Biden wants to campaign on housing. He also sort of has to.

Biden wants to campaign on housing. He also sort of has to.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on affordable housing in Las Vegas, Nevada, on March 19, 2024. | Ian Maule/Getty Images

The president has a housing affordability problem.

Biden is in campaign mode, and the president wants voters to know he understands housing is out of control.

Over the last month, Biden has ramped up his bully pulpit focus on the housing crisis. In his State of the Union address, the president pledged new tax credits for first-time homeowners and to “crack down on big landlords” who price-fix rents. His new budget includes proposals to expand vouchers and housing supply, and he gave a second speech promising to “build, build, build” to “bring housing costs down for good.” When the president hit the campaign trail in late March, he dedicated a Las Vegas stop to stumping his affordable housing initiatives, and on Friday his administration even announced it would embrace some new rent control.

You don’t have to squint to see how the housing crisis is complicating the otherwise positive economic message the president hopes to sell.

Mortgage rates are so high that most homeowners feel they can’t afford to move, and most renters feel priced out of the idea of homeownership altogether. Wages have gone up, but not faster than home-buying costs, and over 22 million households now spend more than a third of their income on rent as of 2022.

Inflation and the economy remain the top issues for voters, and economists cite high housing costs as a main culprit for inflation still exceeding the Federal Reserve’s target goal of 2 percent.

This is all creating bad vibes, at a time when the president wants to build enthusiasm for a second term. A Redfin-commissioned survey from February found almost two-thirds of homeowners and renters say housing affordability makes them feel negatively about the economy.

Politically, the president also has a lot to worry about when it comes to mobilizing the young people and voters of color who helped him eke out a victory in 2020. Polling indicates that it’s these voters — who are more likely to be renters — that Biden is now struggling with: those who cast ballots for him four years ago but are now leaning toward Donald Trump or considering staying home on Election Day.

The White House’s “opportunism is finally catching up to them and I say that in a good way,” said Tara Raghuveer, the director of KC Tenants, a tenant union in Kansas City, Missouri. “They know now that what they do needs to feel material to people.”

Housing doesn’t typically play a big role in presidential elections given that it’s a difficult issue for the White House to deliver short-term change on, and federal lawmakers more broadly have steered clear of issues like zoning, which largely fall under the purview of state and local governments.

That’s starting to change in Washington, though, with both the House and Senate holding more hearings recently on housing affordability than each chamber has in years. Housing costs are generally the biggest bills voters are responsible for, and politicians are realizing they simply can’t ignore it.

The president wants housing to be part of “Bidenomics”

The Biden administration has talked previously about housing, but it wasn’t an issue that stayed particularly high on the crowded legislative agenda. It fell out of the president’s $2 trillion Build Back Better package, and Biden rarely gave any speeches on the topic.

In 2022, his team did put out the Housing Supply Action Plan, a grab bag of proposals that the White House called “the most comprehensive all of government effort to close the housing supply shortfall in history.” But housing advocates critiqued the administration for failing to really lead bipartisan housing negotiations in Congress, for not fighting hard for housing money in competitive spending bills, and for not working closely enough with the private sector to bring down construction costs. (Daniel Hornung, deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council, told Vox they discuss housing often and it’s “part of almost every economic conversation we have with members of Congress.”)

In promoting his economic agenda in the summer of 2023, in what would become known as “Bidenomics,” the president emphasized three main planks: empowering workers, reviving domestic manufacturing, and reining in corporate power through competition.

Housing wasn’t much part of that conversation, but the White House is trying to change that now. In a newly released report, the president’s staff economists dedicated an entire chapter to increasing the supply of affordable housing and called for more aggressive federal action to lower costs, like pressuring cities to loosen zoning laws.

For now, the president’s $258 billion housing proposals seem geared toward the election, elevating more popular issues like junk fees and rent gouging. Biden also proposed new tax credits for first-time homebuyers and for middle-class families selling their starter homes, and a new $20 billion grant program to increase housing production. And rather than running on a universal expansion of housing vouchers to all eligible renters, as he did in 2020, the president is now proposing an expansion of housing vouchers to more politically popular groups — low-income veterans and youth aging out of the foster care system.

Some conservatives criticized Biden’s plan on the basis that the proposals would actually make things worse if supply didn’t also significantly increase. “Biden’s backwards solution is to subsidize demand by handing out more government money to buyers, renters, and developers,” argued Judge Glock, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank.

It will be hard to make a real federal dent on housing without Congress, and it’s unlikely that any major congressional action will happen before the next election, with Republicans loathe to give Biden any more bipartisan victories to campaign on. While the House of Representatives did authorize a meaningful increase to the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program in January, that package looks increasingly dead in the Senate. Experts say the expiring Trump tax cuts in December 2025 look like the next big likely opportunity for new housing spending.

Until then, the president needs to walk a tight line between elevating the housing crisis and not polarizing it. The pro-housing “Yes in My Backyard” movement has been successful so far largely by building bipartisan coalitions.

Perhaps the biggest shift is really in the White House’s willingness to focus on the plight of renters, something tenant advocates say took years to finally see.

“In the summer 2022, when inflation was really bad and the biggest driving factors were shelter and gas, the Biden administration never uttered the word ‘rent,’” Raghuveer said. “Two years later, they are talking about rent gouging and about exactly the policy solutions we’ve been proposing since 2020, including conditions for federal subsidies, tax credits, and financing. The bar is really low but we’re breaking new ground.”

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