(The Upshot): Renters hold little sway in Washington. They vote at lower rates than homeowners. They’re generally represented in Congress by homeowners. They have no deep-pocketed lobbyists. And their problems, if anyone considers them at all, are typically waved off as problems for local government.
It’s striking, then, that several Democratic candidates for president are now approaching renters in a way they’ve seldom been treated before — as a voting bloc.
Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, senators from some of the most expensive housing markets in the country, have proposed substantial bills to alleviate the housing crisis. They’re not talking in gauzy terms about homeownership, the rare housing topic that usually gets a nod. They see unsustainable, raw-deal, skyrocketing rents, and they’re not hesitant to sermonize about it.
In Iowa, Warren has “wonked out” on housing economics, and in New Hampshire she’s talked about racial inequality in the market. Booker has invoked the book “Evicted” (he included it in his book club) and his own family’s barriers to housing (a white couple had to pose for his parents when they bought their first home in New Jersey).
This spring, Harris, who has proposed a refundable tax credit for renters, walked into a hotel ballroom of housing activists and policymakers in Washington for a conference of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“I believe that the right to housing should be understood to be a fundamental right, a human right, a civil right,” she told a cheering crowd with smartphones held aloft. “Not everyone has figured that out yet, so there’s a lot of work to do to make the point.”
Diane Yentel, president of the coalition, jokes that in past elections, housing advocates have had to strain to hear mention of their concerns.
“We’ve watched debates and town halls and said: ‘Oh, she said neighborhood! They’re talking about our issue. Or she said house!’ — just trying to find a way to feel hopeful,” Yentel said. There has been more talk of housing affordability early in this Democratic primary than has been the case in any presidential campaign she can remember. “It’s really remarkable,” she said.
Renters heavily overlap with key Democratic constituencies, including younger adults, African-Americans and Hispanics, and urban residents. Voter turnout of renters in 2016 was about 12 percentage points lower than that of homeowners, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. But that year they favored Hillary Clinton by 28 points (homeowners preferred Donald Trump by 11 points).
Housing researchers and renters say the climate has changed even since 2016. High rent costs have increasingly spread beyond coastal cities, and the pain is now expanding from the working class to the middle class. Housing vacancy rates are at a three-decade low. A poll commissioned by groups, including the National Low Income Housing Coalition, found that 60% of people say housing affordability is a serious problem where they live — up 21 points from 2016.
What’s changed is not just the cost of rent itself, said Andrew Criscione, a 30-year-old renter in Boston. Rather, he said, people of his generation increasingly fear that annual rent increases aren’t the product of a bubble soon to burst, but that this is their indefinite reality.
“Now you’re seeing people like me, who 10 or 20 years ago really would be pretty comfortable,” Criscione said. He makes $55,000 a year working in communications for a college, but he shares an apartment in a run-down triple-decker with two other professionals, with one bathroom between them. “Suddenly, we’re living in these tenement-type setups, we don’t really have an escape option, all the jobs are in big cities, and every city has a rent crisis.”
Home prices in much of the country declined or slowed after the housing crash. But rents just kept rising, with the added pressure of millions of people who became renters when their homes went into foreclosure. The home building industry has recovered slowly, and where new construction has picked up it has mostly added housing for the high-income market.
“The private markets have shifted away from entry-level housing into building McMansions, and I understand that — the reason for it is the profits are better,” Warren said. That represents a new reality from a generation ago, she said, one that demands a different approach from the federal government.
“We’re not going to solve our housing crisis by nibbling at the edges,” she said. “We need to tackle it head-on with big comprehensive solutions that match the size of the problem we face.”
Her bill, reintroduced in March and co-sponsored by another presidential candidate, Kirsten Gillibrand, includes a hefty infusion of money to nonprofit developers of affordable housing, paid for by raising the estate tax. A Moody’s analysis projected that the added resources, about $50 billion a year, would help build enough new housing to push rents a decade from now about 10% lower than they would be without Warren’s bill. That estimate, however, treats the nation’s supply of housing as a single market, and the real effects would most likely be different in Boston and in Des Moines, Iowa.
Warren’s bill also includes down payment assistance to new homeowners living in neighborhoods that were historically redlined by banks, in an effort to narrow the black-white homeownership gap. She and Booker also want to nudge local communities to allow more housing by changing zoning laws that block the construction of apartments or denser housing. Such laws have the effect of maintaining economic and racial segregation, and analysts on the left and right view them as a key driver of high housing costs.
Warren wants to dangle a new pot of federal money to communities that change such laws. Booker’s bill would punish those that won’t, by withholding community development grants. Either proposal would mean more federal intervention in decisions long viewed as inherently local. But both Warren and Booker argue that federal policies helped shape local communities more than residents often acknowledge.
“My whole life experience has been seeing how federal laws that were bigoted and biased created disinvestment in certain communities and created wealth and opportunity in others,” Booker said. “Federal policy literally helped to design cities as we know them.”
It follows, he said, that the federal government should help change those patterns.
That’s an argument that Clinton sidestepped just three years ago, even as her economic agenda included a proposal to increase federal spending on housing. In reality, the Democratic coalition also includes many homeowners who don’t want new rental housing nearby — or who benefit from the tight housing supply that has driven up the value of their homes.
The Moody’s analysis that Warren often cites also concludes that her bill would slow the appreciation of home prices. But in the early stages of courting renters, these candidates are not yet talking about how helping them may require concessions from more than just the people rich enough to pay estate taxes.
“That’s a huge problem for the whole zoning reform debate — there’s just no way to slice it that a vast number of wealthy, powerful people aren’t going to have to make some significant sacrifice,” said Kenneth Stahl, a law professor at Chapman University. “Candidates have to think about whether they’re going to be rewarded for going out on that limb.”
Harris has not yet put herself there. She has proposed only a tax credit for renters (Booker’s bill includes one, too). That’s likely to be popular with renters. But absent policies that also try to increase supply, economists warn that any money the government gives renters will just wind up in the pockets of landlords, pushing up rents even more.
Jess Sheehan, a 32-year-old renter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has become involved in local housing politics, says she prefers Warren’s plan for confronting the harder supply problems. But she says she loves that other candidates at least have plans. And there are reasons to expect more — from Pete Buttigieg, who should appreciate the topic as a mayor, and Julián Castro, who was a secretary of housing and urban development in the Obama administration.
“I hope it becomes an obvious part of the package,” Sheehan said. “How can you run for president without speaking to this?”