The person inaugurated president in 386 days will have troubles aplenty – the Iraq war, terrorism, global warming and the deficit – but one thing he or she won’t have to worry about is housing. Taxpayers foot the bill for a four-story Georgian-style mansion with off-street parking and a rose garden.

For millions of the president’s constituents, however – from urban residents squeezed by unaffordable rents to suburbanites hit by the subprime mortgage crisis – housing is a major, daily concern, albeit one that has attracted relatively little attention in the months of campaigning and dozens of debates that have preceded this week’s pivotal Iowa caucuses.

War and terrorism were bound to loom large in the 2008 race, but even among domestic issues, housing has gotten short shrift. In the most recent New York Times/CBS News presidential poll, for example, voters were asked to rank seven issues in order of importance. It turned out that five were domestic issues, but housing problems weren’t even among the options, despite their broad impact. “A third of Americans [households comprising about 105 million people] are paying more than they can afford for housing. Compare that to health insurance,” says Occidental College politics professor Peter Dreier, who has written about the role of domestic policy in this campaign. “Something like 45 million Americans lack medical coverage – and that’s, like, a big scandal.”

The woes of subprime debtors—and the banks and investment houses who bet on them—forced housing onto the national radar screen in the closing weeks of the Iowa campaign. But foreclosures represent just one piece of a mosaic of housing worries. Hoping to learn more about what the key housing issues are and what the candidates propose to do about them, City Limits contacted roughly three dozen New York City housing advocates, analysts, developers, designers and policymakers to see what they wanted to learn from the candidates.

Then we shaped these queries into a survey and gave it to all 17 campaigns active in Iowa. Yes, even Alan Keyes got one.

Unfortunately, the candidates seemed to be too busy hunting pheasants and eating corndogs along the campaign trail to respond. But the questions we collected reveal much about the breadth and character of the housing problem. And in gathering them, City Limits learned a little about what the candidates have said and done—and not said or done—on some of the key issues. It turns out several have said a lot, and a few even have records to point to, or defend.

So, as Iowans get ready to declare their preferences, here are some of the questions New York’s housing community wants to ask the people vying to occupy the public housing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and an overview of some of the answers.

1. “Extraordinary housing costs are a growing problem for urban working families across the country. Yet federal housing programs have been at a standstill or chronically starved for funding since the 1980s,” writes Victor Bach, senior housing analyst at the Community Service Society. “Why haven’t you and the other candidates addressed the issue of Washington’s commitment to house low-income working families?”

While no candidate is emphasizing his or her housing agenda, several do have one. Sen. Barack Obama wants, among other housing ideas, to fully fund the Community Development Block Grant. Former Sen. John Edwards is proposing the creation of a million new Section 8 vouchers. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wants to lower the down payment requirement for Federal Housing Administration loans.

As Partnership for New York City president Kathryn Wylde wrote, “Clearly the most important federal housing issues have to do with continued funding for production of subsidized housing, both public and private. To wit, several candidates have signaled support for a housing trust fund (see question #3). In addition, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich promises to restore funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose budget has been slashed over the past 30 years, to 1978 levels. Sen. Hillary Clinton points to her efforts to protect housing funding in Washington.

Republicans are less likely to talk about housing – although former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has pointed with pride to his father George Romney’s stint as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Richard Nixon’s first term. GOP Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Ron Paul have both noted their opposition to the 2005 Supreme Court ruling in Kelo v. New London, which greatly expanded eminent domain powers for government – a ruling with a variety of potential effects for housing.
2. “In 2005 (according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census) 31 million American households paid more than 35 percent of their income for housing,” notes Jerilyn Perine, who headed the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and is now the executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Council. “Since federal housing policies of the last 25 years have largely been ill-conceived, underfunded, choked by onerous regulation or undermined by budget cuts, what would your administration do differently to make housing preservation, production and affordability a priority to reach these 31 million households?”

This is a different question than #1. It’s not just, “What are you going to do?” but rather, “What are you going to that’s different?” Denise Scott, managing director of the New York City office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, asks a related question: “What lessons do you draw from both the successes and failures of past housing policy?”

Some of the candidates have embraced new ideas, even if they didn’t originate them. Edwards’ plan for a million new Section 8 vouchers explicitly seeks to remove the federal government from running housing developments, and Edwards has also suggested that a work requirement might be attached to the new vouchers. Obama says he’ll create a White House Office of Urban Policy to elevate the needs of cities within his administration.

And what lessons can voters draw from what these candidates have done in the past? Virtually every candidate in the race has a legislative voting record on housing issues. But those records are of limited use for voters trying to determine whether candidates mean what they say, says Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We are currently trying to figure out the same thing and are sticking to what they say as candidates,” she says. “We have typically found that voting records do not inform us. So much gets attached to most passed bills.”

A similar caution attaches to the records of executives, like former Gov. Romney and former Mayor Giuliani. Romney loosened zoning restrictions to allow higher density housing, and some have credited this move with bringing down high rents in Boston; but other factors were also at play. Housing was not a focus of Giuliani’s mayoralty, but the HPD of that era is credited with building out Mayor Ed Koch’s 10-year plan to the tune of $3.3 billion (in today’s dollars) over Giuliani’s eight fiscal years. During those years, HPD completed roughly 69,000 affordable units. While that’s slightly fewer units than Mayor David Dinkins completed in his single term, or the number Mayor Michael Bloomberg finished in the first six years of his mayoral tenure, Giuliani also committed more dollars to housing in his final term than Bloomberg did in his first – so a neat comparison can be hard to come by.

3. “Will the candidate commit to the National Housing Trust Fund?” asks Ellen Davidson, a housing attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

The National Housing Trust Fund would use a portion of the profits from government-sponsored mortgage businesses like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to fund state and local housing initiatives. The goal is to build or preserve 1.5 million units of housing over the next 10 years – a target that backers say will require federal funding of $5 billion a year. In May, the House of Representatives passed a bill that advocates say is a step toward that goal. Kucinich was a co-sponsor; Hunter and Paul voted against it. A Senate version was introduced in November and referred to Senator Christopher Dodd’s banking committee. Clinton supports a $1 billion housing trust fund. Obama says he supports a fund that would create 14,000 new units over 10 years. Meanwhile, Richardson already launched a housing trust fund in New Mexico.

4. “In reference to the subprime mortgage situation: Given that numerous financial institutions took actions which some say contributed to the loss of real estate for many people, especially those with low incomes, do you feel that these institutions should be providing funds to ‘pay back’ the government in its various programs assisting these who have been affected?” asks Amie Gross, a prominent architect who designs affordable housing.

Republican candidates have said fairly little about the turmoil in the mortgage market. Giuliani told CNBC, “This is something that the market has to straighten out – and it will.” Most Democrats have said a lot about the crisis; their response is usually to impose new regulation and tends to be forward-looking. Edwards wants to prohibit certain exotic mortgages and allow homeowners to rewrite their mortgages during bankruptcy. Dodd has introduced a bill that would prohibit companies from steering people who qualify for regular mortgages into subprime deals. Richardson would, among other things, try to get more competition into the rating industry that determines the quality of mortgage-backed securities. Clinton wants to get rid of prepayment penalties and require more disclosure of the taxes and fees homebuyers will pay when they accept a particular mortgage deal.

But what about the “pay back” that Gross asks about? Richardson says he’d pressure banks to maintain upkeep of properties that they’ve foreclosed on. Clinton and Obama say they’d dedicate funds to help people facing foreclosure; in Obama’s case, the funds would come in part from fines collected under his separate proposal to increase criminal penalties for mortgage fraud.

The subprime mortgage crisis has several causes, but one of the possible contributing factors was the deregulation of banks that allowed widespread investment in mortgage-backed securities, which in turn provided the capital for some of the risky loans that have now gone bad. A key step in deregulation was the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a post-Great Depression law that restricted bank investments. Supporting the repeal were Democratic candidate Sen. Joseph Biden, along with Dodd, Edwards and then-Sen. Fred Thompson, now a Republican presidential hopeful. Edwards even got a personal, public thank you from corporate backers of the repeal. McCain voted in early 1999 for a preliminary version of repeal legislation, but did not vote on the final bill.
5. Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) Director Ilana Berger asks: “During the time of the current administration, public housing federal funding has been cut by over $2.5 billion. What is your opinion about public housing as a whole? Would you support an increase in federal dollars to public housing? If so, how much? If not, why not?”

This was one of several questions pertaining to public housing. Another, from attorney Davidson, was, “Will the candidate repeal the community service requirement for public housing?” – a reference to a 2003 HUD regulation that requires many public housing residents to complete a set number of hours of volunteer work. Advocates have complained that HUD’s work requirements are out of step with federal law, and that local housing might apply the rule to people who are supposed to be exempt from it.

Other respondents asked about plans for the HOPE VI program, a funding stream that allows local housing authorities to revamp and improve public housing. And CUNY professor John Mollenkopf wondered, “How would you change or improve the Section 8 voucher program?”

In their position papers and records, the candidates have addressed a few of these issues.

Again, the Republicans have said little about public housing, at least recently. Giuliani emphasized public safety in public housing during his time as mayor. Romney vetoed funding increases for public housing. Huckabee has pointed to his use in Arkansas of HUD funding to create assisted living communities for the infirm.

Democrats have said more, but few have advanced truly new ideas. Clinton points to her efforts to protect funding for Section 8 and public housing, and has called for new public housing in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. Obama and Dodd have protested the recent HUD plan to demolish, and not fully replace, public housing in New Orleans. Dodd also has advocated for changes in public housing management over much of his time in the Senate. As mentioned, Edwards is calling for 1 million more Section 8 vouchers (there are fewer than 2 million now) and an expanded HOPE VI program; he also wants to “phase out housing projects that tie families to certain locations and are often lower quality and more expensive than private sector alternatives.” Kucinich has called for more rural, as well as urban, housing and wants the U.N. to recognize housing as a human right. Biden authored the Violence Against Women Act, which protects public housing residents who are victims of abuse.

6. Regional Plan Association Chris Jones asks: “What is your strategy for where and how to house the next 50 million Americans over the next generation without promoting suburban sprawl?”

Other respondents noted that existing affordable housing programs contribute to sprawl by locating poor people in outlying areas where land is cheap, contributing to environmental problems and forcing poor families to pay for longer commutes to work. Edwards, for one, promises to “create incentives for states and regions to plan smart growth and transit-oriented development with benchmarks for reductions in vehicle miles traveled,” although it’s unclear what those incentives are.

7. What is your position on the deductibility of mortgage payments on second homes?

Right now, federal tax law allows taxpayers to deduct from their taxable income the amount of interest they pay on a mortgage for their primary home or second home. This policy, intended to encourage homeownership, has long been blamed for encouraging flight from cities, where people are more likely to rent. Some critics have also blamed the deduction, particularly on second homes, for encouraging overinvestment in housing, contributing to the recent mortgage market problems. City Limits found no trace of the candidates addressing this.

8. “The low-income housing tax credit and tax-exempt housing bonds (MRBs) have been two of the most successful housing programs ever undertaken by the federal government,“ says New York State Association for Affordable Housing president Bernie Carr. “However, the demand for these resources substantially exceeds the amount available. Would you consider increasing the per-capita allocation for both of these important programs?”

A recent report by the NYC Independent Budget Office found that Mayor Bloomberg’s 10-year plan to build 165,000 units of affordable housing faces serious budget constraints down the road. One major reason for the pinch will be a shortage of tax-exempt bonds, which are allocated to states based on population. While the Democrats typically support more funding for HUD and some form of housing trust fund, there’s been no discussion to speak of about increasing bond volume.

9. Jonathan Rose, an architect and leading “green” builder, asks: “What would you do to create a green jobs program to train and hire low-income people to insulate, caulk and otherwise ‘green’ our older buildings?”

Edwards has proposed creating a “GreenCorps” within AmeriCorps that would work on environmental projects like weatherizing homes and planting vegetation to absorb carbon emissions. Obama backs a similar program. Clinton has proposed a Green Building fund to support state grants and loans for creating more efficient buildings. Biden says he’d support “local updates to building codes” to make them greener. Romney budgeted millions for green building while in the Massachusetts executive mansion.

As Perine points out, building greener doesn’t necessarily require new-fangled construction – especially since it can be difficult to build affordable housing that uses that kind of technology. She wants the candidates to commit to “improving the environment, not through bamboo floors and windmills, but by creating incentives to preserve and increase residential density where infrastructure already exists and discourage sprawl.”

As we look to the Iowa primary and beyond, it’s clear there’s no shortage of pressing questions for presidential candidates about that most basic need of Americans, and all people: The need for decent and sustainable shelter. But many of the answers have yet to come.

– Jarrett Murphy