What Democratic Presidential Candidates Can Learn from Gavin Newsom's Housing Hardball

By Henry Kraemer (@HenryKraemer)

For the first time in generations, housing will play a key role in the race for president. As of January 2019, three of the five high-profile Democrats officially running for president have made housing central to their agendas. As more candidates announce, it seems inevitable that more affordable housing proposals will follow. The campaign for the Democratic nomination is going to be long, and given the potency of housing with Democratic base voters, we can expect an arms race for bold solutions on the issue. For a bit of extra inspiration, they should look to Gavin Newsom’s gutsy stare-down of exclusionary zoning in California.

So far, the announced presidential candidates who center housing have taken divergent approaches. Kamala Harris is offering cash rental assistance to cost-burdened renters; Julián Castro’s announcement speech promised to “invest in housing that’s affordable to the middle class and the poor,” presumably suggesting boosting federal dollars for housing; Elizabeth Warren has laid out the most comprehensive proposal, with a massive expansion of funding for affordable housing, down-payment assistance for first-time homebuyers in historically oppressed communities, and incentive funds to end apartment bans (legal restrictions that mandate only single-family houses can be built there, thus shutting out anyone who cannot afford the most expensive form of housing). Check back here in the coming weeks and months for analysis and recommendations about every candidate’s housing agenda.

But even Warren’s bid to build 3.2 million new homes – the most ambitious proposal of the bunch – wouldn’t meet half of the current catastrophic shortfall of homes for poor, working class, and middle class families, let alone accommodate population growth. Today, the United States is at least 7 million homes short of what we need to affordably house just those people living under the poverty line. The actual current shortfall for homes that fit working class and middle class budgets is likely much larger, with over 50 million Americans paying a burdensome share of their household income in rent. That is in no small part due to the racist, classist covenants that have made an endangered species out of the smaller, clustered homes that average people can afford to rent or own. On top of that, just to match population growth, America needs to add homes for ~1.5 million new households every year. We’re not doing anything close to that, and even the boldest 2020 plans don’t get us close. But in California, Gavin Newsom is showing how we might get there.

The Data for Progress housing team, like most progressives, has been pretty skeptical of Newsom and his undeniable Patrick Bateman vibe. He was originally elected Mayor of San Francisco as a “centrist modeled after Dianne Feinstein,” but his reinvention as a progressive champion has shown the power of the left in reshaping the debate and forcing politicians to become better versions of themselves. Newsom has cannily followed the feelings of the Democratic base and trended steadily leftward for years, culminating in his bonafide social democratic vision for California. From moving toward a state-run Medicare for All system, tuition-free community college, a speedier path to a 100% emissions-free electric grid, Newsom has been showing how a chief executive can campaign and govern on progressive policy. Most notably for 2020 presidential candidates crafting their housing platforms, Newsom has put forward a bold, dual-pronged approach to building affordable homes for Californians that is already edging into the national conversation.

Newsom’s “Marshall Plan for housing” can be summed up as a multi-billion dollar infusion of new state funding for affordable housing and a bold carrot-and-stick approach to impel cities to repeal racist, classist apartment bans.

Newsom is planning a $500 million incentive fund to be spread across cities that meet targets for building new homes and, crucially, threatening to withhold transportation funds from cities that do not make room for more people to live there.

Both the stick and the carrot are important here. Tying transportation dollars to housing is a wily move. The most exclusionary communities are also generally wealthier, already amenity-rich places that may find less allure from the promise of extra cash in city coffers. But potholes and traffic jams afflict rich and poor alike. The fear of missing out on anticipated road funding might just be enough to bring exclusionary communities to heel. Further, cities with apartment bans are also often the most sprawling, and thus the most taxing on transportation infrastructure. Making these municipalities build tighter-knit communities (which are more walking, biking, and transit friendly, thus less dependent on cars) also makes for smart state transportation policy.

The carrot matters too. While the long-term socioeconomic integration that comes from ending apartment bans offers massive social and economic benefits for poor, working class, and lower middle class people, the prominence of “Not In My Back Yard” mentality suggests that more politically empowered local landowners may not immediately greet the change with warmth and kindness. Broadly beloved amenities like better parks or renovated schools should help sweeten the transformation for the community and improve the politics of the whole enterprise.

Newsom’s housing plan is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Rent stabilization is entirely absent from his proposal (Newsom has been wishy-washy on the topic, saying he supports rent control while opposing a 2018 ballot measure that would have expanded it). He would be smart to follow Oregon progressives’ example and pursue statewide rent stabilization measures.

Even considering that glaring oversight, each Democratic presidential candidate has something to learn from Newsom’s housing hardball. In a growing and welcoming country facing a gaping, widening housing shortage, we need to build a lot more places for people to live. A few candidates, like Warren, understand that and have put forward plans to make room. Yet no candidate so far has put forward the kind of dauntless proposal that could actually get the vast majority of American cities and towns to open their gates to new people.

Newsom has. If not on every aspect of housing, at least on abolishing apartment bans, Newsom has charted a clear path: Offer big benefits to cities and towns that nix their exclusionary zoning, and hold off on transportation money for places that don’t. The 2020 field should put it in their plans, on the ground floor.


Henry Kraemer (@HenryKraemer) is a writer and activist focused on housing, social democratic urbanism, and voting rights. He previously spearheaded the creation of America’s first automatic voter registration law in Oregon and its expansion across the country. He lives in Portland and works a day-job in renewable energy.

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