When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, the democratic socialist pledged to fight for single-payer health care, campaign finance reform and a $15 minimum wage. These are now signature issues for progressive candidates across the country. But at the state level, several of the many newly elected lawmakers backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are also focused on another issue -- housing.
"This is a perfect example of where unfettered capitalism has failed us,” says Democratic Maryland Del.-elect Vaughn Stewart. “At the end of the day, when the motive of landlords and developers is to make a dollar, that means their primary goal is not to put a roof over people's heads."
Stewart plans to introduce a bill early next year that would create a state trust fund for “social housing.” This “public option for housing,” as he calls it, would be available to people of all income levels, differentiating it from traditional public housing and housing vouchers.
Stewart is one of 40 DSA-backed candidates elected to state and local office this year. Their presence could shake up the agenda and push the traditional limits of policymaking in many statehouses and city halls.
Affordable housing is a crisis across the country. Colorado state Sen.-elect Julie Gonzales, a DSA candidate hoping to repeal rent control prohibitions in her state, says, “I think we all heard it on the campaign trail. ... It was inevitable for any candidate to hear it.” But members of this new DSA cohort seem to be drawing particular attention to the issue. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former bartender who beat a 10-term incumbent for a seat in the U.S. House, made headlines this month when she indicated she couldn’t afford an apartment in D.C. until she got her first congressional paycheck.
“We’re now in a situation where the people directly impacted by these issues are actually gaining positions of power and modeling how difficult it is,” says New York state Sen.-elect Julia Salazar, one of the most high-profile democratic socialists to enter politics and win this year. “I ran very explicitly on fighting to end deregulatory policies, to fight for stronger rent laws, to protect tenants, and to fight for truly, deeply affordable housing.”
In Salazar's state, and in Stewart's, affordable housing has become a big concern. The news that Amazon will build new headquarters in the Washington, D.C., metro area and New York City has many worried about the impact it will have on the cost of living in the surrounding regions. In the past five years, home values rose 73 percent in Seattle, where Amazon built its first U.S. headquarters, while New York City's increased 42 percent and Arlington County, Va.'s just 15 percent.
Stewart thinks his "public option for housing" would ease the cost of living. He was inspired by a policy paper from the People's Policy Project, a left-wing think tank, which proposes housing developments owned by local government in which higher-income residents pay higher rents so that people in the middle class can pay less than they do now and the poorest can receive subsidies.
"In very expensive cities, they could become a significant revenue source," according to the People's Policy Project.
Though he’s still finessing the details for his plan, Stewart says the funding would come from a state bond and some kind of tax on the wealthy. The money would then be offered to local counties -- and Baltimore City -- to be used for building housing that would charge rents far below market rates. Stewart argues that the competition of social housing would also drive down prices in the private housing sector.
Stewart acknowledges that “social housing is the big sexy thing that probably has the least chance of passing but has the highest chance of moving the Overton window,” expanding the range of ideas permissible in public discourse. He’s also pushing for more modest reforms like tenant protections that address how quickly a landlord is required to return a security deposit. He says the Democratic leadership in Annapolis is interested in housing reforms, and he’ll be working closely with Maryland Del.-elect Gabriel Acevero, another DSA-backed candidate who campaigned on the issue.
In New York, the rent laws are set to expire next year, and activists like Salazar are pushing for comprehensive legislation to strengthen renters’ rights. With Democrats having regained control of both chambers of the state legislature, the politics of housing could be changing in the state. As The Albany Times Union recently reported, “Six of the eight members of the real estate-friendly Independent Democratic Conference were defeated in primary elections this year, by candidates seen as more tenant-friendly.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently said he supports ending “vacancy decontrol,” a decades-old policy that removed 150,000 apartments from regulations.
“I think he sees where the wind is blowing,” Salazar says, adding that this year’s election results should send a message to wayward Democrats: “If legislators continue to defy what the people want and not fight for much more progressive policies, they’re going to be primaried. The electorate won’t tolerate it.”