Many Candidates, Many Housing Plans

7 min read

There’s a New Across-the-Board Focus On Affordability 

In 2018, I wrote for TCA about how the affordable housing issue had gained momentum in America, from one that a decade ago nobody talked about, to a rising local and state issue. The “YIMBY” movement I profiled was a big reason why. With branches in different cities, the movement is premised on the idea that cities must allow more housing to accommodate population growth (YIMBY stands for “yes in my backyard,” in contrast to NIMBY, or “not in my backyard”). The movement started its advocacy on social media, proceeded to found nonprofits and host conferences and then launched political action committees to field candidates.

Since then, their issue has gone national. The New York Times, Washington Post and NPR have done write-ups on the housing shortage in U.S. cities. Federal legislators have proposed YIMBY bills. Most importantly, it has become a hot topic for Democratic presidential candidates, some of whom have released housing plans.

“It’s unlike anything any of us who have been working in this field for decades have seen before,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, to Citylab. “Just in these first early months of the election season, we’ve already seen more attention on affordable housing policy than, I think, in entire presidential campaigns in history.”

Four candidates have their own housing plans. Others have weighed in with broad statements on the issue, and may have plans forthcoming. And the Republicans—led by President Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson—have their own ideas for fixing the housing crisis. Below is a breakdown of their similarities and differences.

Elizabeth Warren
The Massachusetts senator has gained notoriety for “having a plan for everything,” and true to form, has the most detailed one for housing. In March, she introduced the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, using the congressional bill as a preview of what she would do as president. The bill, according to City Limits, will do five things:

  • Allocate $500 billion over ten years to build and rehabilitate affordable housing. The money would go to HUD’s Housing Trust Fund, and would be paid for by increasing taxes on inheritances;
  • Allocate $10 billion for grants, which would be distributed as infrastructure money for cities that reform their zoning;
  • Provide down-payment assistance for homebuyers in disadvantaged black and Hispanic areas. This is meant to reverse the damage from past federal redlining practices, and is available to people who lived four or more years in these neighborhoods;
  • Expand the Fair Housing Act (which now prohibits landlords from discriminating on the basis of race or gender) to also prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, veteran status and source of income (i.e. housing voucher recipients); and
  • Crack down on Real Estate Owned Mortgages. When the FHA acquires single-family homes through foreclosure, it often resells them to private equity firms. Warren’s bill will force the FHA to sell at least 75 percent of these homes to owner-occupant buyers or to community groups that will rehab and sell to owner-occupants.

Because Warren’s bill is so ambitious, and was the first of its kind among the candidates, she is viewed as the leader on the issue. Other candidate housing plans are less fully-formed, but copy her general premises, while carving out their own distinctions.

Cory Booker
The New Jersey senator released his plan in June. It mirrors Warren’s bill in allocating significant money for affordable housing construction and preservation, zoning reform incentives, and demand-side subsidies (although they would come in the form of tax breaks for housing-burdened renters). The goal of the renter subsidy is to ensure that no one in America spends more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

Booker’s plan has a stronger tenant protection component: it would feature an Eviction Right to Counsel Fund, similar to what New York City passed in 2017, to ensure tenants that are fighting eviction have access to lawyers. Booker also wants to curb discriminatory practices made against the formerly-incarcerated.

Kamala Harris
In July, Harris proposed a plan that focuses more than the others on making housing accessible to minorities, with aims to bridge the inequities from past federal housing policy.

Harris wants a $100 billion grant for homebuyers who live in redlined areas, thus greatly expanding on a concept proposed by Warren. She wants to amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act to make it easier for low-income people to build their credit scores. She wants to end mortgage discrimination against racial minorities and fight public housing discrimination based on gender and sexual identity.

Julian Castro
Julian Castro’s housing plan is also of interest, since he is a former San Antonio mayor and HUD

secretary. While overseeing HUD, he rolled out Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), a rule meant to strengthen enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.

Further anti-discrimination rules are part of his housing plan this time, but there’s more. His “People First Housing” is the most sweeping plan of the four, regarding the topics it covers. Castro advocates for housing vouchers, a renter’s tax credit, a $450 billion housing trust fund, building more public housing, decriminalizing homelessness, fighting gentrification and aligning with the Green New Deal to stop climate change.

Castro is more adamant than the others about curbing exclusionary zoning. He wants to launch a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform that would ensure neighborhoods aren’t being too restrictive.

Everyone Else
Other Democratic presidential candidates, like Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang, have spoken broadly about the need for housing affordability and zoning reform, but haven’t released plans.

One curious omission is Bernie Sanders, who built his early political career through housing advocacy, and had a plan during his 2016 run against Hilary Clinton. It seems from earlier comments that Sanders could be even further left—and somewhat out-of-lockstep ideologically—with the other candidates. While their rhetoric stresses deregulation, Sanders has negatively commented about gentrification and housing developers, suggesting he might have a NIMBY streak. At a California townhall meeting in August, Sanders claimed he would back a national rent control bill.

The YIMBY idea—with its “build more housing” mantra—would seem like a natural fit for pro-growth, anti-regulation Republicans. But it took several years for Trump and Carson to embrace the trend, instead doing so recently, in apparent competition with Democrats.

In June, Trump formed a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing. Chaired by Secretary Carson, it will attack multiple aspects that make housing less affordable, from restrictive zoning and parking minimums, to labor and environmental laws.

“This is a matter of supply and demand, and we have to increase the supply of affordable homes by changing the cost side of the equation,” says Carson in a statement. “Increasing the supply of housing by removing overly burdensome rules and regulations will reduce housing costs, boost economic growth and provide more Americans with opportunities for economic mobility.”

In August, Carson proposed changes to Castro’s old AFFH rule. He wants to gut the anti-discrimination aspects of the rule, a move that has drawn criticism from liberal housing activists; but also wants to reform AFFH in ways that encourage cities to increase their housing supply.


       It is perhaps inevitable that Democrats and Republicans will disagree about housing affordability, even though it’s considered a relatively bipartisan cause. The divides are apparent in their plans. Democrats want more subsidies, more renter protections and more rules to oppose discrimination. Republicans want less subsidies and regulations, viewing the latter as a barrier to housing production.

But the parties have something in common: they both recognize that more housing is needed, and that this won’t happen by blasting developers or upholding exclusionary zoning. Pro-housing advocates have been shouting this same message for years from the internet hollows, and finally it has risen to the top.