We are in a housing crisis. Here’s what we should do about it.
Even before the pandemic hit, we were in an affordable housing crisis with nearly a third of Ohio renters barely earning enough to scrape by. Today, more than 40 million Americans are at risk of eviction with millions more living paycheck to paycheck. According to a leading affordable housing nonprofit, we are short roughly 7 million homes. We need big, structural change to our housing market to guarantee housing as a basic human right.
Liberalizing Land Use Policy
One of the central contributors to sky-high housing prices is systematic constraints on supply. There are more families in need of affordable housing than there are affordable homes. Demand outpacing supply allows developers to charge more. We can trace the limitation on new and affordable housing units to systemic racism. Racism contributed to the Faircloth Amendment which froze construction of public housing units. Racism continues to contribute to exclusionary zoning and other prohibitive land use practices which restricts construction of affordable housing, typically favoring single-family detached homes. The affordable housing crisis is inextricably linked to systemic racism, and our approach to solving it must be explicitly anti-racist.
Overhauling exclusionary zoning is critical to making housing a human right. However, zoning laws are written and implemented at the municipal level. We can and should use a carrots and sticks approach to incentivizing municipalities to eliminate their exclusionary zoning laws and do away with other land-use restrictions like parking requirements. I strongly support Senator Booker’s bill, the HOME Act, which would do just that. It would condition Community Block Grants and federal highway and transportation funds on municipal efforts to repeal these racist zoning laws and promote inclusionary zoning. Unfortunately, solving this issue requires navigating layers of bureaucracy. Just a few days ago, a court in Minneapolis blocked their plan to phase out single-family zoning. A more aggressive approach detailed here by Jerusalem Demsas would have the Department of Justice sue cities and towns recognizing prohibitive land-use policy as violating the spirit of the Fair Housing Act. We should also legalize inexpensive forms of housing like SRO housing and modular housing.
All of these policies will make a difference, but community opposition and local politicians beholden to wealthy homeowners threaten to derail potential progress. It’s critical that we grow the grassroots movement that says yes to more density, more multi-family housing, more housing in our backyards. YIMBY (yes in my backyard) organizations are popping up all across the country. Last year, they passed a monumental piece of legislation in California that legalizes duplexes and townhomes on land zoned exclusively for single-family homes. We need people like you to show up at city council meetings and be a voice of support for new homes and new neighbors!
Building New, Affordable Units
Beyond zoning restrictions, government at every level can take an active role in building new housing. Given the severity of the housing shortage which credible research indicates is between 5 and 7 million homes, it’s imperative that we say yes to all housing. However, the role of corporate developers and private equity groups in the housing market is becoming increasingly duplicitous and exploitative. Shelter is a basic human necessity that should not, at least primarily, be a profit-driven industry. Social housing and cooperative housing offer us an alternative to the private market. These models already exist in this country, but are relatively rare. If scaled up dramatically, social and cooperative housing can effectively create a public option for tenants and homeowners to the speculative market. In the US and in other countries, social housing delivers higher quality homes with more amenities at lower costs than private sector housing. Rents from tenants would offset costs, so there wouldn’t be any additional taxes.
The Homes for All Act offers a bold vision forward requiring the construction and maintenance of 12 million public, social, or not-for-profit homes by 2030. This transformative piece of legislation would offer tens of millions of Americans the choice to leave the speculative housing market and find more stable homes for their families. While I’d love to see Congress take this up, things move pretty slow in Washington. We can actually take demonstrative action at the state and local level. Rhode Island introduced a pilot program in their 2023 budget to build social housing. California Assemblymember Alex Lee’s Social Housing Act is moving through committee. Cities and counties can pick up the slack as well.
Standing with Tenants
In addition to building new affordable housing units, we need new rules to protect renters from landlord exploitation. Evictions are a form of policy violence, and we should do everything we can to minimize them. This requires a comprehensive approach to policy that restores fairness to the historic power imbalance between tenants and owners. I support a national right-to-counsel for renters that would prevent landlords from operating outside of the law to extract duplicitous fees and evict residents without just cause. We should also implement a renters’ tax credit and pass rent control modeled after Oregon’s successful efforts.
Closing the Black-White Homeownership Gap
Lastly, in transforming the landscape of our inequitable and unaffordable housing market, we must not only reckon with our history of institutional racism in housing but we must propose broad-based solutions. An anti-racist housing policy should provide new pathways to homeownership for Black and Brown families historically locked out of the housing market through racist lending practices. We can do this by providing a down payment assistance to families living in historically red-lined communities, creating a competitive grant fund for municipal efforts to combat gentrification, and by establishing a baby bonds proposal like the one Senator Booker proposed to create ladders of opportunity to families that have been systematically locked out.
That’s all, folks
This is the roadmap on which we can embark on to yield a fundamental transformation of housing in America. We can reverse racist policies, empower renters, and build millions of new affordable housing units.