Reader donations, many as small as just $1, have kept In These Times publishing for 45 years. Once you've finished reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support this work.
In September 2015, the United Nations (UN) set a goal of ensuring “adequate, safe and affordable housing” to all people by 2030. That commitment reaffirmed the UN’s stated declaration — first proclaimed in 1948 — that housing is a human right, and not a privilege. Yet in the four years since that goal was established, the global housing crisis has only continued to worsen, with home prices soaring as incomes largely remain flat. In the United States, the situation is especially acute, with affordable housing disappearing, wealth and racial inequality skyrocketing and the Trump administration pushing forward policies that only exacerbate the crisis.
On a given night in America, over half a million people experience homelessness, while millions more qualify for federal rental assistance but don’t receive it. Workers earning the federal minimum wage would have to work the equivalent of more than 3 full-time jobs on average to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Nearly half of all renters are cost-burdened, meaning they pay over 30 percent of their income on housing. Meanwhile, the country faces a continuing shortfall in housing stock, with newer construction largely confined to luxury developments rather than affordable apartments or homes.
Fixing this appalling and untenable reality will require a wholesale transformation in how the U.S. government approaches the issue of housing, which for decades upon decades has been handed off to speculators and private real estate developers to extract profit from — all at the expense of the American public. Such a transformative approach was recently put forward by People’s Action, a national progressive coalition of 48 grassroots member organizations, in a plan called A National Homes Guarantee.
The Homes Guarantee stands as a bold and ambitious platform for addressing the growing housing crisis while investing in a clean energy future, healing longtime racial disparities and moving the United States away from a fully private market-dominated system of providing basic shelter. And it offers a model for how 2020 Democratic candidates should construct their own plans for dealing with the housing crisis.
Among the policies laid out in the Homes Guarantee are plans to build 12 million units of social housing (homes and apartments provided outside of the private market) and to pursue large-scale investments in retrofitting and revamping existing public housing. The plan also calls for expansive protections for renters, including universal rent control and a national tenant bill of rights, reparations for communities of color stripped of wealth due to a legacy of racist housing policies and an end to speculation and commodification of housing.
The Homes Guarantee is predicated on the basic idea that everyone, regardless of background or station in life, is deserving of adequate housing as a right. In this way, it’s similar to the type of federal jobs guarantee that’s been diagramed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — and subsequently embraced by a number of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates — which would provide employment to all who want it. But the Homes Guarantee also goes a step further, calling for the wholesale de-commodification of housing in the United States.
Cea Weaver, a member of the Homes Guarantee policy team, tells In These Times the market fails to provide basic housing to those who need it. “The private housing market functions on a model of extraction, and when policy is designed to boost private profits, it inevitably fails to meet the needs of the people, who increasingly can’t afford the rent,” she explains.
Indeed, a system predicated on reaping wealth out of physical space is ensured to propel inequality and lavish benefits on the wealthy who can afford to gobble up real estate and then sit on it as it accumulates value, regardless of how many people are forced to go without shelter. The outsized role of finance capital in determining housing policy and stock is what led the UN’s special rapporteur for housing, Leilani Farha, to declare in 2017, “Human rights was the first framework to recognize issues like homelessness, forced eviction, displacement, housing issues for refugees … and yet human rights has not caught up with this rapid financialization of housing — and I think we really need to.”
As Marxist geographer David Harvey recently said of housing de-commodification, “Historically that was done with the creation of social housing, where people had non-market residential rights — the right to a home, without having the right to buy and sell it. Under neoliberalism we’ve been told that’s inefficient. But now we know what happens when we instead follow the neoliberal rules.”
In countries such as Austria and Sweden, social housing has long been an effective solution to housing crises, offering those in need homes that are off of the market and therefore stably priced and maintained by the entities that run them, whether municipalities, cooperatives or the federal government.
U.S. cities already massively subsidize private affordable development through tax breaks and direct payments to developers. The type of social housing program laid out in the Homes Guarantee would simply ramp up these investments and put them into 12 million new units over the next 10 years to provide homes to the over 10 million households that are paying over 50 percent of their income on rent. As the platform explains, this target could be met through a combination of nonprofit-owned units, limited-equity cooperatives and community land trusts (nonprofit organizations owned and operated by community members).
In order to stave off climate change and help to reverse its effects, the Homes Guarantee calls for pairing this new construction with firm plans to decarbonize buildings and make them more resilient and efficient — a form of “green social housing.” This would include efforts such as energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, windows and other building materials, while also training workers in green construction and tightening standards for private market construction through the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
As Daniel Aldana Cohen, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and another member of the Homes Guarantee policy team, explains, “It’s precisely through public regulation and public building that we ensure that new homes are net-zero carbon. The choice isn’t more homes or not. It’s private inefficiency, waste and injustice — or equality and sustainability.”
The Homes Guarantee would also reinvest $150 billion over the next five years into the over 1 million public housing units that already exist in the United States, and place a moratorium on the demolition and sale of public housing while ending for-profit management of these units through shifting to a new publicly-owned management company. These units would also be retrofitted to become more energy-efficient while the dilapidated conditions many of them are currently in would be improved.
To address the legacy of deep and structural racial inequity at the heart of the American housing system — from Jim Crow to redlining to “urban renewal” — the Homes Guarantee promises to “provide a degree of restorative justice, accounting for race-based violence in the form of stolen land and wealth.” This would be done through a mix of direct payments to descendants of slaves and those whose property was plundered, cancellation or reduction of debts caused by the 2008 financial crash, housing grants for communities of color and implementation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule in order to undo harms caused by racist housing policies.
The Homes Guarantee platform explains that renters “are far more likely than homeowners to be low-income, far more likely to be people of color, far more likely to have a disability, far more likely to be women.” To protect this group — numbering over 80 million — the platform calls for the government to enact a National Tenants’ Bill of Rights to protect renters from unfair evictions and allow them to organize collectively, establish universal rent control to protect from sudden rent hikes and resulting displacement, and tightly regulate mortgage and lending institutions.
Though some of these proposals may at first glance seem radical, many are already in place across the country. Cities from Chicago to Washington, D.C. already have tenants’ bills of rights in place, though they are not always fully enforced. California just passed a statewide rent control bill, joining other states such as New York and Oregon. And robust public housing has been part of America’s housing infrastructure for decades, though it has faced disinvestment in recent years. The Homes Guarantee expands on these programs in order to provide basic housing to everyone in the United States regardless of where they live.
With the 2020 Democratic primary race heating up, the Homes Guarantee offers candidates a lodestar for how they can approach the issue of housing. Some of the leading candidates have already released plans related to housing, including Elizabeth Warren who so far has put forward the most comprehensive platform.
Warren’s “American Housing and Economic Mobility Act” calls for, among other things, $3.6 billion in new capital funding for public housing authorities, as well as the construction or rehabilitation of up to 3.2 million new units of affordable housing. She says she would invest $2 billion to support those with housing loans who are still recovering from the 2008 financial crash and provide assistance to help low-income communities of color purchase property.
While Bernie Sanders has not yet released a dedicated housing plan, his Green New Deal climate plan goes further than Warren on the issue of creating new housing, calling for the construction of 7.4 million new units of affordable housing. His plan also includes the retrofitting of businesses and low-income homes to become more energy-efficient, as well as public ownership of utility companies.
Joe Biden, meanwhile, has not put forward any plans to invest in new public or affordable housing, though has said he wants to provide a pathway to housing for all formerly incarcerated individuals. He has talked about the importance of increasing energy efficiency of low-income housing, and during his time in the Obama administration, he supported efforts such as housing vouchers and tax credits, which represent a much more timid approach than that proposed in the Homes Guarantee.
Tara Raghuveer, Homes Guarantee Campaign Director for People’s Action, says, “Any serious candidate for president must have a housing agenda that addresses the scale of the crisis and name its perpetrators — Wall Street, corporate landlords and the bipartisan campaign to commodify housing. Candidates should also present plans to end housing insecurity and homelessness. Nothing short of that will do.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is proposing plans that will increase rents for millions of low-income families and establish work requirements to receive assistance, while investing in an “Opportunity Zones” program that the New York Times reports is already profiting oligarchs like Jared Kushner and New York real estate tycoon Richard LeFrak. In this climate, a different direction to address the housing crisis is imperative.
If the UN’s declaration that housing is a human right is to be made manifest in the United States, then a plan at the scale of the Homes Guarantee is exactly what’s needed. With the pivotal 2020 election around the corner, there’s no better time to embrace such a plan than right now.
When you contribute, you're not just giving a gift—you're helping publish the next In These Times story. Will you join your fellow readers, and help fund this work by making a tax-deductible donation today?
Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin