The House of Representatives is chock-full of caucuses, hundreds of them expressing the common interest of individual members in everything from chemistry to nihilism. Plenty of them are frivolous, but some of them are serious and serve to focus attention on critical issues. That’s what California Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez is trying to do with his new group, the Renters Caucus: focus attention on the nation’s housing affordability crisis.
“Seventy-eight percent of my district is renters, and a larger and larger percentage are rent-burdened,” Gomez told Roll Call, explaining part of the impetus for him in forming the group. “When they hit any kind of economic issue, they end up on the street. … And there hasn’t been much of a coordinated approach to dealing with issues facing renters.”
One of the members of the new group is also new to Congress, the first Gen Z person to get there. He’s also got first-hand experience in trying to find a place to live without a lot of money and a bad credit history—his the result of debt incurred while he was running for Congress and couldn’t make enough driving for Uber.
It’s a national epidemic: Not one state in the nation has enough affordable housing to meet the need of low-income renters. There’s a gap of 7.3 million rental homes that are available and affordable to the lowest-income renters, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. For every 100 people living at or below the poverty line, or at 30% of their area median income, there are just 33 affordable homes.
That, in turn, hurts the economy as a whole. Gomez told Roll Call that the issue clicked for him in a policy retreat at the beginning of the year featuring economists and former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who explained that people’s inability to find affordable housing, as well as child care, can keep people out of the workforce, which lowers the GDP. He also cited a study published in 2022 by the journal “Housing Policy Debate” that found “decreases in housing affordability had a statistically significant negative effect on economic growth” in 100 metropolitan areas in the study. “Over 80% of the national GDP is generated in U.S. metros,” the researchers found, “and increasing housing affordability there may help grow the U.S. economy.”
Gomez is smartly framing the issue in economic terms, trying to shake people out of the mindset that affordable housing is welfare. “Some folks are going to think that we’re trying to give hand-outs, or that it doesn’t impact everybody. But when economists say it’s going to impact our GDP, it impacts everybody,” Gomez said. “It’s not just a doing-the-right-thing issue, it’s also an economic issue. It’s about our competitiveness as a country.”
Voters certainly see it that way, because the housing crisis affects so many people beyond those with the lowest incomes. Nearly half of Americans surveyed by Pew in late 2020 identified housing affordability as a major problem for their community: 49% of them. That’s 10 points higher from 2018. “Americans’ concerns about the availability of affordable housing have outpaced worries about other local issues,” Pew found. That survey was done during the pandemic, so the issue might have been heightened for people.
The reality remains that rent is still too damned expensive, hitting a record high last month, with the median rent the highest it's been since at least 2016, according to online rental platform Zumper. Inflation in rent hasn’t gotten as much attention over the last few years as gas or food prices, but it remains a crisis. Maybe Gomez’s caucus can serve to bring some attention—and some solutions—to it.