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Americans spend too much money on housing. Why aren’t the candidates talking about it?

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The topic has barely come up in the presidential debates, but it’s one of the biggest issues we face as a country

One-third of Americans spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There was a moment during this week’s debates where it seemed like the conversation might finally go there. When former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro was asked what he might do to help struggling American cities, he said he would invest in affordable housing. “Folks know that the rent is going through the roof.”

Castro’s answer was specifically in response to a question about the president’s attacks on Baltimore, but the solutions could be applied to any city big or small, he continued:

There are a lot of Americans right now that are hurting. Just go and ask the folks that just received notice that they’re getting laid off by General Motors, or ask the many folks who are sleeping on the streets in big cities and small towns across the United States, or ask fast food workers that I joined a couple of weeks ago that are working for minimum wage and can’t provide for their families or pay the rent.

So, you know, I believe that we need to invest in what will ensure that Americans can prosper in the years to come, making sure they have the knowledge and skills to compete in the 21st century economy, ensuring that they can afford the rent where they live and that they have health care so that they don’t have to worry about going homeless because they can’t afford a medical procedure.

It was the most that any candidate had talked about housing at any point during any of the four nationally televised debates. Yet it was not nearly enough. There was no follow up—the moderators quickly pivoted to trade agreements—and no other candidates chimed in to engage or challenge Castro on his ideas.

Most Americans are spending way too much on where they live. A full one-third of American households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and utilities. And this is not just an urban issue—the affordable housing crisis is hitting rural areas hard, too.

This is why six candidates now have detailed housing plans, with many overlapping ideas. But compare the campaign coverage of housing to health care, an issue that also affects all Americans. Over an hour was spent talking about health care at each debate this week. Yet as Castro rightly pointed out, health care is directly affected by housing: the reason that many Americans aren’t properly insured or defer life-saving medical treatments is because they’re spending too much money trying to make rent. Catastrophic health events are one of the biggest causes of homelessness.

As the health care conversations demonstrated this week, the debates are an important time to tease out the differences among the candidates’ plans. But nuances in housing policy could have far more sweeping implications for the country—not just for the financial security of American families, but also for social equity, the built environment, and our ability to stop climate change. And in both sets of debates, most chances the candidates had to talk more about their housing policies were thwarted by the questioning format or the moderators themselves.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who penned an op-ed about growing up in a rent-controlled apartment, mentioned rent control briefly, yet there was no conversation that followed about how federal policies might help renters.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg addressed the socioeconomic barriers to owning property, but no one asked about his plans to use housing to combat systemic racism.

And while the candidates once again discussed busing, Sen. Kamala Harris did not touch on her own plan to help address the exclusionary zoning that divided cities in the first place.

A different format might help. At an NAACP event last week that was also in Detroit, ten candidates were asked very specific, individualized questions one by one by television reporter April Ryan. The candidates spoke far more openly about housing issues, outlining detailed policy plans to address displacement, gentrification, and building more affordable housing.

Or maybe there needs to be a dedicated forum just about housing. A sustained effort among advocates and voters to make climate change part of the national dialogue has resulted in targeted climate questions being asked at the debate. Now at least two separate forums are being planned just to discuss climate issues. Housing should have a prominent place in those discussions, too. Putting homes closer to jobs and schools decreases transportation emissions. Putting homes farther away from climate risks prevents them from being wiped out by extreme weather.

Changing the way the U.S. houses its residents also provides the best way for candidates to address systemic challenges faced by our society. The right policies can undo decades of economic segregation and racial wealth disparities, including recent damage that the current administration has inflicted on fair housing and anti-discrimination policies. Plus, as Evicted author Matthew Desmond noted, focusing on housing makes strategic sense for presidential candidates, since key battleground states also have some of the highest eviction rates in the country.

Detroit would have been a great place to talk about all of that and more. But there will be another good opportunity. The next round of debates—which will likely feature a smaller field of candidates—is coming up September 12 and 13 in Houston, which faces many housing challenges of its own.

The way Americans live must change dramatically over the next five years and the candidates need to more clearly articulate their vision for this future. In these first debates, only Castro seemed to encapsulate the anxiety of Americans trying to get by, wondering what’s next for their families, their homes, their communities.

“We need to make sure that you don’t have to get out of West Baltimore, or inner city Detroit, or the west side of San Antonio, or anywhere, if you want to reach your American dream,” he said. “I want you to be able to accomplish it in your great neighborhood where you are.”