By any measure, the troubling conditions in housing — soaring rents, a plummeting national homeownership rate, and a shortage of affordable housing for our nation’s seniors — should be a top-tier issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Yet, so far this primary season, the word “housing” has barely passed the lips of the presidential candidates of either party. That is, until last week, when seven candidates took time out of their campaign schedules to attend the day-long Housing Summit at the Saint Anselm College New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
The J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families, the organizer of the Summit, is committed to elevating housing to the top of the national policy agenda. We believe that ensuring broad access to decent, affordable homes is a prerequisite for a strong economy and a more prosperous America.
Judging by the great turnout and extensive media coverage (including a front-page, above-the-fold story appearing in the New Hampshire Sunday News, the Granite State’s largest-circulation daily newspaper), it looks like we have taken a major step forward in making housing a more central issue in the presidential campaign.
Of course, nothing important ever gets done in a day. Ensuring that housing gets the attention it deserves in the campaign will require sustained pressure from the housing community and concerned citizens everywhere.
I happen to believe that putting forth a plan to improve housing affordability and access would be a smart policy move for any presidential candidate. But a recent poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center demonstrates it can also pay valuable political dividends.
According to the poll, 88% of New Hampshire adults believe that housing affordability is a problem, with 34% considering it a “very serious” problem and 40% a “moderate” one. Included in that 88% are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, as well as individuals with low annual incomes and those making more than $100,000 each year.
Strikingly, 82% of those polled agree it has become much more challenging for younger people to become homeowners in New Hampshire because of issues like student loan debt and tougher mortgage standards.
In addition, 75% of New Hampshire adults say the presidential candidates should focus on housing, while 35% indicate they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who put forth a specific plan to address housing affordability.
This last figure – 35% – is particularly important. In a crowded field of many candidates where the margin of victory can amount to a percentage point or two, housing can be the issue that propels one to the top.
Unfortunately, what’s happening in New Hampshire is being replicated across the country.
Nationally, a record number of renters — nearly 21 million — pay in excess of 30% of their gross incomes on rents, according to Zillow. A shortage of affordable rental homes, combined with growing demand, is a major factor contributing to rising rents. Very often, the elderly who live on fixed incomes are hurt the most.
At the same time, the national homeownership rate has dropped to a level not seen since the 1960s. Millions of young adults, burdened with student loan debt and unable to save for a mortgage down payment because of rising rents, are effectively shut out of the homeownership market. The gains in homeownership among minority families have largely vanished.
Standing behind these statistics are real people. One of these individuals is Flo Silva, an 89-year old widow who lives in a manufactured home in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Flo is having trouble making her land lease payments and has repeatedly applied for government-subsidized senior housing without success. The situation has become so stressful for Flo that she says tearfully, “I am glad I’m on my way out.”
Flo attended the Summit last week and is one of the subjects of a heart-wrenching video on the housing situation in New Hampshire.
Polls are one thing.
But it is people like Flo who provide the best reason to make affordable housing a concern of the highest priority.