From now until Election Day, The Brian Lehrer Show is hosting a series called “30 Issues in 30 Days.” The idea is to dive deep on one issue a day to give voters a sense of what candidates are saying about the policies that affect their lives. This week the series is looking at how Democrats would try to change policy if they won Congress. Today’s issue: the Federal Role in Affordable Housing.

This year the White House attempted to slash funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by $8.8 billion. New York’s very own NYCHA braced for major jettisoning—“a 66% cut to big-ticket capital projects and an 11% trim to day-to-day operations funds,” according to The Daily News. In a tweet, HUD Secretary Ben Carson defended the budget slash, saying it would move people “towards self-sufficiency.”

Though Congress struck down the budget proposal and voted to keep HUD fully funded, the proposed cut is consistent with how the federal government has approached the issue in the last few decades. “There has not been enough investment to maintain public housing. Instead there’s been a retrenchment. It just hasn’t been a priority,” said former HUD secretary Julian Castro on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday. But now, some politicians are pushing to make it a priority with the top Democratic contenders for a 2020 presidential run rolling out their own plans to fix America’s affordable housing crises.

How has Ben Carson approached his job as HUD secretary so far?

“Secretary Carson has so far mostly changed the tone and emphasis of housing policy by pulling HUD away from its traditional role of improving housing conditions for low-income families” said Jenny Schuetz, who studies housing policy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. “Secretary Carson is skeptical that HUD (or the federal government more generally) should provide a safety net for families who need help.”

In his tenure, Carson has sent mixed messages, particularly on the critical issue of enforcing the Fair Housing Act, which requires any city, county, or state that receives federal housing funds to work actively to undo patterns of racial segregation. Before becoming HUD Secretary he said Fair Housing enforcement was “social engineering.” But more recently, Carson announced he wants to spur the creation of mixed-income multi-family households by rolling back regulations and zoning rules—a mishmash of liberal and conservative thinking that has some observers confused about intent and outcome.

“If Carson continues to passively undermine HUD’s mission and fails to provide clear direction for the agency,” said Schuetz, “he will undermine past progress. Failing to address housing affordability will have very real human costs, as well as leading to less productive workers and a weaker US economy,”

Why does the issue matter in the midterms?

Housing, and who pays for it, could become a more central issue in Congress next year if Democrats win control of the House. The Democrats’ infrastructure proposal, which is a top priority for the party, allocates $70 billion to upgrade NYCHA and public housing across the country. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), who supports the proposal, said upgrading living conditions in public housing is a top priority, and promised that if the Democrats win the House NYCHA will get all of the funding support it needs. (How Jeffries will keep that promise if Republicans still control all other branches of the federal government remains an open question.)

“There are more than $20 billion unmet in capital repair and maintenance needs that have created a situation where NYCHA residents are living in unacceptable conditions,” Jeffries told City & State. “We have to get that fixed.”

And beyond...

Three of the most likely 2020 Democratic presidential candidates—Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—have revealed their own policy proposals on how to fix America’s affordable housing crisis. Though their plans differ, the commonality of their effort underscores the fact that rent prices are on voters’ minds.

Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition said the housing crisis has reached historic heights. “For every 100 of the lowest income families, there are just 35 homes affordable and available to them.”

Yentel hopes the plans by the three prominent politicians will spark a national conversation about the government’s willingness to invest in solutions to solve the crisis. She also has faith in the nuts and bolts of the policy: “Senator Warren’s bill would create 3 million units of deeply affordable housing and lower rents for everyone by 10%, and Senators Booker’s and Harris’s would help bridge the significant gap between what people earn and what it costs to rent a modest apartment.”

For more, listen to Brian Lehrer's segment on this issue here:

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