Talking Heads: The Honorable Sherrod Brown, United States Senator

8 min read

Fixing the Affordable Housing Crisis 

Sherrod Brown is a senior statesman who has devoted his entire adult life to politics—representing Ohio’s residents for 45 years—and become one of the most powerful lawmakers in the United States Congress.

Dating back to his senior year at Yale in 1974, Brown was recruited by a local Democratic leader to run for Ohio’s state house. He became the youngest person elected to that body and served from 1975 to 1982.

After serving as Ohio’s Secretary of State from 1983 to 1991, Brown was elected U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 13th congressional district, located in the northeast corner of the state near Cleveland, and held the seat from 1993 to 2007.

In 2007, he was elected United States Senator from Ohio and reelected in 2012 and 2018. Today, he is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee—and a likely candidate to become chairman if and when the Democrats take back the Senate —and a leading voice in Congress on housing issues.

Senator Brown has sponsored several housing-related bills during the current Congress including the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act, the Housing for Homeless Students Act and the Eviction Crisis Act.

Last July, he sent a letter to President Trump that offered a plan for how Congress and the administration could work together to end homelessness. More recently, he called on his Ohio constituents to share their stories with him and the obstacles they’re facing when it comes to housing.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Senator Brown to learn more about how the housing crisis is impacting his constituents in Ohio and then to discuss his views and policy initiatives to help fix the problem.

Tax Credit Advisor: Before we get into policy discussions, what housing data can you share that helps underscore how the affordable housing crisis has impacted Ohio families?

Sherrod Brown: As author Matthew Desmond wrote to me in his inscription of his book Evicted, “home = life.” With affordable housing touching so many facets of Americans’ lives, there are many statistics you could cite. But let me focus on a few. In Ohio, and nationally, we have almost a quarter of all renters spending more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing. We know what that means in a country where 40 percent of Americans say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. It means that one health crisis, one car breakdown, maybe one quarantine period due to the coronavirus, and they could be evicted or homeless. Seven out of ten of the fastest-growing professions don’t pay enough to afford a two-bedroom apartment. In 2017, there were over 100,000 eviction filings in Ohio – that means about one out of every 15 renters have had a formal eviction filed against them, let alone those who are pushed out through informal evictions. The homeownership rate for white families is 72 percent – basically twice the black homeownership rate of 36 percent. The ongoing effects of discrimination and segregation still effect black and brown families’ access to the housing market and their opportunities to build intergenerational wealth through homeownership.

TCA: You recently called on your constituents to submit personal stories that can help put a face on the housing crisis. What kind of responses have you gotten thus far?

SB: Many of the stories are truly heart-wrenching, detailing the real struggles of Ohio’s families, seniors and hardworking people trying to make ends meet with the high cost of housing. In my housing roundtables with Ohioans in Toledo and Youngstown, I heard a range of issues: homelessness and housing insecurity; waiting lists for housing assistance that are closed for lack of resources; the troubling rise of predatory contract-for-deed scams; and the difficulties of financing the revitalization of vacant housing due to a persistent “appraisal gap” for homes in neighborhoods that have been left behind in this economy.

I am also seeing encouraging signs of local coalitions coming together to coordinate a response to the housing crisis and suggest solutions. These leaders need the federal government to be an active partner in their efforts.

TCA: In your July 2019 letter to President Trump, you recommended solutions for solving the affordable housing crisis on a nationwide level. Please highlight some of these policy recommendations and any new ideas that may have come out since then.

SB: In my letter, I urged the President to work together with me to prevent and end homelessness. I suggested that the first step in tackling this issue is to stop pursuing an agenda that exacerbates homelessness in this country: putting out budgets that gut housing programs; proposing to evict 55,000 kids in mixed immigration-status families from HUD-assisted housing; proposing rules that make it more difficult for vulnerable transgender individuals experiencing homelessness to seek HUD-assisted shelter. I also invited him to invest in housing. So far, the Trump Administration has not taken me up on these suggestions. Since I wrote the letter, we are seeing more interest in tackling the housing crisis, including new investments in housing. Senator Grassley and I introduced the Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act, which would make it easier for housing authorities to provide vouchers to youth aging out of foster care. Another proposal I cosponsored is the Eviction Crisis Act, which would track evictions and provide emergency assistance to families and individuals at risk of eviction. I am also working on a renters’ credit proposal to help preserve and create deeply-targeted rental housing.

TCA: I’ve interviewed several HFA executives who talked about innovative solutions that they are exploring locally to help offset less funding coming from the federal government. Have you had any similar conversations with Ohio’s Housing Finance Agency?

SB: We have strong advocates for affordable housing in Ohio, and OFHA is an important part of that. They are also an important source of information about housing needs in the state, which is important in helping us all stay informed.

TCA: What chance do any of these initiatives have of becoming law in 2020?

SB: I will keep pushing to find our opportunities to move legislation. It will be difficult if the administration and the Senate Republican leadership continue to show no interest in investing in affordable housing and tackling this issue.

TCA: The president’s initiatives have largely focused on removing regulatory barriers that he and his supporters say have only exacerbated the housing crisis, such as overly restrictive zoning and growth management controls. What’s your opinion on these issues? 

SB: Removing regulatory barriers to affordable housing is a part of the solution, but not the whole solution. Communities should examine ways that their local policies—including zoning restrictions and infrastructure investments—affect who has access to housing and at what price. I have long supported efforts to give communities tools to do that, like HUD’s 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule that this administration has abandoned. We should reinstate the rule and find other ways to support best practices at the local level to improve equitable access to housing. But zoning changes alone won’t solve the whole problem, particularly for the lowest-income families. And they can’t just become an excuse to gut protections for workers, the environment and renters. They also aren’t the answer in every community.

TCA: From a policy perspective, what common ground exists between Democrats and Republicans—particularly between you and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo—to enact the necessary policies that will once and for all put an end to the affordable housing crisis?

SB: I have a good relationship with Chairman Crapo. We have had productive hearings on the future of our housing finance system. The chairman and I haven’t agreed on a proposal, but I think we heard a lot of consensus from stakeholders about the elements they’d like to see in the new system. Unfortunately, the committee has not spent as much time on housing as I think it deserves. We had a good hearing on several bipartisan housing bills, including my Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities bill. I am hopeful we will find a way to move this legislation forward this Congress.

TCA: Of the Democratic presidential nominees  left, who has the most solid plan for addressing the affordable housing crisis?

SB: The presidential field is changing, so I don’t want to weigh in on any individual plan. What I am excited by is the fact that each of the candidates has put forward serious proposals for tackling this issue for our families. I think it is evidence that housing would be a real priority in a Democratic Administration and a Democratic Senate if we have the chance to set the agenda. I know it will be a priority for me if I become Chairman in a Democratic Senate.

TCA: Thank you for your time. Do you have any parting remarks for our readers on how they can do their fair share to help end this housing crisis?

SB: I would just encourage them to share their stories about what they are seeing in their communities and developments with my colleagues in Congress.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.