Elizabeth Warren Speaking

Senator Elizabeth Warren addresses crowds outside the Capitol protesting the GOP health bill on July 26th, 2016.

Even Republicans are trying to steal her thunder.

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has over twenty detailed plans to address nearly everything from college debt to paid family leave. In the Bay Area, her plan to tackle soaring housing costs has drawn particular enthusiasm from local activists. The erstwhile presidential candidate has surged in the polls lately, leapfrogging over progressive darling Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to lately polling second behind former Vice President Joe Biden. While seldom addressed directly on the campaign trail, Warren’s one-two punch on housing—tackling deeply entrenched segregation and monopoly power fueling high prices, while seeking to redistribute wealth to lift working households out of poverty—has proved key to her popularity among some Democratic circles in the Bay Area.

A recent rally at Oakland’s Laney College campus drew over six thousand supporters, including volunteers with the housing advocacy group East Bay For Everyone, which this author used to volunteer with before working in journalism. With outspoken support for rent control and vacancy taxes, East Bay For Everyone has established itself firmly on the left-wing vanguard of the burgeoning YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement, which emphasizes increasing housing supply in expensive metro regions.  

Warren’s Housing and Economic Mobility Act pairs increased subsidies for low-income housing and down payment assistance with incentives to roll back exclusionary zoning regulations at the state and local level, a key YIMBY policy goal. It’s a rallying cry that has become so popular, even congressional Republicans and the Trump administration are now using similar language, albeit with markedly different goals.

Ernest Brown, a co-executive of East Bay For Everyone, said he was “impressed by Warren’s power analysis” that addressed racism both in subprime mortgage lending and redlining practices along with local density restrictions. “On housing, this means acknowledging things like the destructive bidding war to buy into ‘good’ school districts, and the chronic shortage of homes that are leaving families across the income spectrum feeling worse off,” Brown said.

While efforts to overrule local density restrictions stalled in the California legislature earlier this year, momentum on the housing affordability issue keeps growing in the national sphere. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), housing is unaffordable for minimum-wage workers in 99 percent of all counties in the United States. The national nonprofit launched the Our Homes, Our Votes 2020 campaign to push the issue to the fore of the presidential election, and elicited support from at least one other presidential hopeful: former San Antonio mayor and Federal Housing & Urban Development secretary Julian Castro.

Castro’s plan goes further than Warren’s in many ways, proposing to make Section 8 rent vouchers a mandatory entitlement program, like Social Security, and establishing a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform to study density restrictions across the country.

That commission in particular was “music to my ears,” according to Jenny Schuetz, a policy analyst at the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institute.

Schuetz, a longtime advocate for overhauling exclusionary zoning, cautioned that Warren’s plan to reward city governments for zoning reform with special grants may not provide enough incentive for the wealthiest local governments to desegregate. “My guess is that even a new pot of funds wouldn’t tempt the richest, most exclusionary places,” Schuetz said. “Atherton or Rancho Palos Verdes would almost surely rather forego federal funding for new parks than build apartments.”

Conversely, Republicans are making similar gestures, but the same experts generally regard them as mere NIMBY wolves clothed in YIMBY rhetoric.

Not one to be outdone, President Trump signed an executive order on June 25 establishing a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing, to be chaired by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. While some of the regulatory barriers had been previously criticized from the left by the Obama Administration, housing advocates were alarmed by the announcement, given Carson’s record of dismantling fair housing policies and pursuing mass evictions of Section 8 tenants. NLHIC Executive Director Dianne Yentel noted that Carson had earlier bemoaned that HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule would “fundamentally change the nature of some communities from primarily single-family to largely apartment-based areas.”

“This council isn’t a change of heart from these classic NIMBY sentiments,” Yentel said in a statement; “it’s an attempt to achieve large-scale deregulation while distracting from other efforts to exacerbate the housing crisis.”

This dynamic is only compounded by the so-called YIMBY Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), which would tie existing Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding to reviews of local land use policies. While critics note that targeting existing block grantfunding would only further harm poorer communities, while wealthier communities do not always receive CDBG funds, the bill—to those critics’ relief and chagrin—provides no enforcement mechanism per se. Rather, per Young’s office: “it does not tell localities what policies to implement, it simply requires them to detail their rationale for choosing not to cut harmful land use regulations.”

Henry Kraemer, a housing policy fellow at the progressive Data For Progress think tank, scoffed: “Low-income communities are already relatively dense, and this bill doesn’t do anything about the actual exclusionary communities driving the crisis-level housing shortage,” he said. “All Young is trying to do here is throw gasoline on the NIMBY-YIMBY flames coming out of San Francisco to distract from the myriad ways Republicans are picking working people’s pockets.”

Mike Kingsella, Executive Director of the DC-based Up For Growth Action, agreed that CDBG incentives were ill-suited for tackling the most exclusionary localities, but nevertheless found the bill “encouraging,” as a sign that both parties are starting to engage on the issue at the federal level.

Kingsella explained that the bill did not cut CDBG funding, but that it “simply creates transparency” by requiring a report on land-use policies as a condition of receiving that funding. “While not comprehensive, this bill represents a needed step in the right direction,” he said. “Without accountability, local governments most certainly will not put a spotlight on their own exclusionary zoning practices, which until now have largely gone unnoticed and underreported.” 

Initially, fellow candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) had earlier proposed a more problematic incentive, withholding funds from Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) until cities reform their zoning regulations. But Schuetz noted that larger and poorer cities typically rely on CDBG funds far more than wealthy suburbs, and Booker’s newer proposal corrects for that by tying zoning reform to federal highway funding, which greatly broadens the scope of the incentive. 

Kraemer agreed with Schuetz’s concerns in his analysis. “When spread across the country, $10 billion in incentive block grants may simply not be enough to compel communities to confront their powerful NIMBY elements,” Kraemer wrote. But Kraemer reserved praise for Warren’s efforts toward structural reform in contrast to presidential competitor U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the former San Francisco District Attorney whose Rent Relief Act proposes an annual tax credit for renters that “does not address the root causes of soaring rents,” and, to Kraemer’s grave concern, may perversely incentivize landlords to raise rents further.

Simply throwing more money at the problem, in other words, without addressing the severe shortage of housing and entrenched monopoly power of property owners, is a non-starter across Democratic policy circles. But ultimately any plan to address housing affordability in the United States will have to confront a key paradox: it’s increasingly difficult to guarantee that housing remains affordable when federal policy has designated homeownership as the ideal asset for developing middle-class wealth—a policy goal implemented in previous decades within an explicit framework of racial segregation.

Kraemer, who also advocated for doubling Warren’s proposed $470 billion investment in the Housing Trust Fund to house extremely low-income households, is a Portland-based activist who also supported Oregon’s landmark rent control legislation—which curiously, puts him at odds with other supporters of Warren’s plan.

“I’m not a fan of rent control,” said Brookings’  Schuetz; “but I’m also not a fan of states pre-empting the range of housing/financial tools available to local government.” Schuetz pointed to strengths in Warren’s proposal to ban state preemption of local rent stabilization policies: “Most large states have pretty diverse housing markets across their cities, so trying to set statewide rent changes is likely to screw up at least some local housing markets,” she said.

Rent control has been particularly fraught in California, and after the failure of Proposition 10 in 2018 and significant watering-down of an anti-gouging rent cap in the legislature this year, it appears a steeper climb than ever. Nevertheless, Warren’s bullish stance on systemic housing reform rather than tinkering on the edges has united polar opposites within Bay Area democratic circles that have otherwise clashed.

Steven Buss, an activist with the pro-density group Mission YIMBY, said he identifies as “neoliberal” and seldom agrees with the democratic socialism of Sanders voters, but found much to praise in Warren’s housing plan. “While her pandering to protectionism on free trade is concerning, there’s no question Warren has the best housing platform,” he said. “She wants to fix the core problems, namely a lack of housing supply by liberalizing zoning codes to let the market produce middle class housing; help working class people with solutions like subsidized affordable housing for low-income families and down-payment assistance for historically disenfranchised communities; and traditional Democratic-style policies like a new grant program to incentivize cities to build more housing.”

Oliver Zhu, a Bernie Sanders supporter who formerly chaired the Housing Working Group for the Democratic Socialist of America’s Silicon Valley chapter, came from a starkly different perspective, yet largely agreed on the merits of Warren’s proposals. Zhu is a longtime advocate for rent control and canvassed in his hometown of San Jose for Proposition 10, but shares other Democrats’ concerns on the overall shortage of housing supply.

“It’s surprisingly comprehensive and tackles a lot of the biggest issues with why our housing system is unjust,” Zhu said.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Warren’s broad and ambitious proposal has found supporters amid otherwise rivaling factions of California Democrats. Ranking first in the nation for poverty when accounting for housing costs and 49th in the nation in new housing construction, voters increasingly support stronger centralized reforms in housing policy. A new UC Berkeley poll commissioned by the Los Angeles Times found that support for state oversight over local governments to require more housing construction reached 51% of surveyed voters, though no specific policy received majority support. After arduous negotiations with powerful real estate interest groups, California’s State Assembly narrowly passed a cap on rent increases at 7 percent plus inflation—but Sen. Warren has asserted that her plan would reduce rents nationwide by 10 percent.

While Sacramento was roundly lambasted for inaction by leading newspapers and activists, Warren’s popularity has only grown. This evidence indicates that California Democratic voters, with little to lose and much to gain, are betting big on political platforms that broadly but directly address wanton poverty and corruption—and housing presents particularly fertile ground for reform.

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