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Sanders Calls for a National Right to Housing

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Today, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his plan to eradicate homelessness, reel in the housing market, and provide a homes guarantee that lives up to Roosevelt's dream, and the dream put forth by grassroots groups like People’s Action.

Forbes - Real Estate

This article was co-authored with Peter Gowan. He is a senior policy associate at the Democracy Collaborative.

The original Bill of Rights, passed in 1791 to amend the Constitution to protect individual rights and freedoms and to provide some Americans civil and political rights. But the original document left out large swaths of the American people, and completely neglected the idea of basic economic rights. In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to correct this massive shortcoming of the Constitution, calling for an expanded Bill of Rights that would recognize economic rights. “Necessitous men,” Roosevelt observes, “are not free men.” Those “who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” Moreover, he said, real freedom, freedom to “pursue happiness,” requires a “second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all.” 

For Roosevelt, full citizenship required not only the political rights enshrined in the original American Bill of Rights but also economic rights, including "The right of every family to a decent home." Unfortunately, the country has failed to deliver a homes guarantee to the people of the United States. Over half a million people - our neighbors, friends, brothers, and sisters - sleep in the streets. Additionally, over 18 million families are paying at least 50 percent of their income towards rent, forcing them to face daunting economic challenges. And it’s not getting better for the next generation either. Millennials are 37 percent less likely to own a home than the GenXers or Baby boomers – the two generations that came before them.

Government has the tools to fix this housing crisis, but instead they've chosen to turn a blind eye, allowing landlords and developers to reap massive profits as the housing crisis continues. Today, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his plan to eradicate homelessness, reel in the housing market, and provide a homes guarantee that lives up to Roosevelt's dream, and the dream put forth by grassroots groups like People’s Action (we both worked on the policy team that helped develop their homes guarantee plan).

The plan calls for the National Housing Trust Fund - a small program which Sanders himself introduced during the last recession - to be massively scaled up to deal with the nation’s sizable shortage of affordable housing. 7.4 million units of permanently affordable housing would be built, acquired or preserved through the expansion of this program; as would 2 million additional new units of mixed-income social housing. These units would be permanently off the speculative private market, guaranteeing stable housing to millions of households. Further, new housing will improve economic security for the communities more broadly by securing local prevailing wages under the Davis-Bacon Act.

Adding to this, the Sanders plan would invest in other transformative interventions in the housing market, including a $50 billion fund to support the expansion of community land trusts - a model for democratic control of land ownership that can create affordable limited-equity homeownership opportunities. Permanent supportive housing would be provided to help end homelessness in America - not by locking them up, as Trump has recently proposed, but by providing homes as well as voluntary support and treatment for those that seek it.

To stabilize the existing private rental sector, a cap on rent increases would be established at 3 percent or 1.5 times the rate of inflation, and a national just cause eviction law would give tenants the right to renew their lease if they did not break the rules. This would give a measure of stability to tenants across the country, many of which face constant threat of losing the place they call home, and would allow greater organizing opportunities by giving tenants legal protection against evictions and retaliatory rent increases. 

Over a million tenants in public housing would receive a much-needed $70 billion in investment funds to promote rehabilitation and maintenance, which would be oriented around our burning need for a Green New Deal. Public housing buildings would be decarbonized and turned into resiliency centers which provide security to residents; and new construction held to the highest standards of energy efficiency and transit accessibility. The Faircloth Amendment would be repealed to allow public housing authorities to expand their existing housing stocks beyond levels from the 1990s, and public agencies would be able to receive Housing Trust Fund dollars to expand their housing stocks, ending a decades-long program of decline and disinvestment from publicly-owned housing.

The new social housing units would benefit from federal preemption of local exclusionary restrictions on land use, allowing for one of the great failures of the New Deal - segregated housing - to be addressed through building a vast quantity of affordable, integrated social homes in exclusionary neighborhoods. A new independent regulator on fair housing would break down the walls of segregation and discrimination in housing.

There’s even more in the plan, but you get the idea: it’s big, it’s bold, and it would fundamentally reshape housing in America. Importantly, a homes guarantee is popular according to polling from YouGov/Democracy Collaborative and Data for Progress

The Sanders plan is not the only plan that has been released - of course, Elizabeth Warren has released a plan to expand the Housing Trust Fund (though not by as much as Sanders) and to incentivize states and cities to eliminate exclusionary zoning laws (though without using direct federal preemption). Kamala Harris has proposed creating a renters’ tax credit that would certainly help with rent cost overburdens for those who receive it - though some legitimately fear expanded subsidies would be captured by landlords. This is a reasonable concern in the absence of rent controls and a competing social housing option, as Sanders proposes.

However, to date there is only one plan which places a floor in the housing market, and under people’s feet, through creating a massive publicly-funded housing production and preservation program while also creating a universal right to rent stabilization; and which invests a large sum of money in protecting over a million households who are already being failed by disinvestment in public housing. The housing market is failing tenants, and like Sen. Sanders says, we need a homes guarantee to ensure that nobody is made homeless or forced to spend over half their income on rent. 

In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, we should be fighting to guarantee homes to everyone.


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