Affordable housing

Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker’s recently released affordable housing plan tackles obstacles to home ownership, exceedingly expensive rent and homelessness in a prescription his campaign says would have wide-reaching benefits in the Granite State.

Based on data from a Columbia University study cited by the U.S. senator from New Jersey’s campaign, the plan seeks to help 162,000 New Hampshire residents through rent credits, right-to-counsel to fight eviction, reforms to zoning laws and more public funding for homelessness grants.

A baseline measure for increasing access to home ownership in Booker’s plan comes from one of his signature campaign proposals — baby bonds.

These bonds, which Booker discussed in detail on The Sentinel’s Pod Free or Die politics podcast, would give each American child a nest egg of $1,000 at birth. The bonds would accrue varying levels of value each year, depending on the wealth of the child’s parents, until he or she is 18. No one would be able to draw from the account until the child reaches adulthood, and even then, it could be spent only on certain expenses, such as college tuition or the down-payment on a home.

Melinda L. “Mindy” Cambiar, the executive director of Hundred Nights — a Keene homeless shelter that does not take federal funds — said she’s glad to see a presidential candidate highlighting the issue.

“I would hope that most, if not all, of the candidates would try to come up with some kind of initiative that would at least get the ball rolling in the right direction,” Cambiar said, adding that grassroots support is crucial, too.

The Booker plan would allocate $6 billion annually to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program to help local communities fund services for those experiencing homelessness.

McKinney-Vento received around $2.5 billion in the 2018 federal budget and saw spending on some outreach programs and other initiatives cut by millions of dollars.

Booker’s plan would also make permanent the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which exists on a year-to-year basis, while coordinating other federal funds to combat homelessness.

Cambiar, speaking after being given a summary of Booker’s plan by a reporter, said she focuses most of her efforts at the local level and remains skeptical of promises from politicians on homelessness that are often broken. However, other components of housing policy that she identified as critical links, such as rent subsidies, are also addressed in the plan.

For Americans who spend more than one-third of their income on rent, a “renters credit” would be given to help meet costs. This would potentially offer as many as 57 million people a median annual credit of $4,800, according to the campaign’s analysis of the Columbia data.

Peter Francese, a demographic trends analyst based in Exeter, praised the proposed credit as a way of leveling the playing field for younger professionals with older homeowners, who benefit from more robust public subsidies.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Francese, who spoke about the Granite State’s need to attract more young people for its economy to sustain itself at an April roundtable in Peterborough with U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster, D-N.H.

“It has always been a problem that homeowners, like me, can deduct their taxes and sometimes other expenses on their income tax because we still encourage home ownership in this country,” Francese said. “But millions of millennials are up to their eyeballs in [student loan] debt, so they have a mortgage, they just don’t have a house to go with it.”

The funding for Booker’s plan, according to the campaign, would come from restoring the estate tax rules from 2009, which drew taxes from inheritances over $3.5 million. With the 2017 tax cuts, the exemption was doubled to more than $11 million.

Francese, who has been working on a documentary about home ownership and demographic challenges facing the Granite State, also heralded Booker’s plan for including zoning regulations as part of the equation to increase housing affordability.

Booker’s plan would try to incentivize local governments to expand rental units and other affordable housing by tying federal loan and grant programs under HUD to the rolling back of restrictive zoning policies, such as limiting the density of new housing or imposing age restrictions.

The plan also includes $40 billion each year for the construction of affordable rental units.

“Those restrictive housing codes mean that housing is not affordable to the vast, vast majority of people,” Francese said. “And the reason that towns do that is they believe the myth that every house puts two kids in the school and costs a lot of money [in property taxes].”

Regardless of any federal initiative, however, Francese cautioned that there is only so much progress that can be made in the Granite State as long as property taxes are the main funding source for services like education.

In a statement released by the campaign, former state senator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly of Harrisville — who has not endorsed a candidate in the 2020 race — also praised Booker’s plan.

“As a state Senator and while campaigning across New Hampshire last year, I consistently heard concerns from Granite Staters about affordable housing. Cory’s plan is a bold proposal that will address this critical problem,” Kelly, who told The Sentinel in May that she’s considering another run for governor, said in the release. “He knows the struggles of families and individuals working hard every day to support their loved ones here in our state and across the country.”

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.