The platforms of the two major political parties are a good barometer of the prevailing sentiments of the base of activists in each party. Public opinion polls, on the other hand, provide a broader measure of public attitudes, especially in regard to the nation's attitudes to housing.
The 2016 platforms and recent public-opinion surveys demonstrate that housing affordability, particularly the rising cost of rental homes, has moved to the forefront of national concerns. For far too many, housing has become a source of stress rather than one of stability. The challenge now is to channel these anxieties into concrete policy responses that can help improve the lives of millions of Americans.
Let’s start with the party platforms.
It is very significant that the 2016 Republican platform explicitly recognizes the pernicious impact of high rental-cost burdens. It states: "More than six million households had to move from homeownership to renting [as a result of the Great Recession]. Rental costs escalated so that today nearly 12 million families spend more than 50% of their incomes just on rent.”
The platform then directly links the declining national homeownership rate with rising rents: “The national homeownership rate has sharply fallen and the rate for minority households and young adults has plummeted. So many remain unemployed or underemployed, and for the lucky ones with jobs, rising rents make it harder to save for a mortgage.”
In response to these developments, the platform proposes a review of regulatory policies that may contribute to higher-than-necessary housing costs: "We call for a comprehensive review of federal regulations, especially those dealing with the environment, that make it harder and more costly for Americans to rent, buy, or sell homes."
The 2016 Democratic platform also highlights the real-life consequences of rising housing costs: “Democrats will…combat the affordable housing crisis and skyrocketing rents in many parts of the country that are leading too many families and workers to be pushed out of communities where they work.”
The platform then calls for the implementation of a comprehensive suite of supply-side and demand-side solutions: “We will increase the supply of affordable rental housing by expanding incentives and easing local barriers to building new affordable rental housing developments in areas of economic opportunity. We will substantially increase funding for the National Housing Trust Fund to construct, preserve, and rehabilitate millions of affordable housing rental units….We will reinvigorate housing production programs, repair public housing, and increase funding for the housing choice voucher program and other rental assistance programs.”
There is plenty of common ground here: Both platforms recognize the unsustainable nature of today’s rental-cost burdens. They acknowledge some of the externalities of rising rents – a lower homeownership rate because it’s more difficult to save for a mortgage down payment and the dislocation of families who are forced by high rents to move to lower-opportunity communities. They also hint at solutions that can draw bipartisan support. Both platforms, for example, recognize how regulatory policies can act as barriers to new affordable housing production.
Add to this mix a new national poll by Ipsos Public Affairs conducted on behalf of the Make Room campaign. According to the poll, 59% of those surveyed say that housing affordability is a key issue for them, while 47% indicate they had personally struggled to pay their rent or mortgage in the last 12 months, or knew someone who has been in this situation.
In addition, the poll found that 76% of Americans who are likely to vote in the 2016 presidential election are more likely to support candidates who make housing affordability a focus of their campaigns and a priority in government. Most Democrats felt this way as well as significant percentages of Republicans (55%) and Independents (78%).
These results echo the findings of other polls that have attempted to assess the role that affordable housing might play in this year’s presidential election.
Although we are still more than 100 days out from Election Day, a lifetime in politics, all indications are that we are in the midst of a hotly-contested presidential race. As political prognosticator Nate Silver put it, “it’s a close election right now.” Needless to say, it would behoove each candidate to elevate affordable housing, a subject about which we have heard too little, as we head into the final stretch of the campaign.
Whatever the outcome in November, it will be time to transition from polls, party platforms, and presidential politics to the hard work of policymaking. Fortunately, as evidenced in the platforms and polls, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that housing affordability deserves a place at the top of our nation’s agenda.