Millions of tenants are suddenly unable to make rent. Homeowners need help paying their mortgages. And 500,000 unhoused residents require immediate shelter just to survive. As the U.S. pieces together a recovery plan for the novel coronavirus pandemic, federal leaders are facing the reality of providing widespread housing assistance to prevent even more Americans from falling into homelessness.
These types of universal solutions were proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign as benefits for all Americans—not as part of an emergency stimulus package.
When Sanders—who left the presidential race this week—first joined the race in February 2019, he was widely regarded as the universal health care candidate, as he had been during the 2016 race. But six months later, Sanders proposed a “housing for all” plan that dramatically transformed the presidential campaign. Not only did Sanders introduce many U.S. voters to the idea that a home should be seen as a right, he provided a national spotlight for the work of housing justice advocates, and ended up changing the housing conversation among candidates.
Sanders’s $2.5 trillion housing plan proposed a sweeping public housing program, guaranteed rental assistance for anyone who qualifies, and universal tenant protections, including rent control. Sanders also pledged to invest $32 billion to end homelessness, funneling much of that money to cities and states struggling to build permanent supportive housing.
His vision for housing was meant to keep families in a more stable, sustainable living situation, not just on a day-to-day basis, but also in a future filled with climate disasters—making it especially relevant to the extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic.
“Over 18 million of American families today are paying more than 50 percent of their limited incomes on housing. In the United States tonight, over 500,000 Americans are either sleeping out on the street or are in homeless shelters,” Sanders said at Las Vegas rally where he announced his plan. “I believe that every American should have a fundamental right to safe, decent, and affordable housing.”
During the next six months, Sanders—who grew up in a three-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn—made housing affordability a cornerstone of his campaign, sharing stories of tenant activists and housing advocates, and discussing issues like high rents, displacement, and evictions at rallies and in interviews. At the debates, he was one of a handful of candidates to ever discuss the plight of the U.S.’s half-million homeless residents, a topic which was never officially broached by debate moderators.
As Sanders suspends his campaign, his focus on housing changed the race in ways that will greatly benefit Americans beyond the primary. By doubling down on housing, Sanders pushed the once-broad field to take a stand on major housing issues that ended up shifting many of their platforms to the left, including that of former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Biden released his housing plan much later than other candidates, in February 2020. But key elements of the Biden plan, including expanding tenant protections and guaranteeing rental assistance, were far more progressive than the proposals of his fellow moderates. On the fact sheet that accompanied Biden’s plan when it was released was a familiar phrase: “Housing should be a right.”
These are not just progressive ideas, they are ideas that seemed downright radical a year ago. Yet now, as Americans face the very real possibility of losing their homes amid the coronavirus pandemic, only radical ideas are on the table. Federal legislators are pushing forth never-before-attempted proposals like universal rent and mortgage forgiveness and nationwide eviction moratoriums to help Americans stay housed.
More than anything, however, the Sanders campaign taught Americans that they deserve to stay in their homes. He reminded families that they have a right to shelter, irregardless of their economic status. He empowered tenants to stand up in the face of eviction. He brought the idea that everyone should have access to fair, affordable housing to national prominence. Regardless of policy and politics, these are protections that all Americans need to weather this crisis—and to rebuild their lives in a post-coronavirus world.