A Right to Housing
To say we have a housing crisis is a serious understatement. We have a housing emergency.
When I was growing up, the average American could afford to own their own home. Today, there is virtually no city or town where a full-time minimum-wage worker can even afford to rent a decent two-bedroom apartment. Over 18 million families are paying the majority of their income on housing. Over half a million people will be sleeping out on the streets or in homeless shelters because they cannot afford to put a roof over their heads.
The cause of this crisis is no secret. For the last few decades, real wages have remained flat while the price of housing has gone through the roof, and the number of available homes has plummeted. The rent is too damn high.
Future generations will look back with astonishment that a country as extraordinarily wealthy as our own chose to have so many of its citizens sleeping out on the street and so many more struggling to afford a roof over their heads.
We have got to stop pretending like this crisis is inevitable. We can end homelessness. We can guarantee decent affordable housing to all of our citizens. This crisis is a choice, and we know exactly how to solve it if our government actually wanted to. As President, I will.
My plan has three prongs: a massive investment in social housing, an end to exclusionary zoning, and a Tenants’ Bill of Rights.
1. Build Social Housing: Ten Million in Ten Years
The most successful program for making housing affordable to everyone – seen in places like Vienna, Austria, as well as Sweden and Finland – is a massive investment in non-market social housing. While we must allow the private sector to build much more housing, we cannot rely on the private sector alone. We must massively invest in a decommodified public option for housing. This public option would charge affordable rents, which would lower rents across the board because private landlords would have to lower their prices to compete. I will launch a domestic Marshall Plan to build ten million units of social housing in ten years.
Unlike previous attempts at public housing in the United States – which concentrate poverty and decay from underfunding – my social housing will be mixed-income and financially self-sustainable after an initial infusion of federal funds. This is because the units will be universally available to everyone, but the cost of rent will be on a progressive sliding scale based on income, so higher-income tenants help to subsidize the cost of the building for lower-income tenants.
I will provide federal grants and low-interest loans to local governments to build this housing and make it affordable, but after these upfront costs, the units would literally pay for themselves through the rent. But even the upfront cost would be minimal: according to the People’s Policy Project, a similar model for ten million units of social housing would cost less than half of the revenue we would get from raising just the corporate tax to the level it was at before President Trump’s tax cuts.
With the initial federal grants and because social housing doesn’t need to make a profit beyond covering costs, the rent would be cheaper than market housing, and much cheaper for low-income tenants due to the sliding scale.
2. End Exclusionary Zoning
We have a severe housing crisis because we have a severe shortage of available housing, which drives up rents. A major cause of this shortage is the fact that local governments have racist and outdated exclusionary zoning laws that actually make it illegal to build dense multifamily housing in much of this country.
These exclusionary zoning laws are driven by a landlord lobby that wants to restrict the supply of housing because they want to keep charging you ridiculously high rent. These laws are also a racist legacy of redlining and Jim Crow, driven by racist concerns about who belongs in our neighborhood. Beyond contributing to the housing crisis, these laws are an environmental disaster – perpetuating urban sprawl, long commutes, and car dependency.
If it is illegal to build apartments and anything besides detached single-family homes, then it is effectively illegal to build housing that is affordable. We cannot solve the housing crisis without tackling these restrictive zoning ordinances.
As president, I would use federal carrots and sticks to get localities to end their exclusionary zoning. I would withhold federal highway funds from localities that use exclusionary zoning to prevent housing affordability, and I would offer additional funds to localities that encourage the development of affordable housing. Beyond general upzoning, my federal incentives would also encourage transit-oriented development, abolish parking requirements for developments near public transit, and allow rental apartments in the wealthiest single-family neighborhoods that are home to the most egregious forms of exclusionary zoning.
In order to ensure that our housing supply is actually used to house people, I would also impose a 4% Empty Homes tax on units that sit vacant or are used as short-term rentals for a majority of the year.
3. Tenants’ Bill of Rights
With a massive investment in social housing and an end to exclusionary zoning, we will build enough housing to end the crisis of unaffordability. However, this process will take many years, and we need relief for people struggling to afford housing right now. For that reason, I will enact a Tenants’ Bill of Rights.
I would establish a national cap on annual rent increases at no more than either 3% or 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher. To not disincentivize housing production, new buildings would be exempt from this cap for 20 years.
I would protect the right of tenants in a housing community to organize and form tenants unions, free from retaliation or interference by landlords.
I would end no-cause eviction by implementing a “just-cause” requirement that would allow landlords to evict tenants only for specific violations and prevent evictions for arbitrary or retaliatory reasons.
I would fully fund a right to counsel for tenants being evicted so that they have the free legal defense to bring them on equal footing with their landlord.
I would end all forms of housing discrimination, including discrimination by source of income, as many landlords currently reject prospective tenants who receive government assistance.