Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a striking pledge during the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina on February 25: “We’re going to go after those people involved in gentrification.”
His promise came in response to a question about how candidates can convince black voters that they will address the effects of years of inequities — an issue of concern going into the South Carolina primary, the first in which a state with a sizable African-American population will weigh in on the White House race.
It’s also part of a larger push by Biden to gain (or hold) the support of black voters in Saturday’s primary, which the former frontrunner has described as his firewall. This week, Biden released a housing plan that outlines $640 billion in spending over 10 years. Biden’s plan calls for federal housing aid for renters, new protections for tenants against evictions, and support for local governments to end exclusionary zoning.
And while the candidate dropped the G-word at the debate — for those counting, it’s the second time that gentrification has come up among Democrats on stage for the 2020 election — his housing plan never mentions it, and it doesn’t touch on displacement, either. On stage in South Carolina, Biden didn’t get a chance to explain exactly who he’d be going after, or what he’d do when he caught them.
When it comes to housing, candidates in the 2020 race are chasing their own targets. Nearly all of the Democratic candidates have put forward detailed plans to get a handle on the nation’s housing affordability crisis (only U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard has yet to do so). Housing is an urgent crisis that affects every American in different ways, so it makes sense that the the candidates are putting forward ambitious proposals. And while they all acknowledge the same central problem — there aren’t enough safe, affordable, accessible housing options out there — the candidates’ plans vary in size and scope.
Democratic frontrunner and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has embraced a plan for national rent control, for example, while Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has emphasized reversing the historical racial injustice of redlining. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg’s housing plan stands out for its strategy to solve concentrated vacancy in Rust Belt legacy cities such as his own. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is the only candidate to address rural housing problems at length. Of course, these plans feature plenty of overlapping ideas, but there’s a lot of range in what the candidates are suggesting.
Biden’s housing plan is tailored for an audience that his campaign has identified as crucial for his success: voters in South Carolina and African-American residents more broadly. During the Democratic debate, Biden touted his experience as a former public defender, a point that he underlines in his plan to combat evictions. He promises that if he is elected president, he’ll enact a bill from South Carolina Representative and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the Legal Assistance to Prevent Evictions Act of 2020. (Biden won the long-sought-after endorsement of Clyburn earlier today.)
South Carolina has some of the highest eviction rates in the nation. Among large cities, Columbia ranks number eight in eviction rates; North Charleston ranks number one. The state also has the dubious distinction of earning three of the top 10 slots for eviction rates in each of the categories for mid-sized cities and small cities or rural areas. In addition to supporting Clyburn’s bill — which would give people facing eviction access to legal counsel — Biden also supports enacting a Homeowner and Renter Bill of Rights.
Reversing recent setbacks under the Trump administration is another Biden priority: He lays out ideas for bolstering the Community Reinvestment Act, restoring the Office of Fair Lending and Opportunity, and dialing back federal rule changes on disparate impact and Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. The plan would also give incentives to communities to eliminate exclusionary zoning programs that contribute to segregation as well as high housing costs. On restrictive zoning, the White House and the Democrats may even find some common ground.
But gentrification? Or displacement? The vice president’s plan only broaches these issues in the broadest possible sense. If a Biden administration were able to get a new renter’s tax credit through Congress, for example, or make Section 8 housing vouchers available to every family that qualifies for them, then his administration would indeed be tackling displacement directly. That doesn’t answer who Biden means exactly when he promises to go after the people involved in gentrification. Does he mean luxury developers? Or NIMBY zealots? Maybe he was just being folksy. (The campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
South Carolina voters and lawmakers alike are eager to talk about housing affordability, according to John Tyler, director of housing initiatives and innovation at the South Carolina State Housing Finance and Development Authority (SC Housing). While he declined to speak about any specific candidate’s plans, he noted some of the housing issues that stand out in South Carolina, including its nation-leading eviction rates.
South Carolina’s housing crunch comes from two strong local industries: tourism and manufacturing. These wellsprings for jobs are good to have, but cities don’t permit the amount of housing development that these growth industries require. And many of the jobs, especially service jobs, don’t pay enough keep up with housing costs in Charleston or Columbia. So while housing in South Carolina might seem affordable for residents of other major coastal cities, they’re nevertheless out of reach for hotel and restaurant workers attracted to the strong labor market.
“Charleston is a tourism mecca. On the outskirts, Charleston is a manufacturing mecca,” says Clayton Ingram, communications director for SC Housing. “It’s where everybody wants to be. But it’s grinding to a slowdown due to the cost of living anywhere nearby.”
Mid-sized cities, small cities and rural areas also suffer from entrenched poverty and a deteriorating housing stock. SC Housing officials want to bring back an older term to describe housing insecurity: “shelter poverty,” referring to the shortfall in funds for meals, healthcare, and transportation that families face after paying the rent. About one-third (32%) of households in South Carolina, including more than one-half of renters, face some degree of shelter poverty — at a cost of $8.4 billion, which is borne by public aid, private charity, or personal deprivation.
Tyler says that there’s bipartisan support at the state level for one answer to South Carolina’s housing crunch in the form of the Workforce and Senior Affordable Housing Act. The bill would create a state-level housing tax credit to match the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, the nation’s best engine for creating new affordable housing. By stacking these tax credits, housing agencies and developers can build more affordable housing and make it even more affordable in the places where that’s currently not possible.
“This [state tax credit] would allow us to do more development in those high-growth areas, like Charleston,” Tyler says. “But it would also allow us to do rehabilitation of the distressed housing stock in some of the more distressed and rural areas that are perhaps overlooked by folks when they want to develop affordable housing.”
Voters in South Carolina heading into the polls on Saturday won’t have a ton of time to digest Biden’s housing plan. Or any of the other candidates’ housing plans: Unfortunately, the issue came up for only a moment before the candidates moved on to shouting over each other about something else. Which is a shame. Housing intersects with justice, education, wealth, and sustainability, and is a high priority for the Palmetto State.
“Housing is a big issue in South Carolina,” Tyler says. “It’s not just a need. The legislature is discussing it and wants to do something about it. It’s probably never been talked about as much as it is right now.”
(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which recently acquired CityLab.)