America Deserves A National Housing Town Hall

by on February 23, 2016

The Democratic Party holds another Town Hall on February 23, this time in South Carolina. If it follows previous debates and candidate forums, the nation’s housing crisis will be ignored.

America’s working and middle-class deserve better. They deserve a national town hall which puts both national Democratic candidates center stage to discuss their plans to end the nation’s worsening housing crisis.

It’s shameful that there has been more talk about ethanol in the 2016 presidential campaigns than an affordable housing and homelessness crisis impacting tens of millions.  True, the Democratic debates and Bernie Sanders in particular have focused on rising inequality. But the federal government’s failure to provide millions of eligible Americans with safe and affordable housing has not been mentioned.

It’s time for housing advocates to take matters into their own hands.

America needs a national housing town hall to get this crisis back on the national political radar.

This can happen in two ways, not mutually exclusive.

One option is for national housing and anti-poverty groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition  and Center for Community Change to convene a Town Hall where Sanders and Clinton are both invited. State groups like Housing California and the many local housing groups can be part of the event.

I think both candidates would try to fit the event into their schedules as they know that housing issues resonate with voters.And if neither comes, their lack of interest in affordable housing itself becomes a news story for the media.

National groups have a special opportunity right now to force the housing crisis on to the national stage. Past history shows that it is overly optimistic to expect Clinton or Sanders start talking about the nation’s affordability crisis on their own.

As I have previously described (“Why the Presidential Race Ignores Urban America”), the U.S. housing crisis is not only ignored in primaries but also in the general election. A national Town Hall on affordable housing joining pro-housing senators, governors and other electeds with advocates and victims of the housing crisis could make a huge splash.

Bad Political Calendar

The reason a national housing Town Hall is imperative is that the political calendar has front ended states like Iowa and New Hampshire whose voters do not see housing affordability as a top problem. Nevada was moved up so there would be a “diverse” state early on, and that did a lot to put immigration and labor issues front and center. But if any of the Latinos interviewed in Nevada were quoted about a housing crisis I missed it.

South Carolina and the entire batch of southern Super Tuesday states were moved up to increase the role of African-American voters. Unfortunately, these southern African-American voters are not among the millions suffering acute housing affordability problems.

This leads to a second strategy that could join the national Town Hall or occur instead: housing crisis Town Hall’s targeted to primary states.

In three Super Tuesday states—Massachusetts, Colorado and Minnesota— affordable housing is a top issue. But Super Tuesday puts too much focus on the horserace for a long ignoredissue like affordable housing  to break through.

Would a Boston event on the housing crisis faced by working families prompt media to get Sanders and Clinton talking about their solutions? Possibly. Simultaneous events in Boston, Minneapolis and Denver could generate campaign media around housing but time is running short given the March 1 elections (having twice organized national housing events in cities across the nation, I realize doing even three cities with less than a week’s notice is a challenge).

New York April 19

While affordable housing is a major issue in Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri, the March 15 primaries (which also include Florida) will focus on the media’s favorite frame of who blue-collar whites will support. There was no mention of the housing crisis during Ohio’s high profile Obama-Clinton contest in 2008. The housing crisis in Chicago and St. Louis will be overshadowed by gun violence and other issues, while Florida is not a state where rental housing costs is a top issue.

If Chicago and St. Louis housing activists can get national media coverage of the housing crisis, terrific. But I think the best chance for housing advocates to get the affordability crisis on the presidential campaign radar short of a national Town Hall is prior to New York’s April 19 primary.

The combination of a large number of New York City housing activists, Mayor De Blasio’s proposed affordable housing plan, and the high number of progressive media in New York City creates a great opportunity to get the national spotlight on Sanders and Clinton talking about housing. Even if it only involves both supporting President Obama’s recently announced request for $11 billion for homeless families, their statements would get the housing crisis more publicity than at any time this campaign season.

The New York primary could actually make the urban housing crisis a top tier issue in the Sanders-Clinton campaign. But this will require New York groups to start planning events that force the candidates and media to discuss affordable housing.

California in June

If New York activists can get the urban housing crisis on the campaign radar, California activists can keep the ball rolling through the June 7 primary. California’s housing problems go up and down the state so wherever the candidates are there is a chance for a housing event. Tenants Together has members throughout the state and could hold events at or outside candidate events.

California events in April and May can also pressure the state’s anti-housing Democratic Governor Jerry Brown into supporting the State Senate’s $2 billion plus affordable housing plan. Brown has never found an affordable housing strategy he could support either as governor or mayor of Oakland, and his vetoes of housing spending have hurt the state’s renter population.

Getting Clinton and Sanders to talk about the need for more government spending on affordable housing could lead media to put a national spotlight on Brown’s poor housing record. For a Governor who enjoys the national acclaim he has gotten for climate change leadership, national stories on his worsening of the state’s housing and homelessness crisis may push him to change course on the FY 2017 budget.

These statewide or big city events would be easier to stage than a national Town Hall, but may lack the impact. One way or another, housing activists can no longer sit idle while assuming that the Democratic Presidential campaigns and national media will “inevitably” start talking about the urban housing crisis.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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