Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed a $2.5-trillion housing plan on Wednesday that aims to end homelessness in the U.S. and enact a national cap on rent hikes.
The release of Sanders’ 10-year “housing for all” plan came as President Trump is weighing federal action to address homelessness in West Coast cities. On a flight to California on Tuesday to raise money for his reelection campaign, Trump told reporters he could not let Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities “destroy themselves” by tolerating the explosion of tent encampments. He has used the issue of homelessness to disparage the deep-blue state recently, but his administration has said little publicly about its plans.
Rising rents in Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas, Honolulu and cities throughout California have fueled a surge in homelessness, and the dearth of shelters in mild-weather regions has made the squalor highly visible.
Sanders’ plan prioritizes establishing 25,000 housing units during his first year as president through the National Housing Trust Fund and, over the next five years, spending $32 billion in an effort to abolish homelessness. It also includes $50 billion in grants to cities and states for community land trusts that it says will “enable over 1 million households to purchase a shared equity home over the next 25 years.” The plan would invest $70 billion to modernize public housing, would cap annual rent increases at 3%, or 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index, and require developers to include affordable housing in new projects.
Housing, like healthcare, education and access to clean water, is a human right, Sanders says. His plan would add a “just-cause” requirement for evictions; it also calls for passage of the Equality Act to ensure LGBTQ people are protected by the Fair Housing Act.
He also proposed increasing funding for the Indian Housing Block Grant Program to $3 billion to build and improve affordable housing on tribal lands. A 2017 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that in a two-year period alone, 68,000 new units were needed on those lands to replace deteriorating buildings.
Sanders has spoken recently at events centered on housing affordability in California and Nevada.
“Today in America, we have well over a half a million people who are either sleeping out on the streets or are in emergency shelters, including 58,000 right here in Los Angeles,” he said last month at a town hall at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, citing the latest findings of the homeless population in the county.
“And we have got to ask ourselves, what in God’s name is going on in this country when we would give over a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the top 1% and large profitable corporations, but presumably, we do not have enough money to make sure that a half a million of fellow Americans are not homeless? That is an outrage.”
He was referring to a report by the nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness that 552,830 people nationwide were homeless on a single night in 2018.
Several of Sanders’ rivals for the 2020 Democratic nomination have also proposed plans, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro.
Housing policy experts on Wednesday expressed skepticism about Sanders’ far-reaching plan.
“This is definitely farther left than any of the proposals we’ve seen from any other candidate,” said Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. She noted that with its emphasized role for the federal government, the plan appears legally, politically and financially unfeasible. “It’s not clear to me how he would implement this.”
But the National Low Income Housing Coalition noted that Sanders was addressing a growing worry over a national housing shortage.
“Our nation’s rental housing crisis continues to worsen,” the organization said. “Voters are demanding the presidential hopefuls offer solutions, and candidates are increasingly responding by proposing ambitious housing plans to address the affordable housing crisis on the scale needed.”
California has long struggled with housing affordability. The state has the highest homeless population in the nation, with 129,972 people who were homeless on a given night in 2018, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. L.A. County’s crisis has been brewing since the 1980s, and a report released this year revealed a 12% year-over-year increase in the number of people who are homeless — nearly 59,000. The city of Los Angeles saw a dramatic spike of 16%, with more than 36,000 people sleeping on the streets, in shelters or in their cars. Last year, the city poured $619 million into housing and services.
Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties also saw double-digit increases. In the Bay Area, Alameda County saw a 43% increase in homelessness in a count conducted in 2017, according to the Mercury News.
At Sanders’ town hall in Northridge, Daniel Blitch, 27, told the senator about losing his apartment after his rent doubled last year. Blitch, a mental health professional, paused, his voice cracking, before saying that he was still living out of his car. He asked Sanders for a message for his mental health clients who are homeless.
Sanders responded that addressing the issue of affordable housing would help provide a starting point for homeless people suffering from mental illness. Sanders’ plan includes $500 million for outreach to homeless individuals and connecting them with social services.
“We will not turn our backs on people sleeping out on the street, people struggling with mental illness, people who cannot afford healthcare,” Sanders said at the town hall. “Unlike Trump and his friends, we do not see human life simply as trying to make billions of dollars and turning our backs on what goes on in the world.”
Another of Sanders’ Democratic rivals, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, campaigned Tuesday on skid row. He called the scale of the squalor “breathtaking.”
“The number of tents, the number of people on the street, the desperation — we saw fights break out as we were walking down the street,” O’Rourke said. “I can only imagine what your temper and frustration and anxiety are when you’ve been sleeping on the street night after night.”
O’Rourke, who has not released a detailed plan, promised to invest $400 billion over 10 years in housing for Americans with low or moderate incomes, building 200,000 units a year.
After his August town hall, Sanders also briefly toured skid row.
“It is painful to know that we are the wealthiest country on Earth, and there are people a few feet away from up here who are sleeping out on the street,” he said afterward, gesturing to 7th Street behind him. “For too long we have ignored this growing crisis, and everybody thinks it’s somebody else who’s out there until it happens to them.”
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.