Affordable housing isn't an issue getting a lot of attention in presidential campaign advertisements, on cable news or on the debate stage. But it is a topic with relevance to New Hampshire, a state with an incredibly tight rental market and a shortage of affordable housing options.
NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with reporter Todd Bookman about the proposals put forward by Democratic primary candidates.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity)
Set us up a bit, here, Todd. What is the housing market like right now?
Well for renters, it is exceptionally tight right now. The vacancy rate, statewide, is less than 1%. That lack of availability drives up prices, with recent data showing that rents are up about 20% compared to five years ago.
Homeowners, meanwhile, who have been in their house for a while have seen their value steadily rise. That’s of course a good thing for them. But in New Hampshire, the median home price right now is close to $300,000. For many first-time buyers looking for a starter home, there are just fewer and fewer options
We’ve seen this lack of affordable housing flare up as a local political issue. Just last month, Gov. Chris Sununu took a dig at Bedford, where some residents are opposing the construction of large multi-family units. But we aren’t hearing much about affordable housing on the presidential campaign trail...
That’s true. On domestic issues, the Democratic candidates have spent significant energy rolling out and debating health care, and economic issues including inequality and tax policy, while housing has taken a back seat.
Some people see that as a political misstep. I spoke with Jackie Weatherspoon, a former state representative and leader of the N.H. Democratic Party's African American Caucus. She’s advising candidates to talk more about affordable housing on the stump, arguing that it will resonate.
“Young people cannot afford housing. Most people can’t afford housing,” said Weatherspoon. “So, if [candidates] are not talking about housing...and you say, well, that’s not a New Hampshire issue, I’d beg to differ.”
So that’s Weatherspoon’s perspective. And while most candidates aren’t bringing housing issues front and center, nearly all the candidates have released affordable housing plans.
So give us an overview: what are the 2020 candidates proposing?
Nearly all the Democrats are on record supporting more federal government spending.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and many others support expanding Section 8 housing vouchers. It’s a program where demand has long outpaced the actual money available.
Most candidates are also calling for massive spending projects to construct more low income units, arguing that more supply would help drive down rental prices and meet demand.
Any more ‘out of the box’ ideas?
Well Sanders wants to cap annual rent increases at 3%, though there would be some exclusions. That’s not going to be popular with landlords
Sen. Cory Booker is pitching a Renters Tax Credit that would make people paying more than 30% of their income on rent eligible for a tax deduction. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is promoting something called ‘UP Accounts,’ a portable personal savings account that could be used on rent during a lapse in earnings.
And nearly all the candidates are talking about zoning. That’s at the centerpiece of Andrew Yang’s housing platform: trying to limit the use of minimum lot sizes or requiring large developments to have a dedicated portion of units set aside for low-income people.
Zoning, though, is essentially a local control issue. So how can changes be made from the federal level?
Some of the 2020 Democrats want to use a carrot and stick approach. Candidates like Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Rep. John Delaney want to use grant programs as a way to entice municipalities to reform their zoning laws. Tom Steyer is proposing a plan to increase affordable housing developments close to transportation hubs as a way to better design communities
And while yes, local officials and local zoning boards generally get final say, there’s a belief by some that the federal government can and should play a larger role. That the NIMBY--Not In My Backyard--obstacles to building more housing needs reform.