How Cities Address the Housing Crisis, and Why It’s Not Enough

It’s a simple idea: Everyone should have a place to live. But we are failing badly at this most basic of goals, in every part of the country.

In Brooklyn and Minneapolis, where we are city council members, skyrocketing prices push families out of the neighborhoods where they’ve lived for years. It’s impossible for young people to find a place to rent, much less own. Homelessness is at record levels, and in cities like Detroit, as many as one in five renters face eviction, part of a nationwide eviction epidemic.

As members of Local Progress, a national network of progressive elected officials from cities and other local governments across the country, on Thursday we began a three-day convening in Durham, North Carolina, to address these issues that are infiltrating more and more cities.  

Seventy years ago, the Housing Act of 1949 set the goal “of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American,” but it has been decades since Washington was of any real help on affordable housing.

In the gap created by federal inaction, local elected officials have been taking the lead. Fifty of us are gathering today to reflect on what’s working, why we’re still falling short, and what we need to meet a simple but elusive goal—that everyone has a safe, affordable place to live.

Rather than seeing the housing crisis only as an issue of lack of supply, or only as a consequence of gentrification, we recognize the complex reality and the need to address both. On the one hand, many of our cities lack housing supply: We simply do not have enough homes for the people who want to live in our communities.

Getting rid of exclusionary zoning (long deployed by white homeowners to hoard the benefits of high property values and segregated schools) and building more housing is necessary to address the imbalance of supply and demand, but will not solve for displacement and eviction.

On the other hand, renters in gentrifying communities are traumatized by displacement and rising rents and skeptical of governments that have walked away from low-income communities for decades. They want stronger tenant protections to keep people from being evicted as rents rise and won’t support growth without meaningful reform.

To keep up with population growth and address the scale of the need we already have, we need more housing. That’s why in Minneapolis, we recently voted to become the first city in the country to eliminate single-family zoning, and to increase density near transit; why Denver and Austin have been implementing new housing trust funds (paid for with local taxes) in the hundreds of millions of dollars; why Durham, where we are gathering this week, is pursuing plans to create an affordable housing loan fund and proposing an affordable housing bond on this November’s ballot to support the financing of affordable construction.

It is not the case that any development will do. Good policies insure that housing meets the needs of those who need it most, and that we confront racist zoning policies of the past that produced and furthered segregation. Good planning can help make sure we’ve got the infrastructure needed to sustain growth, that we genuinely engage community voices to shape places where families will thrive, and that new units are built with the climate crisis in mind—near transit and energy-efficient.

But growth will be required. We’ll need courage to push past the fear of change, of loss of the familiar, that so often tethers us too strongly to the status quo.      

At the same time, how can we ask people to support new development if they reasonably fear it will push them out of their own neighborhoods? That’s why it must come along with strong protections against rent hikes and unwarranted evictions so that tenants can stay in their homes.

Here too, cities and states are filling in the gaps. After New York became the first city to offer a “right to counsel” law, to make sure tenants are represented by a lawyer when facing an eviction proceeding, evictions dropped in just one year. Philadelphia, Newark, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Washington, D.C., are working on their own versions of the law.

Oregon, California, and New York recently passed sweeping “rent regulation” protections for tenants that limit the rent increases landlords can charge. Illinois and Colorado are considering similar legislation.

At first, these policies sound radical, in a country where private property is considered sacrosanct. But do we really believe that a landlord should be able to raise the rent on a family however high they want, usually benefitting far more from broader neighborhood trends than anything they did, even when the cost is eviction, trauma, and homelessness?

Finally, seeing the limits of what the private market can do to create housing that is affordable to all, for the long-term, cities are expanding alternative models for housing ownership. As in higher education and health care, public options can complement what the market provides. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Seattle, New York City, and Jackson, Mississippi, are all experimenting with various forms of “social housing,” like limited-equity cooperatives and community land trusts.

These social-housing models limit speculation. Rather than as a commodity, they treat housing as a right, something everyone needs and deserves, and that we should provide together when the market is failing to do so. Social housing can also help us push past resistance to growth, the frustration that new development usually enriches a small handful of developers, and too rarely meets community needs.

Right now, these experiments are miniscule compared to the need. And that’s where the federal government must come in. More inclusive growth, stronger tenant protections, and investment in social housing are the right way forward, as our cities are showing. But to do it at the scale of the crisis we face, we’ll need resources at the scale that only the federal government can provide.

As the presidential candidates put forward plans to address the housing crisis, some more ambitious than others, hopefully they will hear us: More housing is needed. But it must come along with mechanisms to ensure that current tenants are not displaced, that enough new units are truly affordable to those who need them, and that they are more integrated and more sustainable than what we’ve built to date.

The fate of America’s cities, communities, and families hangs in the balance.

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