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A multi-family apartment building on a leafy street.
The country’s discriminatory housing policies are intertwined with virtually every domestic issue central to the presidential race.

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What the housing debate misses when all the candidates onstage are white

In this country, race still influences where and how you live. The Democratic primary lost the voices that can best explain why

At last night’s Democratic presidential campaign debate, the final one before the Iowa caucuses, something was notably different from every previous 2020 election debate: All the candidates onstage were white.

When the race began, it had the most diverse candidate pool—ever. But within the last month and a half, most of the nonwhite candidates have suspended their campaigns: Sen. Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, on December 3; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, the son of a Chicana activist and grandson of a Mexican immigrant, on January 2, and Sen. Cory Booker, the son of civil rights activists and one of only 10 African-American U.S. senators ever elected, on January 13.

Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and the son of Taiwanese immigrants, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the American Samoa–born congresswoman, are the only nonwhite candidates still in the race for the Democratic nomination. Neither qualified for last night’s debate.

With Booker, Castro, and Harris leaving the campaign trail, the race for the Democratic nomination loses the valuable lived experiences of people of color in America, experiences that are essential for understanding the structural racism that drives the country’s rampant inequality. And nowhere is this understanding more consequential than in the effort to unravel the country’s discriminatory housing policies, which are intertwined with virtually every domestic issue central to the presidential race.

Candidates standing at podiums during a televised debate.
The January Democratic primary debate, hosted in Iowa, included Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar (left to right).
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National polls, as unreliable as they are, never considered the nonwhite candidates as frontrunners. But Harris polled the highest, peaking at 15 percent after the June debate in which she told a powerful personal story about busing. When Harris sparred with former vice president Joe Biden about the impact of housing segregation, it was an argument made stronger because of her personal history: Harris was part of the second class of students to participate in a busing-based integration plan in Berkeley, California.

Now, we no longer have someone like Harris relaying the necessary nuance of what it’s actually like to be a black child to be bused across town for school, to counterpoint the opinions from white legislators who opposed busing as an integration tool. Would Harris—whose housing agenda included a $100 billion plan to close the black homeownership and wealth gap—have chimed in again with her experience when the debate turned to education? Access to and funding for public schools is largely determined by where you live.

Up until he left the race, Castro was the most vocal candidate about the homeless crisis and housing affordability, not only because he served as HUD secretary in the Obama administration, but also because he confronted these issues firsthand as mayor of San Antonio. His housing plan framed housing as a human right. He vowed to end homelessness by 2028. During his campaign, he visited homeless encampments in Los Angeles’s Skid Row to talk about his plans. His video announcing the end of his campaign included footage from his visits to homeless encampments in Oakland, California, where African Americans account for 68 percent of homeless people and 24 percent of the overall population.

Julian Castro shakes hands with a homeless man living in a tent on a Los Angeles street.
During his campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro visited homeless encampments in Los Angeles.
Getty Images

Not a single housing question has been posed to candidates during the debates, and the only time homelessness was mentioned last night was when Sen. Bernie Sanders said “half a million people are sleeping in the streets tonight”—a sum based on HUD’s December report stating that an estimated 567,715 people are living without shelter, a 2.7 percent increase from the beginning of 2019. (The U.S. Census estimates around 3.5 million people per year experience homelessness, which includes sheltered and unsheltered people.)

Would Castro have mentioned that HUD attributes the increase in homelessness to the California housing crisis? Would he have discussed what he saw in Oakland and Los Angeles? Or that homelessness disproportionally affects people of color due to discriminatory eviction practices?

Meanwhile, someone with deep knowledge of the housing crisis, like Castro, could have steered the conversation to why new housing policy is urgent even outside of wealthy coastal cities. Iowa is facing a housing shortage in rural areas, as are other rural areas across the Midwest, which is affecting businesses. Nebraska, for example, has plenty of jobs but a worker shortage because of housing affordability.

Throughout the debates, candidates often mention the urgency of climate change and the unequal impact of the crisis on frontline communities. Last night, Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager who earned his wealth by investing in fossil fuels, mentioned in his closing remarks “black and brown communities that can’t breathe.” To start her closing remarks, Sen. Elizabeth Warren mentioned that she was taking notes about all the important topics that didn’t come up during the debate, which included people with disabilities, trans women, and “climate change in black and brown communities.”

Would a candidate like Booker, who made environmental justice a central part of his campaign, have mentioned the connection between race and climate change more prominently during the actual debate? Or that the worst polluting sites are located near minority neighborhoods—a direct result of land use and housing policy? Or that minority populations experience a disproportionate burden of air pollution and risk because of higher residential exposure to traffic and traffic-related air pollution? (Transportation is the leading source of carbon emissions in America.)

Last night, the candidates brought some of their personal experiences into arguments about why they understand the issues. With much of the debate focusing on foreign policy and war in the Middle East, Pete Buttigieg leaned into his experience in the military. Joe Biden talked about his experience as a single dad when it came to universal child care. Steyer brought up his three children when talking about climate change and what kind of world he was leaving for them. But aside from a moderator asking Buttigieg if black people would vote for him and his response that South Bend was a “race-informed city”—an obscure designation from a city-survey initiative—there was no real discussion from the candidates about race and how that impacts their policy platforms.

Your zip code determines your health, your education, and where you end up in life. And race influences where you live. When the debate stage is only occupied by white candidates, we lose perspectives that can start to root out how all these issues of health care, climate change, and wealth inequality are really about fixing our housing policy in the end.