WASHINGTON — Sen. Kamala Harris loves to call housing affordability one of “the biggest issues we’re talking the least about.”
She says it in stump speeches. She says it at voter meet-and-greets. She tweets about it.
It’s a particularly salient issue for the California senator and aspiring Democratic nominee for president: The vast majority of the country’s most expensive housing markets are located in her home state. One-quarter of all the homeless people in the U.S. live in California. In San Francisco, the number of homeless people has rocketed to levels not seen since she was the city’s district attorney in 2004.
Citing these trends, Harris introduced the Rent Relief Act last July, a bill that would give monthly tax credits to renters who pay more than 30 percent of their gross annual income on rent, including utilities. A number of prominent fair housing advocacy organizations, including the National Low Income Housing Coalition and California Housing Partnership, have publicly endorsed the bill. (Harris reintroduced the bill this legislative session, and it was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.)
Some of the biggest names in California politics, like Libby Schaaf, London Breed, Darrel Steinberg, Sam Liccardo, Robert Garcia, and Aja Brown –– the mayors of Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Long Beach, and Compton, respectively –– as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom, have all endorsed her.
But for many fair housing advocates and academics in California who work on urban planning issues, a gulf exists between the record Harris supporters tout and how she has addressed issues of poverty and housing instability in the state.
“If she’s not going to advocate for Los Angeles, for San Francisco, for the tens of thousands of people who are sleeping on the street every night in those places, who will?” said Michael Lens, an associate faculty director of the University of California-Los Angeles’s Center for Regional Policy Studies. “Who has a higher profile and stronger connection to those places than she does?”
Some are skeptical of the Rent Relief Act, Harris’ signature housing affordability proposal, arguing that rental subsidies for rising housing costs amount to little more than crisis intervention and ignore the need to build more units of housing. Others point out that, as the district attorney in San Francisco, Harris presided over one of the country’s most punitive jurisdictions for homeless people, as the University of California-Berkeley’s Law School Policy Advocacy Clinic describes the city.
Compounding those missteps, critics say, is apparent avoidance of the issue on the campaign trail –– Harris has dodged inquiries from the Los Angeles Times about the latest homelessness figures in California, and she declines to talk specifics about how to address the country’s rental crisis when probed by voters.
That silence is made more glaring by the increasing significance housing affordability has taken on for Democratic voters headed into 2020. California politics have been dominated in recent months by questions about how to build denser, cheaper housing for more people.
And a poll commissioned by housing policy groups, including NLIHC, shows that 60 percent of respondents believe the issue is a problem where they live, a figure that rose by 21 percent since 2016.
In California, as across the country, lawmakers have struggled to pass legislation aimed at addressing the housing crisis through zoning reform, rent control, or other measures, despite the fact that Democrats possess a supermajority of the state assembly and the Senate.
And critics say housing subsidies like the one Harris proposed don’t address these efforts, nor the underlying affordability issues spurred by real estate speculation and rising land costs.
“I strongly believe we need a more generous voucher program. But a more generous program isn’t going to solve everybody’s housing affordability problem. And it won’t even solve affordability at the lowest end,” Lens says.
He adds that rental vouchers also sometimes incentivize landlords to increase rental prices if they know they can get higher subsidies.
Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition –– which supports the bill –– concedes that the Rent Relief Act “won’t end the housing crisis.”
“Setting a bar of expectation for legislation that does it all is maybe not the best bar to set or the most reasonable bar to set,” Yentel says. “But a renter’s tax credit would have a tremendous impact on low-income people, and [it] is a new, innovative way of essentially building off the success of the Section 8 voucher program, which is a proven solution” to combating housing instability, she says.
Yentel adds that subsidies in the form of a tax credit also allow consumers to avoid the pitfalls of Section 8, like source of income discrimination, because landlords wouldn’t be privy to how tenants are paying rent.
For Alan Greenlee, the executive director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, an association of affordable housing developers, even a platform that’s narrow in scope is better than no plan at all.
“We’re sort of in this position where we need to break the glass on the fire alarm and try all sorts of shit,” he says. “We’re so far behind after a generation or more of slow-growth strategies that almost any intervention is a good one.”
Between 2004 and 2009, during Harris’ tenure as San Francisco’s chief prosecutor, the city moved from its number 11 ranking in the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s list of cities most hostile to the homeless to number 6, out of 224 cities across the country. The study uses an index of anti-homeless laws coupled with the severity of penalties for those crimes.
“Not only does San Francisco have a larger number of anti-homeless laws than many U.S. cities; it enforces these laws vigorously,” a cohort of researchers from UC Berkeley and UC San Diego wrote in a 2015 study of San Francisco’s homelessness crisis.
During that time, as part of the governor’s efforts to reduce the city’s homeless population, San Francisco began requiring police to charge cases that could be either infractions or misdemeanors as misdemeanors; it also launched a court program requiring the homeless to participate in community service or be charged with harsher penalties. Between 2003, when Harris won the district attorney election, and 2004, citations for “camping” — sleeping in public places, a practice that is no longer illegal –– tripled from 436 to 1114.
A spokesperson for Harris did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment, but Harris has called leftist criticisms of her prosecutorial record and tough-on-crime initiatives “overblown.”
“We can’t view the housing crisis in isolation. It’s not just that [people are] paying a lot for rent,” says Sasha Perigo, a co-chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America’s working group on homelessness. Perigo points out that in a recent census of the city’s homeless population, 69 percent say they were housed in San Francisco when they became homeless. “The response by the city has been to increasingly criminalize homelessness. [...] If you look at her record, I’d say it exacerbated the problem.”
And though attorneys general don’t draft policy, Lens and Greenlee point out that they have powerful enforcement mechanisms to hold bad actors accountable for failing to provide safe, healthy housing.
Take California’s current AG, Xavier Becerra, who filed a lawsuit against wealthy Southern California city Huntington Beach in January to compel it to produce more affordable housing. Across the country, in D.C., attorney general and early Harris supporter Karl Racine has made a name for himself by aggressively suing “slumlords” who allow rental apartments to fall into squalor.
Scott Wiener, a California state senator who represents parts of San Francisco, points to Harris’ role in helping negotiate the 2012 national mortgage settlement with banks like Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase as evidence of her history helping consumers. (Wiener has endorsed Harris for president.)
“I think she’ll be great. I think she’ll be a leader on housing,” Wiener says. “As district attorney and attorney general, you’re not interacting with housing as much as you do in a legislative role. But she was obviously very aggressive on the foreclosure crisis.”
A popular refrain from Harris on the trail is that she “took on the big banks and won over $20 billion.”
But even that comes with an asterisk: Fewer than 33,000 families in California saw reductions in their primary mortgages as a result of the deal, while nearly half of the $20 billion settlement came from short sales — money that came from people effectively losing their homes.
Others point out that Harris failed to prosecute OneWest, a California bank helmed at the time by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, which foreclosed on 35,000 homes and initiated foreclosures on another 45,000 between 2009 and 2012. Consumer law attorneys at the Department of Justice wrote a memo at the time urging Harris’ office to file a civil enforcement action against the bank, which it alleged “performed other acts in the foreclosure process without valid legal authority.”
Harris argued that she “didn’t have the legal ability” to intervene.
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) addresses the crowd at the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)