Opinion: We Have A Housing Crisis In Big Cities, And Democrats Need To Solve It

Young, diverse urban communities are worst hit by the housing crisis. Democrats must make it an issue of national urgency.

Growing up in a single-wide trailer in a small rural California town, I had a modest dream: to one day live in a wooden home of my own, complete with a staircase. After 20 years of renting, I was finally able to make that dream come true here in Oakland, thanks to years of hard work and a lot of luck.

But despite their unending work and grit, too many others in my state and country are blocked from accessing stable and affordable housing. Luck, or how much money you make, should never determine whether you have a roof over your head. And yet today, in the fast-growing big cities that drive our economy, we’ve clung to exclusionary policies that largely cater to the needs of wealthy, predominantly white, single-family homeowners.

It’s long past time to rid our communities of these failed policies. Teachers, first responders, restaurant workers, seniors, students, artists, and activists are all finding themselves increasingly excluded from thriving urban centers. Here in California, where I am running for the State Assembly, we have produced fewer new homes per person than any other state in the US, resulting in a shortfall of 2 million homes.

More and more Americans of all ages — particularly those under 35 and in black and Latinx communities — are now renting homes because they can’t afford to buy. It makes them more vulnerable to unfair rent hikes or evictions, and it excludes them from one of our country’s most proven methods of building generational wealth.

To fix this crisis, we desperately need to create more housing across the board. And we need to do it yesterday.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are at the bleeding edge of this housing crisis. Those who have owned and rented homes here for generations — especially communities of color — are threatened at new levels by displacement and eviction, and we see the resulting homelessness crisis everywhere. It’s hard to walk down the street without seeing someone who is living and sleeping where no person should have to live or sleep: on the sidewalk, in a park, under the freeway, in a car, or in a dilapidated building with no heat.

The enormity of our crisis has fueled new levels of political activism among our young people, with groups like East Bay for Everyone rallying behind a singular progressive goal: Build more housing and build it now, because everyone deserves a home.

It’s time for all our progressive legislators, in all levels of government, to heed this cry in words and concrete action. And it’s long past time for Democrats — a party whose political fortunes rely in large part on the young, diverse urban communities worst hit by the housing crisis — to make housing an issue of national urgency. We can own this conversation, but first we need a clear political vision of what a progressive housing policy looks like.

As a progressive Democrat, I believe everyone has a fundamental right to stable and affordable housing, and that it is squarely on our government to help all people access this right. My housing plan, created in consultation with affordable housing advocates, housing justice leaders, and policy experts, proposes to use every tool we have to create new homes for low- and middle-income residents. This means supporting new transit-oriented housing — building around our transit stations empowers us to grow in a smart, environmentally friendly way. It means working with diverse stakeholders every step of the way to expand renter rights and fight displacement of our low-income community members. And it means fixing our restrictive land use policies to make more homes possible and create more opportunities for new affordable housing projects.

New housing need not — and must not — come at the expense of our current renters. Due to gentrification pressures and skyrocketing demand, displacement is far too real a threat for too many of our renters. We must design all our housing policies with this in mind. The fact is, whether or not we build more housing, people are going to keep moving into big cities — and without creating more homes, it is low-income communities and communities of color who will be at the highest risk of displacement. This doesn’t have to be an either/or situation: By increasing our housing stock across the board, with an emphasis on new affordable units, and simultaneously passing stronger renter protections, we can create a California model for housing that the rest of the country could follow.

What would these renter protections look like? At the federal level, Sen. Kamala Harris has proposed to expand the Renter’s Tax Credit — we need to get this done, and enact similar state-level policies to get desperately needed dollars to low-income renters. We should be implementing anti-gouging rent caps, and in California, we need to reform the Costa–Hawkins law, which limits rent control. And every renter should have access to free legal counsel if faced with unfair eviction — we should be looking nationally to model programs like the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act pilot, which helped 94% of its low-income Californian participants avoid eviction.

I’m running for state assembly because I want to enact bold housing reforms that reverse our shameful history of housing discrimination and redlining, and make safe and quality housing accessible for all. The need we’re facing throughout California and our nation, and the obstacles that Trump’s right-wing policies present, are formidable — but we won’t let that stop us. I believe that with the right mix of progressive policies, organizing power, and political will, we can — and must — ensure that every person in this country has access to a place to call home.

Buffy Wicks is a Democratic candidate running for District 15 in the California State Assembly.

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