Clinton vs Trump: what will the next president do for cities, housing and infrastructure?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump leave the stage following the first presidential debate. Image: Getty.

Nearly two thirds of Americans (62 per cent) live in cities, while an impressive 52 per cent of total GDP is generated in the country’s 20 top metropolitan areas. Those cities continue to face considerable challenges, in areas as diverse as transport, housing, poverty, public investment and economic growth.

And yet, urban policy has largely been ignored during the 2016 election campaign. “We have heard precious little on this front from Mrs Clinton,” says Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management. The only comments on urban policy worth noting, he adds, came from unsuccessful Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley in the early part of the Democratic campaign.

When asked about Donald Trump’s urban policies, Lynn Richards, the president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), says that she doesn’t take them seriously: “He’s like a child with a crayon.” Richards is not alone in thinking that way. Many of the DC-based policy wonks think that the Republican candidate’s proposals lack specifics

The possibility of Trump winning the keys to the White House on 8 November is steadily diminishing. But the Republicans are still likely to win the House of Representatives, even if the Democrats take the Senate.

So let's take a closer look into some key urban issues – transport, infrastructure and housing – and how the views of the two big American parties compare.

Transport and infrastructure

On issues related to mass transit, biking, and the environment, the two parties hold radically different views. Democrats advocate a substantial boost for investments in transport, with the focus on moving away from car use, while Republicans promote a limited federal role and a return to car-based transport.

Deteriorating infrastructure is a huge issue. Some 32 per cent of US roads are now rated “poor” or worse for bumpiness, an increase of 16 per cent since 2005. In addition, the next government will be required to address the numerous ageing railways, bridges and sewers needing improvement and replacement. With an enormous spending deficit, the Democratic Party has suggested a five-year plan to create a $275bn National Infrastructure Bank to fund such projects.

An infrastructure bank would be “hugely powerful for city building and place making,” explains CNU’s Lynn Richards. She adds that she hopes that the error of single-objective spending is over. “We should be spending our infrastructure dollars in ways that meet multiple community outcomes.”


In order to fund the bank, the Democrats plan to raise the gasoline tax. The Republicans, by contrast, are set against increasing a tax that has remained stable for 23 years.

And despite Donald Trump’s loose talk about the importance of infrastructure, the Republican platform would shift how the Highway Trust Fund would be spent. The multi-billion-dollar source of federal support for mass transit, biking programmes, sidewalks and other would be channelled back into building roads, leaving such initiatives to local governments.

The final outcome will depend what kind of win ensues. “If Clinton is elected but the Democrats do not get control of the House and Senate, then it will be like Obama' last years; nothing much gets done except by presidential directives,” explains University of Maryland Professor John Rennie Short. If that happens, rather than grand policies from the federal government, we can expect the encouragement of local initiatives such as the DOT Livability Initiative. “Increasing gas taxes for the Highway Fund would be off the table as would the National Infrastructure Bank,” Rennie Short says.

A Trump win would almost certainly mean that Republicans win Congress too, he adds. “Expect no tax increases, no local initiatives, more toll roads and probably some privatisation schemes touted.”

Looking to the future, an important issue to be addressed within the next presidential cycle will be adopting the technology and installing the infrastructure required to guide autonomous vehicles, such as the ones developed by Tesla and Google. “Who owns that technology is going to own the road essentially,” explains Lynn Richards.

Housing

America has an affordable housing crisis: there is not a single US state where a minimum wage employee working full-time can reasonably afford a one-bedroom apartment at a fair market rent.  Meanwhile, the supply of rental housing is not expanding fast enough to accommodate household growth, which creates pressure on rents.

Buying is becoming harder, too. Older millennials are having a hard time getting into homeownership because mortgages are still hard to get, while seniors are living longer, and more independently, than they used to. According to their differing views on the role of government, each party has proposed different ways of dealing with the crisis.

In February, Hillary Clinton proposed a $125bn Economic Revitalisation Initiative that includes some major housing reforms. It makes a number of proposals to make sustainable homeownership more accessible: offering more families down payment assistance, expanding beyond traditional credit scores and building more affordable rental housing.

To help current homeowners keep their homes, and fight the effects of homelessness, Clinton also proposes substantially increased funding for the National Housing Trust Fund, with the aim of creating new homes and jobs in the process. She also plans to boost the Neighborhood Stabilisation Programme, whereby municipalities can purchase foreclosed homes, get them renovated and then subsidise their sale to new home buyers with low incomes.

It's worth noting, too, that Clinton's vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine has spent years advocating for fair housing reform.

Trump, on the other hand, a real-estate developer himself, has yet to offer a position on housing finance reform. The Republicans believe that regulations and rules are holding back the free market from finding a solution.

The party has heavily criticised the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, that requires cities which receive federal money to examine their housing patterns and look for racial bias. Their reasoning is that is it tampers with local decision-making in community planning.

Under the banner of “responsible home ownership” the Republican party platform champions the virtues of a property-owning democracy that safeguards individual liberties, strengthens communities and builds wealth, while blaming Democratic housing policies for any problems. It only briefly mentions renting, within the context of “eliminating restrictions to promote greater supply of rental opportunities”.

What the US needs is a multi-faceted strategy to allow people to achieve economic mobility whatever their housing situation. Rolf Pendall, co-director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, believes policies need to focus on rental affordability for young tenants, access to credit for mortgages for first home buyers, and strategies to improve homes for older age owners.

“These trends play out differently in different metro areas,” he says. “However, with hot markets much more bottled up at the younger end and cooler ones needing more to help seniors transition comfortably.”

Bipartisan and local

There are bipartisan approaches to addressing metropolitan issues, which would allow either candidate an excellent starting point for a realistic reset of US urban and housing rules. Professor Short believes that the most interesting policy developments in the US are not emanating from a stalled Congress, but “from progressive towns and cities experimenting with new schemes instead”.

Richard Florida concludes that a strong urban policy – linked to economic growth and addressing the challenges like inequality, segregation and affordability – is the key to get American economy moving again. “Cities are the key sources of innovation and economic growth. Urban policy needs to leverage this and address the challenges it brings.” 

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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