Waking up the Sleeping Giant and Building a Renters’ Voting Block

us-hr-ageBuckhorn, Ontario  It is hard to escape the feeling, country to country, that low-and-moderate income families, and, just possibly, even families with more money, are rapidly consolidating into a permanent class of renters. Certainly in some cities around the world like New York City, Toronto, London, and elsewhere, this has long been the case. In the United States though it is a bumpier transition because the dominant narrative in the vast expanse of the land is that the American dream includes home ownership. Increasingly that dream comes with a disclosure now that you better be ready to move to smaller towns, cities, and rural areas if you want to live that dream.

In the US, the number of renters, and therefore potential renter’s votes, are rising. Renter votes increased 49% between 1996 and 2012, while owner votes only increased 23%, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data. According to data reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Nonetheless, just 22% of votes cast in the 2012 election were by renters, according to the analysis. But as the renter population grows, Apartment List [a rental leasing website] estimates that one-third of eligible voters in this election could be renters. Based on historical voting patterns, renters would likely cast about one-quarter of the votes—a small but meaningful increase from the last election.

This sleeping giant traditionally has not stirred much around Election Day. Renters are often seen as more transient, though some data interestingly finds that voting rates are as low for stable tenants as they are for frequent movers. They are also young, and poorer, none of which are huge vote movers. Furthermore, owners vote more consistently than renters. Another statistic in the Journal piece points to a potential game changer as anger over cost and affordability continues to rise.

The number of cost-burdened renters—those who spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent—has risen by 3.6 million since 2008, to a historic high of 21.3 million in 2014, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the meantime, the number of cost-burdened owners has declined by 4.4 million since 2008 to 18.5 million.

The Presidential campaign is silent on the issue of renters and rising rents and housing prices are at the heart of the entire Trump business model, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Either way, if any of them have a plan, it’s a secret.

There’s a way to change this though and wake the sleeping giant: put issues directly on the ballot in cities and states wherever possible that allow the people to step in with solutions where politicians fear to tread on campaign contributions from developers. Just as ACORN did earlier in place after place on living wages, we need to start crafting initiatives from our renters’ bill of rights from rent control to dedicated spending for public and subsidized affordable housing. Organizationally, we need to craft proposals that meet the crisis and the interest of tenants and bring them out to polls in force to alter this landscape.

We need to make sure there are consequences as well. As campaign discussions wound down on the prospects of winning a comprehensive and enforceable landlord licensing ordinance or bylaw in Toronto, ACORN’s head organizer there, John Anderson, noted flatly that either the Council passed the measure this fall or they would likely see the issue as the largest issue in the next election. As the votes of renters are triggered in just that way everywhere the issue is rising, that’s not a threat or a promise, but virtually a take-it-to-the-bank prediction.

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Is Affordable Housing Being Crucified by Inequality

IKEA home in Sweden

IKEA home in Sweden

New Orleans      Increasingly it seems that we are going to have to decouple the issue of home ownership and affordable housing at least in the traditional sense of small footprints in the dirt with picket fences around them.  Home ownership due to harder loan standards, tighter credit, and the Great Recession has now fallen to 63.9% at the end of 2014, lower than at any point in the last 20 years.  A recent survey found that nine of the top eleven metro areas now have a majority of renters compared to homeowners led by Miami, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Houston, Washington, Dallas, and Chicago.

The trend towards “executive” cities like Seattle, Vancouver, London, and many others where housing  costs are atmospheric has foreclosed any opportunity for regular working families to consider home ownership in the classic, outdated “American Dream” sense of the term, unless they are willing and able to purchase cooperative apartments or condominiums.  Even while moving that dream off the shelf, the affordable housing crisis remains unabated unless we embrace some change.

How about manufactured housing?  I’ve got to admit I like my time living in Airstreams, and I’ve become friendly towards trailers. The Economist had nice things to say about “system-built” housing recently which also caught my eye:

“…system-built housing does not have to be shoddy or impersonal. Huf Haus of Germany has been building high-end prefabricated housing since 1912.  Adatahaus, a British firm specializes in homes that can be reconfigured as a family’s needs change.  IKEA of Sweden sells flat-pack houses that can be customized.  Furthermore, big companies can help people to self-build a personalized home while enjoying economies of scale:  Cemex of Mexico provides self-builders with access to cheap fixtures and fittings, and cheap finance, as well as cement.”

Ok, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but poking through Craigslist last night I saw a corrugated metal-sided and roofed structure on higher ground towards the Gulf of Mexico that looked beckoning.  Just saying.

Where would you site such housing?  Interestingly there is already a controversy breaking out in East New York on Mayor DeBlasio’s plan to protect affordable housing in that area, which many residents see as gentrification.  We’ve talked about the double-edged sword of “market rates” before, when the inequality of wages and wealth has perverted the market.  The deal that ACORN made in Brooklyn for over 2000 units of housing around the train tracks at Atlantic Yards has still not produced on that promise after more than a decade.

There’s vacant land though in many cities crying for company.  Turkey assembled 1600 square miles equal to 4% of the country’s urban area when  the national housing agency bought land from other state agencies.  China puts the hurt on developers sitting on property to force the issue by imposing a 20% tax on the value of land parcels left undeveloped for more than a year.

Meanwhile rent levels of 30% or more of income and mass numbers of roommates has become the norm in many cities.  One estimate has more than 20 million paying more than 30%.Looking at average rents in mid-south cities like Houston, New Orleans, Dallas, and Little Rock, we found the numbers on the average between $650 to $750 per month.  To make that nut an individual would need to make between $12 and $16 per hour if they were going to live by themselves.

Affordable housing is possible, but not without living wages and a strategy that values citizen wealth and family security as more important than a picket fence.

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