First U.S. Presidential Debate Stuck in the Logic of Finance, Fails to Address Housing Need

The first debate of the 2012 presidential election season was truly disheartening.  Both parties’ candidates failed to address the severe human rights crisis that has been greatly fueled by the federal government’s policies in housing.


Each candidate has proposed he can “bring back housing,” but it doesn’t appear that either plans to ensure the housing “being returned” goes to the people and communities that need them.  On one side, Romney claims public regulation is preventing banks and corporations from reviving the market.  On the other side, Obama blames the crisis in housing on the “reckless behavior” of Wall Street looking for big profits with high risks and those “borrowing money to buy homes they couldn’t afford.”  In Obama’s analysis, it seems, it is the “Main Street” investors and pension funds that are in crisis.  This analysis is problematic, since, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, recently articulated on October 1st, 2012, World Habitat Day, “Subject to finance logic, the housing market has not led to adequate housing solutions for the poor.”  Rolnik went on to say, “In many cases, housing finance policies have resulted in increasing inequalities in access to housing, increased tenure insecurity, poor location and low habitability, social segregation and sometimes, increased homelessness.”


Neither candidate mentioned evictions, sub-prime lending, homelessness, out of control housing costs, the starvation of public safety-net programs, and, generally, the impact rampant speculation in the housing system has had on people’s living conditions, particularly children, those in low- and moderate-income communities of color, and women.


Wages for the average person in the United States have been stagnant and declining for over 30 years (Economic Policy Institute 2007).  Furthermore, since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the system-wide job loss has been massive, and many experts say much of it is permanent.  The “jobs created” in the recovery, so far, have been largely those that provide lower wages and ensure little income security (National Employment Law Project 2012). 


As a result, over the past 5 years, entire communities have been uprooted by foreclosure, with 1 in 10 U.S. households receiving a foreclosure notice, according to testimony provided by industry expert, Laurie S. Goodman of Amherst Securities Group to Congress in 2011.  And, as mortgaged homeownership proves out-of-reach for a sizable portion of the population, rent in all major cities is rising and available housing assistance continues to be attacked under the pretext of “austerity” (Western Regional Advocacy Project 2010).  This is leaving an increasing proportion of the U.S. population to deal with less stability in their housing situations, as well as rising housing costs. 


Despite differences of opinion in regulation of the mortgage industry and silence from both parties on the continued tide of foreclosures that experts project will double the number of impacted households, both candidates have, in prior statements, supported generally the same path forward for the vast supply of foreclosed homes: put the vacant viable housing stock in the hands of the highest bidders in the market – a market dominated by large corporations – and allow them to rent-out these homes for profit (Romney/Ryan housing proposal).  This is something the Obama Administration has already begun to do with the bulk sale of the 250,000 foreclosed homes owned by the federal government, as well as through a recent statement issued by the Federal Reserve in support of banks renting homes.  As the foreclosure crisis makes starkly apparent, our need for deeply affordable housing is unlikely to be adequately met by those seeking high returns on their investments.

Romney’s point that “the status quo won’t cut it” is certainly accurate, but what we really need – a housing system that ensures everyone has security, dignity and stability where they live, which would mean genuine equitable and accountable alternatives to private debt and speculative housing arrangements – neither candidate has expressed a willingness to support.  The focus of the debate on the housing finance market, and not housing need, is evidence of the needed paradigm shift from “the financialization of housing to a human rights-based approach to housing policies, which can foster real opportunities for all.” (Rolnik, Oct. 1, 2012).  In looking for these solutions, Romney and Obama must turn to the communities organizing actively to address the dire housing needs of its members.  To not do so, would only serve to exasperate an already dismal situation.