Tim Kaine's Vision for the Future of Fair Housing

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine Gerald Herbert/AP

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine drew a bright line on Friday between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on a subject important to pretty much every voter: housing. While Americans say that housing is as important an issue as other priorities, so far the subject hasn’t come up much during the campaign. That just changed.

As voters have come to learn, Kaine built his career as a lawyer in Richmond by pursuing fair-housing cases. As the former mayor of Richmond and former governor of Virginia, Kaine has experience examining the issues of fair and affordable housing from a variety of policy perches. He is uniquely qualified to talk about housing—perhaps more so than any candidate in recent years.

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It's part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” Kaine writes in an editorial published by CNN. “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe, and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

His editorial outlines the ways that a Clinton administration would work to make housing fairer and more affordable. Here’s a closer look at those policies, and what Americans should expect if Clinton wins the office.

Low Income Housing Tax Credits: The U.S. spends about $6 billion annually on LIHTCs, an indirect form of housing assistance. That Kaine lists it as the first line item in his housing memo might mean that that the Clinton administration thinks LIHTCs are the right tool for the job. The use of LIHTCs has increased steadily since the 1990s. Subsidizing housing by tax credits sometimes results in more segregated neighborhoods.

Rental assistance: Kaine’s editorial doesn’t go into detail about how Clinton’s administration would inject some life into federal housing assistance. But it’s needed: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, growth in rental assistance has slowed dramatically. If present trends continue, federal housing-assistance spending would reach its lowest point in 40 years. Presumably, the Clinton plan for housing involves the Democratic Party winning control of the Senate, as it would take a sea change for Congress to pass another budget. Then, restoring housing choice vouchers to pre-sequester levels might be feasible.

The senator also mentions that the Democrats will help families choose from a wide range of neighborhoods to live in—a nod at fair housing and a campaign pledge that would likely mean embracing and implementing the Affordably Furthering Fair Housing standards set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama.

Public housing authorities: Kaine is least clear when it comes to explaining how a Clinton administration would build more public housing. “We'll provide more resources to public-housing authorities, and pair these investments with broader economic development efforts,” he writes.

The needs of public housing have a figure attached to them: $46 billion. That’s the estimated capital backlog for the nation’s 1.1 million public housing units, nearly all of which were built before 1985. (That figure is climbing rapidly. In 2010 it was $26 billion; the costs grow by an average of $3.4 billion per year.)

Undoing the damage done by austerity will be the first order of business for a Clinton administration looking to boost spending on housing. But dialing back the Budget Control Act is not enough. Federal housing spending, in terms of direct rental assistance and public-housing maintenance, has been declining for decades.  

First-time home-buyers: The Clinton administration wants to provide $10,000 in assistance on down payments for families looking to buy their first homes, a plan that would build off the popularity of the first-time homebuyer tax creditof 2008-2010. Of the housing efforts listed by Kaine, this one’s bound to be the most popular, since Americans of all income levels would be eligible to receive it (unless I misread him, the program is not means tested).

Giving Americans a one-time boost with their down payments might help launch millions of new households. Today, more than 50 percent of renters could afford mortgages, but still can’t afford to buy a home. Part of the reason for that may be that they simply lack the savings, especially in cities with rising housing prices.

Making the program available to any first-time home-buyers, regardless of income, means that it will serve as an enormous subsidy for middle-class and upper-class households—much like the mortgage-interest tax deduction, a $195 billion subsidy for better-off Americans. A progressive administration should look at ways to dial back regressive subsidies, not expand them.

Fair-housing laws: This is the real line between Clinton-Kaine and Trump-Pence. While both Clinton and Kaine spent the early part of their careers fighting discrimination, Trump built his empire on discrimination. From Kaine’s editorial:

Around this same time, if a woman like Lorraine attempted to rent an apartment from Trump's company, federal investigators were told that employees would have added a piece of paper to her rental application with the letter "C" on it. As the Department of Justice would later discover, "C" stood for "Colored."

The U.S. government brought a housing discrimination suit, challenging this racist and discriminatory practice, which took place across 39 Trump properties.

Kaine embraces the Fair Housing Act as an example of what government can and should do in people’s lives. While some of the Clinton administration’s plans for fulfilling these pledges have yet to be revealed, they do recognize that the nation is far from post-racial when it comes to housing.

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