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How the Homes Guarantee proposal could make housing a right

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People’s Action progressive political coalition wants to create a “public option” for green, affordable housing

A new modern apartment building under construction, with a crane nearby.
The Homes Guarantee, introduced earlier this month by the People’s Action Coalition, would invest hundreds of billions of dollars in housing infrastructure and radically restructure the way the housing market works. 

The depths of the nation’s affordable housing crisis have spurred Democratic candidates to propose ambitious plans to make it easier to pay for a place to live. A national progressive coalition wants to go one step further and make it not just easier, but a right.

The Homes Guarantee, introduced earlier this month by the People’s Action Coalition, a network representing roughly one million progressive activists in groups spanning 30 states, would invest billions of dollars in housing infrastructure and radically restructure the way the housing market works, funded in part by both a $1 trillion investment in the Housing Trust Fund and a $1 trillion bond offering.

Along with proposals by leading Democratic primary contenders, most notably Sen. Bernie Sanders’s just-announced $2.5 trillion plan, the Homes Guarantee shows the energy and ambition coursing through left-wing circles around rebuilding and reimagining U.S. housing policy. It also sets a high bar for any future candidate-backed plans.

“The problem is simple: bankers, developers, and landlords have been allowed to charge our families more and more and provide us with less and less,” said Rose Fernandez, member of New York’s Community Voices Heard, one of the groups within the larger People’s Action’s coalition, in a statement. “They created a system to maximize their profit above all else, so our solution is equally simple: change the whole system. Put people first.”

Tara Raghuveer, the housing policy lead for People’s Action, told Curbed that the Homes Guarantee, the “boldest plan for housing justice” seen in decades, comes as candidates are finally speaking about the issue. She says the proposal provides a measuring stick with which to judge the Democratic field.

A “proactive” and” reparative” solution to the housing crisis

The far-reaching Homes Guarantee was formulated by a group of 100 grassroots leaders over 14 months, and would both boost spending and support for renters while fundamentally shifting the mechanics of the housing market. During a retreat in upstate New York last July and August, local activists and members of the People’s Action coalition felt the issue needed a rallying cry, akin to the labor movement’s “Fight for 15” minimum wage campaign, to “create a big bold vision for how things can change,” says Raghuveer. That kind of proposal can “awaken the political imagination.”

The proposal views the nation’s housing crisis—a full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment in any county in the nation, per the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and 21 million households, disproportionately people of color, spend over 30 percent of their income on housing—as a moral and political failure.

First, the platform proposes to build 12 million new social housing units over the next decade—targeting the 12 million extremely cost-burdened renters who spend more than half their income on rent—and invest $150 billion in existing public housing infrastructure over the next five years.

Second, along with a dramatic increase in the stock of quality, affordable housing, the Homes Guarantee plan would also empower tenants. The proposal would establish a National Tenants’ Bill of Rights—including universal rent control, a national right to lease renewal, and universal access to lawyers for low-income renters—and create a People’s Housing Commission, comprised of members of government and tenant rights and community organizations, who would be tasked with creating 10-year plans for further improvements to the nation’s housing stock.

In addition, the plan would pay reparations for centuries of racist housing policy by rigidly enforcing fair housing laws, including the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, and guaranteeing principal cancellation or reduction for groups impacted by discriminatory housing laws. That includes both direct payments to descendants of slaves and those whose property was stolen (including property lost during the Great Migration and development-induced displacement), and cancellation of debt caused by the 2008 financial crisis. Raghuveer noted that these payments, details of which are still being worked out, wouldn’t comprise the entirety of a larger reparations initiative from the federal government. But including them in the larger proposal makes sure that the policy includes a restorative justice component, and lays out a roadmap to get to such a policy.

Finally, the functioning of the market itself would be shifted to prioritize housing access and rights above profits. The Home Guarantee wants to end housing and land speculation, and de-commodify housing; suggestions to meet these goals include taxes on speculation and foreign buyers, a “flipping tax,” and requiring someone to reside in a residential unit a certain number of years before selling.

The entire proposal also seeks to “embed goals and standards of the Green New Deal at every level,” suggesting that tenant power and sustainability would be the new guiding principles of national housing policy. Clean-energy retrofits, non-toxic building materials, and energy-efficient appliances would all be key parts of a larger shift towards making green construction a new standard.

Enacting a seismic shift in U.S. housing policy

While the individual planks of the Homes Guarantee may seem radical based on current federal government limited support of housing (including the Trump administration’s repeated proposals to slash housing assistance), the briefing book does dig into some of the framework and standards needed to reach such an ambitious goal. For instance, the social housing section of the plan’s briefing book advocates for transit-oriented development and has suggestions on siting new buildings and renovating existing units, what types of community services should be included in new mixed-use developments, and accessibility guidelines.

In a release announcing the plan, People’s Action says that they have the support of “several prominent progressive members of Congress” who will soon introduce draft legislation in support of the proposal. Already, Rep. Chuy Garcia of Chicago and Seattle’s Pramila Jayapal have voiced their support. Raghuveer says that members of the Squad, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, plan to introduce legislation supporting components of the Homes Guarantee in October.

In addition, People’s Action plans to engage with presidential and congressional candidates in the lead-up to 2020. Starting this Saturday with a candidates forum in Des Moines, Iowa⁠—Sen. Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former housing secretary Julian Castro, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg plan to attend—the group will hold additional forums in Nevada and New Hampshire, and also send all candidates a questionnaire asking about their housing policy plans. On the congressional level, People’s Action will ask interested candidates to sign a pledge supporting the Homes Guarantee, which will include a promise to not accept real estate or developer money. Raghuveer says 25-30 candidates have already expressed interest, many of them Democratic Socialists challenging established incumbents.

“The theory of the Homes Guarantee is that the market failure has been so profound, we can’t wait around for the market to work,” says Raghuveer. “An option that puts people at the center of policy design, that moves housing off the market and creates a socialized, government-run option, is the only way the vision is truly fulfilled.”