Opinion: The Crushing Cost Of Rent Should Be 2020’s Big Issue

Since 1960, renters’ incomes have increased by only 5% while rents have risen 61%. Whoever wants to be president should say how they’ll solve this crisis.

It’s hard to remember the last time affordable rents received consistent national attention, but the tide is finally turning. In recent months, prominent presidential contenders — Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren — have proposed ambitious solutions, and are speaking substantively about the issue on the campaign trail. They shouldn’t be alone in this: According to the numbers, all 2020 presidential hopefuls would be wise to make it a top-tier priority.

The vast majority of the public — a full 85% — believe that ensuring everyone has a safe, decent, affordable place to live should be a “top national priority,” according to a recent national poll commissioned by the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign. This view is strong across the political spectrum — from 95% of Democrats to 87% of independents and 73% of Republicans. Eight in ten people also say that both the President and Congress should “take major action” to make housing more affordable for low-income households.

Those aren’t the only eye-opening figures. The poll showed 60% say housing affordability is a serious problem where they live, which is up an astounding 21 points since 2016 — and that includes majorities in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. And 61% of people reported having to make at least one sacrifice in the past three years because they were struggling with housing costs, such as cutting back on learning activities for their child, nutritious food, or health care.

Those people aren’t imagining things: The affordability crisis has indeed reached historic heights, and the data is shocking. Since 1960, renters’ incomes have increased by only 5% while rents have risen 61%. Out of over 3,000 counties in the nation, there are only 22 where a full-time worker earning minimum wage can afford a modest one-bedroom rental, and there are no counties where they can afford a modest two-bedroom. Nationally, there are only 37 available and affordable homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. When it comes to being able to pay your rent in America, hard work simply isn’t enough anymore.

People are feeling the squeeze, and they are expecting solutions. Eighty-two percent of the public thinks it’s important for elected leaders to address housing affordability, and 83% agree that elected officials aren’t paying enough attention to the cost of housing and the need for more affordable housing. And 76% said they are more likely to vote for candidates who have detailed plans for making housing more affordable.

Strong majorities, on a bipartisan basis, support concrete policy solutions, such as expanding funding for rental assistance, ensuring assisted families with young children can live in safe neighborhoods with good schools and job prospects, giving renters a tax break like homeowners currently get, expanding investments in housing development programs, and providing emergency crisis assistance to the lowest income households to help cover rent.

Opportunity Starts at Home has published a playbook for policymakers who want to work on this. The campaign has called for a major expansion of rental assistance through vouchers or a tax credit and substantial investments in the national Housing Trust Fund to increase the supply of housing affordable to the lowest-income people. It has also proposed creating a National Housing Stabilization Fund that would provide emergency financial assistance to ensure housing stability and prevent homelessness for poor households experiencing an unexpected economic hardship, such as a job loss or medical issues.

All 2020 presidential hopefuls should prioritize housing affordability and, if they have not done so already, develop a serious plan to solve the problem. The public, without question, is giving them an unprecedented mandate for action. And in addition to being good politics, it’s also smart policy. When people have stable affordable homes, they’re healthier; they’re more likely to escape poverty and climb the income ladder; they can more readily access areas with greater career opportunities, which, in turn, helps drive economic growth; they’re less hungry; and their kids perform better in school.

At a time when Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on much of anything, the issue of housing affordability can be a much-needed unifier. People from all walks of life are increasingly concerned about the lack of housing they can afford; they know it most negatively impacts low-income people; they see how it spills over into other areas of life; and they are looking for an energetic response from the federal government.

Mike Koprowski is the national director of the Opportunity Starts at Home campaign, chaired by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

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