AOC & the Progressive Consensus on Housing

by Henry Kraemer

On Wednesday, Congresswoman and progressive vanguard Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released her “A Place to Prosper Act”, a bold plan to restructure the U.S. housing system. As part of her A Just Society package, AOC lays out a vision that would take our country closer to manifesting housing as a human right. Her proposal also encapsulates the emergent progressive consensus on housing: protect tenants, regulate landlords, abolish exclusionary zoning, and build more homes outside the private market. AOC's bill is the product of collaboration with the Center for Popular Democracy and their housing justice network, and closely follows their ‘A Home to Thrive’ plan.

AOC’s plan (which we’ll shorthand to A Place to Prosper) builds off three cornerstones:

  • A nationwide cap on rent increases and ban on no-cause evictions (small landlords who rent 5 or fewer homes are exempted), along with new funding for legal counsel for evicted tenants

  • Strict regulations on landlords, banning them from refusing to rent to tenants because they receive public assistance (one way that landlords currently often legally discriminate) and requiring transparency for large landlords who rent 100 or more homes on rent prices, evictions, fees charged, lease agreements, ownership, and instances of violations they have committed

  • Withholding federal highway funds from localities using exclusionary zoning to prevent housing affordability and integration, while offering additional funds to localities that encourage the development of affordable housing. 

AOC’s plan also includes other important elements, such as funding for lead abatement, but the three cornerstones above get to the heart of the new progressive consensus on how to solve the housing crisis and we should look at each more closely to see how.

Providing security and certainty to renters

A Place to Prosper calls for capping annual rent increases across the country at the annual inflation level, or 3% of the last year’s monthly rent, whichever is higher. The plan would also summarily stop landlords from evicting tenants without good cause and provide funding for evicted tenants to receive legal counsel if they opt to protest an eviction. These provisions are similar to the national rent control laid out in the Bernie Sanders Housing for All plan and the People’s Action Homes Guarantee. While less aggressive, Elizabeth Warren lays out financial incentives for states and cities to adopt rent control, just-cause eviction, and counsel for evicted tenants. The progressive left is all aboard for these common sense measures to ensure that renters receive some modicum of the security and certainty that the US housing system guarantees to homeowners. By the way, voters are on board with this too, in huge numbers.

Side note: AOC’s decision to exempt small landlords from these regulations is perplexing. It seems likely that the choice springs from a desire to treat the middle class differently from the very wealthy. However, in most cases, an individual with several rental properties has well over $1,000,000 to their name. These are by-and-large not struggling people and their tenants deserve the same protections as those of large landlords.

Strict regulations on landlords

A Place to Prosper reins in landlords in a variety of important ways, through bans on implicit discrimination and strict transparency requirements. Under the bill, landlords cannot refuse to rent to a tenant because they receive housing vouchers, other cash assistance from the government, or any other form of legal income. This form of discrimination is surprisingly commonplace and currently serves as a legally sanctioned form of racial and economic housing discrimination. Banning this practice has effectively become consensus policy for Democratic politicians ranging from Amy Klobuchar to Cory Booker to Bernie Sanders, making it no surprise to see AOC adopting it.

More impressive is AOC’s plan to pull back the curtain on the practices of large landlords and apply some sunlight disinfectant to the most parasitic practices perpetuated by property owners on the tenant class. A Place to Prosper requires landlords owning 100 or more homes to publicly disclose standard lease agreements, median rents, the number of evicted tenants, all code violations, and the ownership of the landlord companies (which would all be shared with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, then placed on online) . While these disclosures do not by themselves force landlords to behave better, they increase the likelihood that landlords will self-police to avoid negative attention or legal action, and may lead to further policy change.

The landlord restrictions in A Place to Prosper reflect the new progressive consensus that the landlord industrial complex has become a far-too-often malevolent force in the economic lives of Americans and desperately needs regulation. One can find proposals reining in the worst excesses of landlords in the People’s Action Homes Guarantee, Sanders Housing for All, and Warren American Housing and Economic Mobility Act. It’s a critical piece for solving the housing crisis in the long-term.

Abolishing exclusionary zoning

A Place to Prosper puts exclusionary communities on notice in the boldest, most assertive terms yet seen in high-profile federal legislation. Exclusionary zoning was designed to racially and economically segregate communities, and today drives up housing costs and erects economic walls around communities with high quality public schools and other amenities. AOC’s plan enlists the strongest tools the federal government has to offer to abolish it. The plan calls out the key tricks communities use to price out working families – bans on multifamily housing, minimum lot sizes, parking minimums, and manufactured homes – and pledges to cut off federal highway funding from anywhere that uses those tools. Because of how much exclusionary communities depend on car travel (their lack of density tends to mean a lack of transit), threatening their highway funding is likely the best way to inspire them to change their laws or at least bring them to the negotiating table. 

AOC goes further, creating new federal funding opportunities for communities that make a good faith effort to build new affordable housing. Communities can unlock these benefits by increasing the number of affordable homes being built, streamlining approval processes of affordable housing, and lifting height limits for affordable housing.

Both aspects of AOC’s plan for equitable growth echo a recent recurring theme in progressive politics. Presidential candidates with strong plans to abolish exclusionary zoning include Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro (a very popular position among voters, we found). Sanders & People’s Action also call for additional bonus zoning overlays for affordable development. 

AOC Cements the Consensus

With A Place to Prosper, AOC reprises her role carrying the banner for the progressive left. Because she has brought visionary, energizing leadership to so many key fights – the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, impeachment, among others – AOC can cement the consensus opinion on the left, as she has done again here. Although, beyond the equitable growth incentives, her plan does not call for a major expansion of housing outside the private market, apparently that is forthcoming in further legislation from her and The Squad.

It is no coincidence that many of the politicians with the boldest stances on housing are also leaders on climate action. AOC first made her mark in Congress as the chief advocate of the Green New Deal, and A Place to Prosper builds on that. While AOC is likely to release more explicit Green New Deal-linked housing policies, the ones she outlines here would have positive climate impacts. Rent control would reduce displacement from dense, walkable, low- and middle-income neighborhoods even as transit access increases and there is more greening; meanwhile, ending exclusionary zoning could increase the number of mixed-income, dense, walkable neighborhoods. Affordable density is the cornerstone of low-carbon urbanism.

Taken as a whole, AOC’s plan affirms every component of the progressive housing agenda: bring security and stability to tenants, regulate landlords, abolish exclusionary zoning, and build many more affordable homes. While the various factions of the progressive left can debate details, the pillars of progressive policy are no longer in question.

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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