Policy Points: What the Presidential Candidates Said on Housing

Published by Peter Lawrence on Sunday, November 1, 2015
Journal thumb November 2015

Every four years, there are certain issues that get a lot of attention from presidential candidates, especially in the retail politicking states of Iowa, where the nation’s first presidential caucuses are held, and New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary election. Given that almost two-thirds of the nation’s population owns their own home–even a higher percentage in Iowa (72.2 percent) and New Hampshire (71.4 percent)–many presidential candidates generally perceive such homeowners to be safely housed. And given that renters are generally perceived to be an uncertain voting bloc in much of the country and thus many candidates don’t feel compelled to draft proposals to attract them, housing–homeownership and rental housing–has rarely been featured in presidential candidate stump speeches, policy papers, and campaign platforms, especially early in the campaign.

The 2016 campaign is no different: housing hasn’t been getting a lot of attention on the campaign trail. Neither the first two Republican debates in Cleveland and Simi Valley, Calif., nor the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas brought up the issue of housing.

Recognizing this, the affordable housing community realized that it needed to take the conversation to the candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. While a planned housing policy event in Iowa was unfortunately postponed due to scheduling concerns, the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families sponsored a housing summit Oct. 16 at the Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., that included discussions with seven presidential candidates (in order of appearance): former Gov. Martin O’Malley, D-Md., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.; Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J.; former Gov. George Pataki, R-N.Y.; former Gov. Jim Gilmore, R-Va.; and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. This event, the first of its kind in a presidential campaign in memory, provided an opportunity to get the candidates thinking about housing as a key domestic policy concern while meeting with potential primary voters as cameras rolled. The candidates discussed the challenges of buying a home to the rising cost burden of renters, among other issues. See below for key highlights from their housing remarks.

Former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland

The main headline from Gov. O’Malley was his pledge to double the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) as part of his “Agenda for American Cities and Communities.” He also called for Congress to expand funding for Section 8 housing choice vouchers, especially for extremely low-income families who need rental assistance the most. O’Malley argued his proposals would “put a little gas in the tank of American cities” and help mayors “do what is needed” to tackle housing problems at the local level.

When asked about housing finance reform and the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, O’Malley argued against privatizing Fannie and Freddie along the lines of the bill sponsored by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. Instead, O’Malley appeared to support reform similar to the Johnson-Crapo housing finance reform bill that passed the Senate Banking Committee last year, but failed to advance further.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina

During his time in the House more than a decade ago, Graham cosponsored a bill championed by former Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., that increased LIHTC allocations by 40 percent and voted for legislation sponsored by former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., that created the new markets tax credit (NMTC). Both of these bills were eventually enacted in the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000.

More recently and indeed in his opening remarks, Sen. Graham admitted that housing was not a top priority. However, he commented on the housing needs of low-income seniors–homeowners and renters, and suggested that Congress need to take action to address them. The best way to do that, Graham argued, was through public-private partnerships that combine private capital with a limited amount of government money. The LIHTC is the nation’s premier example of public-private partnerships.

However, Graham also noted that the nation’s fiscal condition was limiting how much government funding will be available and stressed the importance of getting the budget in balance before being able to significantly increase housing subsidies. He also suggested that Congress could reprioritize current housing spending by improving targeting in homeownership and rental assistance.

Former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas

Gov. Huckabee first got attention from housing advocates when he mentioned the need for affordable housing at his campaign launch several months ago, specifically calling out Habitat for Humanity as an organization that deserved more support, an unusually specific and ground-breaking remark for an inaugural campaign speech.

However, since then, he has followed up with a more specific housing policy platform. When asked why housing is not addressed in presidential debates, Huckabee noted that it wasn’t an issue that sharply divided the candidates and thus didn’t provide good debate material. He also admitted that voters living in gated communities don’t understand the problem. Furthermore, the poorest Americans in need of affordable housing don’t have a lobbyist to advocate for them. Huckabee main housing policy proposal was to lower taxes and cut government red tape that raise housing costs for everyone, homebuyers and low-income renters alike.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey

Gov. Christie noted that he leads the most densely populated state in the nation, which often pits developers against environmentalists, making consensus on affordable housing solutions hard to achieve. Despite this, he asserted he has been successful in incentivizing mixed-income development in urban areas and appeared to endorse inclusionary zoning where developers agree to include a portion of affordable units in market-rate developments. At the same time, he also criticized a New Jersey Supreme Court decision prohibiting policies that exclude affordable housing in certain communities as micromanaging the problem and this year’s Supreme Court fair housing opinion, which he argued would make mixed-use development in inner cities more difficult.

To further demonstrate his record of achievement on housing, he cited his productive relationship with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This relationship was brought about as a result of Hurricane Sandy and the disaster CDBG assistance that helped address the loss of “365,000 homes in 24 hours” that occurred from the storm. In turn, Christie argued that his good relationship with HUD has also helped with advancing Section 8 housing issues in his state.

If elected, Christie said he would shift federal housing policy to “focus the benefits on the people who need it the most. I want to be practical, and we’re not building affordable housing quickly enough.”

Former Republican Gov. George Pataki of New York

When asked about the most significant roadblock to developing affordable housing, Gov. Pataki argued, “The biggest single impediment to is that there is a conflict those who believe the government should do everything and those of us who believe that the housing problem should be resolved by the private sector.” He said that the government “should not tell landlords to lower rents,” but instead “lower the tax burden so the landlords will be able to lower rents.”

Pataki’s housing policy proposals focused on streamlining most federal, state and local housing regulations. He specifically pledged to reverse HUD’s fair housing regulations if elected. On housing finance reform, Pataki said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were the main part of the problem during the housing crisis and should be reformed.

Former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia

Instead of housing-specific proposals, Gov. Gilmore focused his remarks on growing the economy and creating jobs. Similar to Huckabee’s remarks, he appeared to suggest that if the federal government lowered taxes and reduced regulations to promote growth, people will get higher-paying jobs and be able to affordable housing. Gilmore briefly touched on housing finance reform, calling for more private capital involvement, and appearing to argue for shutting down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. However, he appeared to be open to some government involvement in guaranteeing mortgages as long as a stronger case is made.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky

Similar to Sen. Graham, Sen. Paul argued for balancing the federal budget as one of his main motivations for running for president, and the nation’s debt was crushing Americans. Therefore, cutting spending–presumably including housing spending–was one of his top priorities. However, he was open a role for government to help provide a “housing safety net” for the poorest Americans.Paul also noted his proposal to create tax-free zones for poor communities–urban and rural–to incentivize private capital to flow into those communities to create jobs and businesses. Such a proposal is similar in concept to the NMTC.

What’s Next?

This unique housing policy summit bringing several presidential candidates together to talk about housing was worthwhile and gives the affordable housing community an opportunity to press the case with presidential candidates while campaigning for votes in two crucial states and while their campaign platforms are still being formed. However, it bears mentioning that the leading candidates in both parties–Republicans Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush; and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders–did not attend the event, nor sent any campaign staff to present their positions. Indeed, these candidates have essentially not brought up housing on stump or in any of their policy papers. There still is the Iowa event to be rescheduled and more debates on the calendar. Here’s hoping that the leading candidates follow the lead of the seven who showed up in Manchester to develop a housing platform to address the nation’s housing needs.