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Bernie Sanders says ‘housing must be a right’ with $2.5 trillion plan

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Includes national rent control, community land trust, and housing assistance as an entitlement

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a rostrum during a Democratic primary debate.
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during the Democratic debate from Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, on Thursday, September 12. Over the weekend, he announced the broad outlines of an ambitious $2.5 trillion housing plan.
ABC via Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled a sweeping $2.5 trillion housing plan, a bold and far-reaching agenda that includes national rent control, ending homelessness, and turning federal housing assistance into an entitlement.

He first outlined the plan in Nevada, a state hard-hit by the Great Recession and housing crisis, during a campaign stop in Las Vegas last Saturday, aiming to steer the debate over an issue of rising importance among Democratic voters, and perhaps make a mark in an early primary state, where talk of affordability and rising rents resonates strongly.

“For too long, this is one of those issues that we just don’t talk about,” he said at a Las Vegas union hall, according to the New York Times. “We have an affordable housing crisis in Nevada, in Vermont and all over this country that must be addressed.”

The plan addresses the housing issue from multiple angles, from preventing discrimination to boosting the affordable housing stock to helping encourage homeownership. It’s an exhaustive list of proposals that tackle many issues key to progressive and activist groups, including those outlined in the recent Homes Guarantee proposal.

For public housing residents, Sanders would invest $70 billion to rehabilitate the nation’s existing public housing stock, and make sure that all public housing has high-quality, shared community spaces, and would be decarbonized and electrified via deep energy retrofits courtesy of the Green New Deal. He would also specifically focus on rural and Native American housing shortages, expanding USDA’s Section 515 program by $500 million to build new affordable developments in rural areas, and increasing funding for the Indian Housing Block Grant Program by $3 billion.

For all renters, he would build 2 million mixed-income units, funded through a $400 billion investment in the National Housing Trust Fund, provide $50 billion in grants for community land trusts, promote robust legal protections for fair housing, including $2 billion in federal matching grants to provide counsel to tenants facing legal proceedings, and cap annual rent increases nationally at no more than one and a half times the Consumer Price Index or 3 percent, whichever is higher.

He’d also take steps to eliminate racial discrimination and gentrification, including creating an office in HUD to strengthen rent control and tenant protection and implement fair zoning practices, and establish a National Fair Housing Agency, similar to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, dedicated to enforcing the Fair Housing Act. A number of initiative would seek to ban discrimination, including passing the Equality Act to include LGBTQ+ Americans in the Fair Housing Act. He’ll also create a commission to establish a financial relief program for victims of predatory lending, mortgage fraud, and redlining.

The Sanders plan would also end exclusionary and restrictive zoning ordinance, and make federal funding contingent on zoning rules that prioritizes walkability and transportation access, sustainability and reduce sprawl, and encourage access for Americans with disabilities. In addition, he’d place a 25 percent House Flipping tax on speculators who sell a non-owner-occupied property for a profit within five years, and impose a 2 percent Empty Homes tax on the property value of vacant, owned homes.

For low-income renters specifically, he would turn housing assistance—the voucher program known as Section 8—into an entitlement, guaranteeing it to every American, and eliminating the long wait times, a move estimated to cost $410 billion over the next decade. He would also invest an additional $1.48 trillion over 10 years in the National Housing Trust Fund to help construct, rehabilitate, and preserve 7.4 million housing units for seniors and those with low-income or disabilities.

In addition, a Sanders administration would invest $32 billion over five years to combat homelessness, including support for outreach services for those experiencing chronic homelessness. He’d aim to build 25,000 units in the first year, invest $26 billion in permanent supportive housing, and provide $500 million for state and local outreach programs.

The plan also earmarks $15 billion to enact a 21st Century Homestead Act, an initiative to “purchase and revitalize abandoned properties to create community and individual wealth and assets for historically disadvantaged communities.” Sanders will also set aside $2 billion at USDA and an additional $6 billion at HUD to help create a first-time homebuyer assistance program.

Sander’s plan systemically addresses many of the shortfalls in the nation’s housing support system. Currently, federal housing assistance is only available for one in five families in need who qualify, but nearly half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and rent growth continues to outpace wage growth. Public housing authorities nationwide face an estimated $56.6 billion shortfall to properly upgrade and repair aging homes and apartments.

The plan adopts many policies Sanders implemented while serving as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s, including establishing a community land trust that still successfully operates today and setting up a housing trust fund.

To pay for the plan, in addition to the taxes laid out above, Sanders would push for a wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans, approximately 175,000 households. Details of how he’ll fund this ambitious expansion of housing aid are said to be forthcoming in the following weeks.

During the Vegas speech over the weekend, Sanders contrasted President Donald Trump’s life of privilege with his own upbringing, which included years growing up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn. Trump and his administration has repeatedly tried to cut federal housing assistance and rollback regulations protecting renters from discrimination.

Sen. Sanders’s plan joins a growing list of housing proposals within the Democratic primary field, including those of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former housing secretary Julian Castro, and Sen. Kamala Harris.