Recently, I was asked by Sen. Kamala Harris to host a tour of the historic International Hotel (I-Hotel) in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For decades, the I-Hotel was home to low-income Asian immigrant workers and seniors. When a corporation evicted an entire community from the I-Hotel in 1977 and demolished it four years later, housing advocates joined Asian-American and immigrant rights activists to fight for a vision of housing for all. Today, the rebuilt I-Hotel stands tall as a victory for affordable housing and a symbol of community empowerment. Unfortunately, however, the greater vision those activists had years ago — to put a roof over everyone’s head — is far from realized.
America is facing the worst housing crisis in modern history. Cities across the country have become unaffordable as low-cost housing has disappeared, exacerbating generational and racial disparities. Over the past decade, housing costs have increased dramatically, while incomes have stagnated. Almost 600,000 people in the United States are homeless on any given night, and more than 1.4 million will spend some time in a shelter this year.
Despite these pressing issues, our presidential debates have spent more time focusing on Ellen DeGeneres’ seatmate at a football game than on the issues of affordable housing and chronic homelessness. In fact, the moderators haven’t asked a single question about these critical issues, or the unsustainable mortgages and rent increases that keep Americans up at 3 a.m.
Over the past few years, we’ve made some progress here in California. Our state government has invested billions of dollars in affordable housing and homelessness programs, held cities more accountable for building housing, and worked to streamline aspects of housing production. Governor Newsom just signed a bill I authored to protect millions of tenants from rent-gouging and predatory evictions, thereby establishing the strongest renter protections in the country. But while we need all hands on deck to address the crisis, the current occupant of the White House has been everything but California’s partner.
At a time when we need a federal Marshall Plan for housing in America, we have a president who has actively rolled back the progress we’ve made. President Trump has repealed housing policies from previous administrations and cut $10 billion from affordable-housing programs. Instead of investing in the prosperity of hard-working Americans, he provided a massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthiest in society. He has treated the homelessness crisis as a talking point for his Twitter account, while assaulting fair-housing rules that have protected Americans from housing discrimination.
On that visit to the I-Hotel with Sen. Harris, I saw firsthand how she is one of the few presidential candidates with a bold and comprehensive plan that addresses not only affordable rent and housing production, but also economic justice as a whole. She understands that African-American and Latinx households are twice as likely as white households to rent, that homelessness among Asian Americans is growing more quickly than any other ethnic group, and that we need to reverse the damage that Trump has done to our communities. As Kamala has said, justice is on the ballot. It’s on the ballot when our president is more concerned with political warfare than the safety of hundreds of thousands of families on our streets.
Working with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sen. Harris is now introducing a bill to invest more than $13 billion over the next five years to end chronic homelessness — by building supportive housing and providing housing vouchers for families in danger of losing their homes. To protect working families, she has introduced legislation to provide tax credits to more than 3 million California households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and she has also proposed the largest middle-class tax credit in a generation. This multifaceted approach is what California and our nation need to boost our middle class and end homelesness.
We must use the power of our democracy to be bolder in the fight to put a roof over the head of every American. During future presidential debates and campaign coverage, the media must provide a platform for a national dialogue on housing. If not, our next national leader cannot be held accountable for a real plan to end the crisis. But if so, America can elect a president like Kamala Harris who will relentlessly fight for progress and deliver economic justice worthy of our country’s promise.
David Chiu is a California assemblymember from San Francisco and the chair of the assembly’s Housing and Community Development Committee.