julián Castro, former housing and urban development secretary and mayor of San Antonio, who was asked about climate mitigation infrastructure like sea walls.

The connection between climate and transportation is at a crucial moment. Detroit’s automakers just inked a deal to adhere to California’s stricter emissions standards, defying the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to roll back fuel efficiency requirements. Yet Congress—including six of these candidates, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Klobuchar, and Booker, all of whom co-sponsored the Green New Deal—is set to approve a five-year highway spending bill that will expand roadways with few provisions for reducing emissions. The candidates need to be asked how they plan to reduce transportation emissions to achieve the goals of the Green New Deal.

Even the two “climate mayors” running for president—New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Buttigeig—who are both part of efforts to prioritize low-emission mobility solutions in cities, hadn’t said much about transportation until last week. Now de Blasio has chimed in about transportation safety, floating the idea of a nationwide Vision Zero program to eliminate traffic deaths. This follows de Blasio’s announcement of a $58.4 million bike plan that would build a citywide protected bike network by 2030 at a rate of 30 miles per year.

Will transportation be addressed onstage this week? Will there be more discussion about climate policy? Will we finally get prime-time coverage of the candidates’ housing plans? Tune in on Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT and follow the debates live with Curbed’s reporters.