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Joe Biden’s surprisingly visionary housing plan, explained

Cut child poverty by a third, break down racial segregation, and stabilize the economy.

Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Delivers Remarks In Delaware Alex Wong/Getty Images

Joe Biden has a housing policy agenda that is ambitious, technically sound, and politically feasible, and that would — if implemented — be life-changing for millions of low-income and housing-insecure households.

According to original modeling by Columbia University scholars, it could cut child poverty by a third, narrow racial opportunity gaps, and potentially drive progress on the broader middle-class affordability crisis in the largest coastal cities as well.

The plan hasn’t stirred an intraparty debate or really much attention at all, which could make it politically feasible to enact.

“Biden’s plan is bold, comprehensive, and will go a long way in making sure every American has a home,” Mary Cunningham, the vice president for metropolitan housing and communities policy at the Urban Institute, tells me. “It’s plainly obvious, in the middle of this pandemic, that home is more important than ever.”

The centerpiece is simple. Take America’s biggest rental assistance program — Section 8 housing vouchers — and make it available to every family who qualifies. The current funding structure leaves out around 11 million people, simply because the pot allocated by Congress is too small. Then pair it with regulatory changes to help the housing market work better for more people. It’s the general consensus approach among top Democratic Party politicians and left-of-center policy wonks.

At the time when most presidential candidates were rolling out their housing plans, Biden didn’t have one, dropping his instead right before the South Carolina primary when it was swiftly overshadowed by the dramatic shift in the campaign and then the Covid-19 pandemic. But precisely because the plan has not provoked much infighting and because key provisions would be eligible for budget reconciliation treatment, which would require a majority vote in the Senate instead of a supermajority, it’s the kind of thing that really might happen in 2021 if Biden won.

Universal housing vouchers, explained

Federal housing assistance is something of a patchwork of different programs that includes the Section 8 voucher system, which arose in the mid-1970s when the Nixon and Ford administrations introduced it to incorporate market-oriented reforms into the welfare state. The way it works is that instead of the federal government spending money to build housing that is then rented at a discount to low-income people, the government gives low-income people vouchers that landlords can redeem for money and lets them rent whatever kind of house someone will rent to them. Since the voucher program, when created, became Section 8 of the US Housing Act of 1937, the vouchers have come to be known as Section 8 vouchers.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that more than 5 million people receive help from the program.

It has various flaws, including, most notably, the widespread discrimination against voucher tenants that Stephanie Wykstra has written about for Vox. Another huge flaw is that that, unlike Medicaid or SNAP — which, at least in theory, provide benefits to everyone who meets the eligibility criteria — Section 8 is capped in the amount of money available to it by the whims of Congress. As it stands, about three-quarters of eligible people don’t get the help because there simply isn’t enough money in the pot, which is a huge missed opportunity to improve the lives of millions of Americans.

CBPP data shows that receipt of housing vouchers leads to a decline in children experiencing separation from their parents, a decline in domestic violence, a decline in food insecurity, and, most of all, a steep decline in housing instability.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The idea of funding the program at the full level to meet family needs has existed for decades. But multiple DC-based housing policy wonks tell me it was Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about housing instability in Milwaukee, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, that helped put it on more people’s radars.

It’s a heartbreaking book, and the epilogue speaks about vouchers in a way that stretches beyond the arcana of federal budge policy: “A universal housing voucher program would carve a middle path between the landlord’s desire to make a living and the tenant’s desire, simply, to live.”

Stephanie Collyer and Chris Wimer of Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy helped me quantify the impact more precisely with a mathematical model. Looking at detailed data from the 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey, they identified currently eligible households that are not receiving assistance. They then modeled the impact of getting assistance on household budgets. One nuance here is that the official poverty measure somewhat perversely fails to count the receipt of rental assistance as a form of income, thus saying that unassisted families are by definition no poorer than assisted families. But the census also publishes a supplemental poverty measure that corrects for this and other flaws.

They find that the properly measured poverty rate falls by 22 percent under this proposal, while child poverty falls by 34 percent. Not bad for a policy that would cost just a fraction of Trump’s tax cuts.

Moving to Opportunity

One nuance is that the underfunding of the program mitigates the landlord discrimination problem somewhat, because under the current system, if one family can’t use a voucher, that frees up money for someone else.

Will Fischer, the senior director for housing policy and research at CBPP, cautions that in the real world, “we can’t flip a switch and get a voucher to everyone who’s eligible overnight.” He says it’s a critical goal, but to achieve it takes not only money for vouchers but also investments. “At the same time we’re expanding the voucher program, we should be building our capacity to help families with vouchers rent in a wide range of neighborhoods, and we should be taking steps to increase the supply of housing, especially in the tightest markets.”

One model is a Seattle program Dylan Matthews profiled for Vox last year that involved a partnership between the city housing authority and the housing authority for the surrounding suburbs in King County. The idea was to give families a bit of extra money as well as hire navigators who would help families understand the value of relocating to “high opportunity” neighborhoods, away from concentrated poverty and blight.

Raj Chetty, an economist with the Opportunity Insights team that helped evaluate the project, called it “the largest effect I’ve ever seen in a social science intervention.”

Seattle’s initiative is a fantastic role model but will be difficult to bring to anything resembling mass scale.

“It isn’t just about increased financial subsidy,” Jenny Schuetz a housing economist with the Brookings Metropolitan Program, tells me. “It also requires high-capacity local government/nonprofit partners,” which simply don’t exist everywhere. But the federal initiative that could at least make it possible would involve expanding the use of what the Department of Housing and Urban Development calls “small-area fair market rents” — basically ensuring that subsidies can be pegged to the cost of renting a house in a nicer neighborhood, not just a pocket of concentrated poverty.

The Biden plan is a little short on these kinds of implementation details, which is the one area where experts see scope for improvement. What he does do is try to tackle the other side of America’s housing affordability problem, which is that even people who aren’t low-income increasingly struggle to find a place to live in metro areas in the Northeast and West Coast where there simply aren’t enough houses to go around.

A carrot for more housing

The basic problem is exclusionary zoning. When land is expensive and demand for housing is high, the natural market response would be to build denser structures — townhouses or mid-rise apartments or even big towers — so as to spread the land cost across more households. The origins of these zoning rules were intimately connected to now-forgotten segregation battles in the first half of the 20th century, when the Supreme Court rules essentially that cities couldn’t formally exclude Black people from certain neighborhoods but they could try to exclude all low-income people and count on economics to do the rest.

Later, redlining policies excluded Black neighborhoods from much New Deal housing assistance, depriving Black families of wealth-building opportunities and creating pockets of poverty and exclusion that persist today.

Handing out money to those in need helps the problem on one side, but breaking down the zoning barriers on the other is important as well. Biden picks up a proposal from Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. James Clyburn to require localities that benefit from Community Development Block Grants or Surface Transportation Block Grants to develop plans to change zoning rules that block development of more housing types.

While expanding vouchers is a straightforward liberal pitch, changing exclusionary zoning involves more complicated politics. Many of the most exclusionary places in America are affluent inner-ring suburbs of big coastal cities — places that these days send Democrats to Congress, but that presumably don’t want to be made to change their zoning rules. The potential good news is that, conceptually at least, liberalizing regulation is something Republicans might support.

Emily Hamilton, an urban policy scholar at the libertarian Mercatus institute, does caution that “the surface transportation part would lose a lot of free market people” because it smacks of federal coercion to some degree, but adds she thinks it’s justified “given that the federal government has done so much to encourage exclusionary zoning through transportation spending and otherwise.”

Her colleague Salim Furth adds the additional caution that “nobody should trust HUD to evaluate zoning changes” because it’s too easy to make a show of reducing exclusion while retaining its substance. He thinks incentive plans should be pegged squarely to outcomes rather than input changes, something that’s compatible with the text of the Booker/Clyburn proposal but would have to be refined at the implementation phase. But even without nailing down all the details, one shouldn’t neglect the transformative potential of Biden’s core idea, especially given the current crisis.

America is on the edge of housing crisis

As Jen Kirby details for Vox, America is on the verge of a housing crisis as emergency eviction moratoriums expire even while the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage.

Additional extension of emergency measures would help. But fundamentally, the United States can’t really build a housing system around the assumption that landlords will allow tenants to live indefinitely without paying their rent. And from a tenant perspective, while not being evicted is much better than being evicted, a moratorium simply leaves unpaid debts to pile up and creates problems in the future.

When precarious renters need in the short term is actual financial help that would let them make rent. And what the country needs is a more robust housing safety net of the kind that would be created by turning Section 8 into a universal program. Under the status quo, capacity to help people with the rent doesn’t expand along with need. Under universal vouchers it would — household economic pain would be cushioned by automatic expansion of funding, and the economy as a whole would be stabilized by spending ramping up when needed.

To an extent, the entire housing topic has fallen by the wayside amid a very crowded news agenda. But as a tool for stabilizing a pandemic-ravaged economy and l for breaking down entrenched forms of housing segregation, it’s hard to beat an expanded and improved housing voucher program.