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Why Democratic Presidential Contenders Are Discussing Affordable Housing


Bit of news from the presidential campaign now. Democratic candidates for president are talking about the lack of affordable housing. That's an issue that rarely, if ever, comes up at election time. NPR's Pam Fessler reports the candidates are trying to tap into a growing concern and a potential voting bloc.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Not surprisingly, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has a plan.


ELIZABETH WARREN: I have a proposal to build over 3 million new housing units here in America.

FESSLER: She also wants to address past discrimination against black homebuyers, which cost them decades of accumulated wealth.


WARREN: It says, everybody who lives or lived in a formerly redlined district can get some housing assistance now to be able to buy a home.

FESSLER: And she's not the only one with a plan. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker would give refundable tax credits to renters who have to pay more than 30% of their incomes on rent. He would also help tenants facing eviction and protect against housing discrimination, something he touts in his videos.


CORY BOOKER: When I was a baby, my parents tried to move us into a neighborhood with great public schools. But realtors wouldn't sell us a home because of the color of our skin.

FESSLER: California Senator Kamala Harris would also give tax credits to low-income renters. She calls decent, affordable housing...


KAMALA HARRIS: ...A fundamental right, a human right, a civil right.


DIANE YENTEL: We've seen candidates talking more about the crisis and the solutions than we have, I think, in entire presidential campaigns in history.

FESSLER: Diane Yentel has been waiting a long time for this. She's president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. She says, in past elections, housing advocates would listen to the candidates - and wait.

YENTEL: Then just sort of hang on for any word even remotely related to housing, like, oh, he said community, or he said house, but nothing about actual housing policy or solutions.

FESSLER: Now the topic comes up again and again. Yentel thinks it's a reflection of the severity of the housing shortage. Rents across the country are going up much faster than wages; so much so that 11 million families now pay more than half of their incomes in rent. Low-income families feel it the most, but the problem has started to creep up into the middle class.

GEOFF GARIN: For voters who are in the rental housing market, the cost of housing is as big an economic stressor as virtually anything else.

FESSLER: Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says it's a concern for voters in every area of the country - cities, small towns and suburbs. When he asked voters in 2016, 39% said housing affordability was a fairly or very serious problem; this year, that number has jumped to 60%.

GARIN: So that's quite a change over the course of one election cycle.

FESSLER: Perhaps of more interest to candidates, three out of four voters say they're more likely to support someone who has an affordable housing plan. Several Democrats are current or former mayors, which has made them especially sensitive to the issue. Julian Castro, who was secretary of housing and urban development under President Obama, made it a key part of his campaign announcement.


JULIAN CASTRO: Today, too many families are spending more than half of their income on rent, and that means that more families are doubling up, sleeping on the couches of relatives or even sleeping on the streets.

FESSLER: Yesterday, Castro announced some details - he would give housing vouchers to everyone who needs them and spend tens of billions of dollars on new, affordable housing. The challenge for Democrats is finding a way to pay for these plans. The Trump administration has called for steep cuts in housing aid and would increase affordable housing by providing tax incentives for construction in economically distressed areas.

The other challenge for Democrats is getting low-income renters out to vote. They tend not to turn out as much as wealthier homeowners. It's a concern for Charise Genas of Boston, who was at a candidate forum in Washington, D.C., yesterday for something called the Poor People's Campaign.

CHARISE GENAS: I even pulled my kids by their ears and said, you're voting. And they tell me, Ma, my vote don't count. I say, that's a lie.

FESSLER: And for her, it's personal. Right now her kids have their own places to live.

GENAS: They're saying, Ma, I might have to come back home because the rent is so high

FESSLER: Which is what Democrats are counting on - that this is an issue most Americans can relate to.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.