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The high cost of housing emerges as a presidential campaign issue

Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for $500 billion in additional spending on affordable housing.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

For millions of Americans, including many in Greater Boston, housing costs rank with health care, student debt, and taxes when it comes to issues that affect their personal budget.

Unlike those other three, however, housing hasn’t gotten much attention from presidential candidates.

That could be changing. As Democratic hopefuls vie to stand out in a crowded field and appeal to urban voters stressed by rising rents, more candidates are bringing up housing on the campaign trail. Several of them have rolled out plans aimed at tackling problem that’s reaching crisis levels in Boston and other cities.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for $500 billion in additional spending on affordable housing, and Senator Kamala Harris’s plan to offer tax credits for renters and $100 billion to help would-be home buyers in redlined neighborhoods. Senator Cory Booker wants to shift more federal transportation spending to cities that build more housing, while Julian Castro — secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former president Barack Obama — says he would dramatically expand voucher programs for low-income renters. Just last week, Senator Amy Klobuchar joined in, rolling out a housing plan with an range of smaller-bore programs, such as using federal funds to encourage local zoning reform, and ensuring that tenants facing eviction have access to a lawyer.

The Trump administration, too, is signaling plans to move on housing. Last month, it created a White House task force to review zoning rules and other regulations that housing experts across the political spectrum say make it harder to build and cause costs to keep going up.


All this housing talk is welcome by Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, who is long used to seeing her issue largely ignored on the campaign trail. The coalition is hosting housing town halls in Iowa and New Hampshire and hearing a lot from candidates with big ideas about how to make homes more affordable.


“The scale of the solutions being talked about matches the scale of the crisis, which is new,” Yentel said. “For decades, we’ve had politicians wanting to tinker around the edges in housing. These are proposals that want to address it head on.”

The interest, she said, is a reflection of the growing severity of a housing crunch that’s squeezing more and more Americans by the month.

In a June WBUR poll, Boston-area voters listed housing costs as the “most pressing issue” facing the region. Home prices in Massachusetts are at record highs, while a recent study from the coalition found that workers here need to earn $33.81 an hour to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment.

Housing costs have surged even faster in parts of the South and West, putting affordability on the political radar of voters, and candidates, across the country.

“It’s a kitchen-table issue for a lot of Americans,” said Jenny Schuetz, who studies housing policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “Poor families have been struggling with housing for decades. Increasingly, it’s getting to be significant for middle-income families, and younger people. Those are all key constituencies in a Democratic primary.”

In New Hampshire, where candidates are busy stumping for votes in next February’s first-in-the-nation primary, it’s a subject voters are asking about more often.

With a strong economy and relatively little new construction, adequate housing can be hard to find in the Granite State, said Will Stewart, executive director of Stay Work Play NH, which advocates to keep young adults in New Hampshire. When his group polled twenty- and thirtysomethings in 2017 about what issues might cause them to move elsewhere, housing costs led the list. Now, with presidential candidates seeking their votes, those young people want to know how Washington might help them to afford a home in New Hampshire.


“It’s certainly something you’re going to hear young people talk about with candidates,” Stewart said.

But it’s not as if the housing issue has overshadowed immigration or health care on the campaign trail. Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action New Hampshire, was frustrated with the first round of Democratic debates. During four hours of talking over two nights, the issue was barely mentioned.

“They say they’re going to address pocketbook issues. They go right to health care and child care,” Margolin said. “Those are certainly concerns, but home is the foundation. Fifty percent of people in New Hampshire’s rental market are cost-burdened, paying too much.”

That sentiment is shared by Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. He worked unsuccessfully last year to push housing onto the agenda of the state’s gubernatorial race between Governor Charlie Baker and his challenger, Jay Gonzalez. While Kriesberg said he’s been impressed with Baker’s effort on housing since he won reelection, during the campaign Baker paid little heed to the subject. Kriesberg said that might have been because possible solutions to the state’s housing crisis are complex, and not necessarily popular.


“It’s an issue that doesn’t lend itself to easy bumper stickers,” he said. “I suppose you could just say ‘Housing for all,’ like people say ‘Health care for all.’ But we don’t.”

That raises the worry that, as the 2020 presidential race inevitably shifts from cozy New Hampshire coffee hours to the expected street fight between President Trump and the Democrats’ nominee, a complex, nuanced issue like housing affordability will once again fade into the background.

But Margolin, at least, is hopeful that won’t happen. She believes the crushing weight of housing costs is something that will remain in the forefront for many voters, all the way to November 2020.

“Things are happening,” she said. “We’re finally talking about this.”

Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.