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Can Biden, Nevada Democrats convince voters they're the party of housing?

Voters are increasingly identifying the high costs of rent, mortgages as an electoral concern.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
CongressEconomyElection 2024ElectionsGovernmentHousing

“Housing is so much more than just a word,” President Joe Biden told Las Vegas union members in mid-March. “It’s about people’s lives.”

Nevada was a prescient choice for the president’s pitch because the state has one of the most acute housing shortages in the country. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Nevada is nearly 80,000 affordable rental homes short of meeting the needs of extremely low-income renters — those who are at or below the federal poverty guideline or earn less than 30 percent of the area median income. The average home sale price in the state has risen dramatically since the pandemic, from about $300,000 in 2019 to nearly $450,000 today — one of the main cost of living challenges that have people feeling pessimistic about an economy that’s otherwise strong.

Why housing? It’s the rare cost of living issue that voters seem to reward Democrats on. In an April poll conducted by Emerson College and The Hill, housing was ranked as Nevada voters’ number four issue, behind only the economy, immigration and education. 

While Nevada voters preferred former President Donald Trump on the economy and immigration, about 46 percent of respondents who selected housing affordability as their top issue trusted Biden, compared with 33 percent for Trump.

Biden’s embrace of housing language on the campaign trail — and in his budget — was a welcome sign to Nevada’s congressional Democrats who say they hear about the issue constantly — though it’s received far less attention in advertising thus far as abortion or health care.

“It is a real issue,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), who had urged the vice president to bring up housing more, said in an interview. “I agree with my constituents who say rent is too damn high.”

While Biden’s standard stump speech otherwise mainly focuses on his last four years in office, housing is a campaign issue that’s more forward-looking. Biden’s housing policies, outlined in his 2025 budget, would be a second term push and require a number of legislative solutions in Congress. 

But Democratic campaign messaging on housing is complicated by the fact that the nuts and bolts of housing policy is often determined at the state and local level. Biden proposed a suite of federal housing policy changes and investments that advocates say would represent a historic investment — but fail to entirely close gaps that have been building since the Great Recession. 

Trump, meanwhile, has been scant on policy details on housing, only promising to fight Biden’s “woke” incursion into the suburbs and target fair housing rules.

This election season presents two dilemmas for Nevada’s elected Democrats — can they convince voters that they are the party of housing? And are their proposals big enough to create change?

Read More: Nevada’s 2024 rental market stabilizing, but prices remains above pre-pandemic levels

Housing history

Modern federal housing policy dates back to the Great Depression. Then, a lack of access to credit made homeownership difficult and led President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress to create the Federal Housing Administration, which pioneered the 30-year mortgage. 

After World War II, with the Depression subsided, low-interest, fixed-rate mortgages were extended to servicemembers returning home through the G.I. Bill — making homeownership accessible after a period of underbuilding, but contributing to a more severe housing shortage than we face today. 

“Millions of G.I.s returned from the war, and apparently all of them wanted to get married and have children,” said Alexander von Hoffman, an urban planner and historian at Harvard University. “And everybody was caught flat-footed.”

After homebuilding had ground to a halt during the Depression, the federal government worked to stimulate the creation of new housing with mixed results, through federal public housing, providing a stable market for builders (essentially subsidizing the creation of white suburbs through FHA standards) and experimenting with price controls and funding cities’ slum clearance and land redevelopment efforts.

As the incentives helped the market correct itself, and overbuilding contributed to dropping home prices, more of the government’s focus turned towards low-income renters. The federal government’s approach shifted from building public housing — which had been undermined by structural racism and urban disinvestment — toward subsidizing private building of low-income housing and providing rental assistance.

The tools created in these periods, from the 1970s to the early 1990s, are still the primary ones used in housing policy today. On the housing supply side, these include:

  • The Community Development Block Grant, which provides grant funding to states and localities for housing purposes
  • The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), a federal tax incentive for developers to reserve a specified number of units in new projects at below-market rates
  • The HOME Investments Partnerships Program, a block grant to states for affordable housing creation and assistance 

And on the demand side, the Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly referred to as “Section 8,” involves the federal government paying landlords about 70 percent of the cost of rent for extremely low-income, disabled or elderly Americans.

With few new market interventions for the middle-income housing market, the Great Recession of 2008 cratered the homebuilding market. The deficiency has been augmented by rising construction and labor costs and local governments’ stranglehold on zoning, which makes building dense housing — such as apartment buildings and condos — illegal in many neighborhoods. 

More than a decade into this period of underbuilding, the pandemic hit. 

“Everybody suddenly wants to move into a house and rates are really low, and a bunch of people whose demand has been sort of pent up — all these millennials coming of homebuyer age — want to buy a house really quickly,” said Janneke Ratcliffe, vice president of the Housing Finance Policy Center. “And so you have that layering on top of the chronic undersupply.”

Nevada’s housing challenges 

In Nevada, the undersupply has also been exacerbated by a rapidly growing population and the persistent challenge of lack of land, with developers often complaining that the state’s high percentage of federally owned land makes it difficult and expensive to acquire and develop homes. Environmental advocates argue that development should grow upwards instead of out, building more multifamily and dense housing on existing land, but this too can be complicated by restrictive zoning policies at the local level.

On top of that is the high cost of land, construction, labor and financing.

“All of those things coming together certainly have driven up prices to the point where existing tools struggle — most of those coming from the federal level,” said Christine Hess, the chief financial officer of the Nevada Housing Division.

Land has been Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo’s focus when it comes to housing as well. While many growing Western states lead the nation in housing deficits, Nevada has the unique distinction of being the state with the highest percentage of federally owned land, driving bipartisan interest in conveying more public land for housing. A 2022 report prepared for the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association estimated that with just 50,000 acres of land left for development in Clark County, the county may “exhaust its ability to develop by 2032.”

Lombardo took a shot at Biden during the president’s March visit, sending a letter urging him to cut housing development red tape. And he later endorsed a proposal from Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) to allow the federal government to contract with land appraisers credentialed in any state — a small regulatory fix, but one aimed at making more land available more efficiently.

Funding for housing, meanwhile, has increased thanks to the 2021 American Rescue Plan (ARP), which appropriated billions for pandemic emergency housing assistance. Nevada received $500 million in grant funding for the Home Means Nevada program, which it has obligated to affordable housing projects and homeownership programs. On the rental assistance side, the White House estimates it made nearly 35,000 ARP-funded payments to Nevadans to meet their rent and utility costs.

The ARP and other pandemic-era bills helped fund desperately needed new affordable housing projects into the state’s pipeline. But advocates said more federal investment — as well as macroeconomic changes such as lowered interest rates — is needed to address the shortage.

Wally Swenson, the vice president of corporate affairs at Nevada HAND, the state’s largest affordable housing developer, said the state needs 84,000 new affordable units to meet existing needs.

“We're last in the nation with the amount of affordable available housing that we have,” he said. “We have 5,000 units currently in our portfolio, and we have 1,900 more on the way and we're really proud of that — but it's a drop in the bucket.” 

In the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2024 report, Nevada was dead last among all states for its affordable housing shortage, with fewer than two affordable rental homes available per every 10 extremely low-income residents.

The data is similarly concerning for market rate housing. A 2022 study from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that although nearly 245,000 housing units were permitted in Nevada between 2000 and 2009, the following 12 years only saw about 126,000 units permitted. But from 2010 to 2020, the state’s population has increased by more than 430,000 people — creating far more demand than supply. 

This basic economic issue has, predictably, resulted in higher home prices. An Architecture Lab study using Zillow data found that the average home price in Nevada went up 158 percent between 2013 and 2023 — the third-highest rate in the nation behind only Florida and Idaho. 

And in the rental market, although average rents have finally begun to come down after a decade of increases, median incomes in Las Vegas and Reno remain insufficient to afford median rents. The average monthly cost of a one-bedroom apartment in both Las Vegas and Reno is nearly 50 percent of each region’s median monthly income, the point at which a renter is defined as “extremely cost-burdened.”

And federal funding is not coming at the required scale. Swenson said the low-income housing tax credit, considered among the best tools for affordable housing developers, finances 10 to 11 projects per year in Nevada — meaningful, but wildly insufficient. 

Affordable housing developers often describe their funding approach as “lasagna financing,” cobbling together federal, state, banking, private and nonprofit streams. They emphasized that a greater investment from the federal government would be transformative, but that state and local governments need to embrace the challenge as well, including through potential zoning changes that other Western communities have adopted.

Housing was a big topic of discussion during the 2023 legislative session, although much of the proposed legislation involved temporary rental caps, protections for tenants against evictions and funding for tackling homelessness, rather than increasing or diversifying the state’s housing stock. And many of those bills were vetoed by Lombardo.

Existing proposals

That confluence of housing market factors has created a perfect storm of demand for new federal actions.

“It's the number one thing I hear from Nevadans — from our families, from a coalition of folks working on trying to bring affordable housing to Nevada,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) said in an interview. “We need more middle-class housing.” 

To that end, the president and the Nevada delegation have a suite of proposals to attempt to boost the market. Their approach is through incentivization — using carrots — rather than withholding or demanding — sticks. 

In his 2025 fiscal year budget, Biden proposed significantly expanding existing housing programs and creating new credits and grants to both boost supply and give renters and buyers new assistance, including loosening up a middle class housing market that has been curtailed by mortgage rate hikes accelerated in 2022 that aimed to rein in inflation. 

Experts and advocates for affordable housing in Nevada described the proposals as an ambitious step.

“We need more financing,” Swenson said. “We need more players doing the work to get more developers in the space and more people doing it. We need more funding mechanisms. And so [I’m] extremely happy that the President's budget included a lot of those mechanisms and had historic funding levels.”

Biden’s housing platform contrasts sharply with Trump, whose platform is light on details but high on fear, accusing the president of ruining the suburbs with “woke left” ideology — building apartments. He also promised to repeal a fair housing rule intended to prevent discrimination, saying the rule was unworkable when he attempted to undo it in 2020 to appeal to white suburban voters.

And in Congress, House Republicans’ proposed 2024 fiscal year budget would have slashed funding for various HUD programs and limited the number of people receiving rental assistance. Wait lists for housing vouchers can last years, particularly in states such as Nevada where the voucher allocation funding formula has not properly accounted for population growth. In Southern Nevada, for example, HUD allocates just under 12,600 housing vouchers per year, but 27,000 people have applied for them.

That’s not the stance of all Republicans — in the Senate, Republican senators have signed onto several pieces of Democratic legislation and Republican governors in Western states in particular are leaders in rezoning movements. But it has not amounted to any meaningful bipartisan legislation in Congress. 

At the delegation level, Nevada Democrats want to tackle high rates of corporate investment, free up more land and expand the funding and potential uses of existing tools. 

The federal proposals don’t tackle one big obstacle for expanding housing supply — zoning. While zoning is done at the local level, some advocates have argued that the federal government should use the power of the purse to incentivize localities to embrace zoning measures that reduce sprawl — something Biden’s administration may do in a second term. 

Reno is one such locality considering changing zoning ordinances to allow for more housing to be built. The city is considering providing developers with incentives for building denser housing and infill development, allowing for middle-density housing such as duplexes and permitting accessory dwelling units such as granny flats. 

In Clark County, a 2022 report from Applied Analysis noted that the county’s development code prevents higher-density developments near low-density developments, such as the county’s many suburban, master-planned communities.

Still, experts caution that the most effective solution to the housing crisis might be the one thing politicians can’t afford — time. 

“It took 15 or so years to dig ourselves into this hole,” Ratcliffe said. “It's going to take a while to dig us out.”

Whither the politics?

The housing crisis is a political issue open for the taking — polling finds that Democrats, Republicans and independents alike are all equally concerned about the toll of high housing costs.

Democrats argue that their record, including passing the ARP, proves that they have been engaged on the issue and delivered results, such as new senior housing complexes. And Nevada continues to receive investments from existing federal programs, including the recent announcement of $43 million coming to the state through various HUD funds.

“I've been doing the work and we have the receipts to prove it,” Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) said. “Now, there's a lot more yet to be done. We're going to continue to work on this. But we keep making a dent in every single way we can.”

Still, with housing issues rising in voter consciousness, pressure is mounting on lawmakers to go further. And it presents an interesting dilemma — should they talk about housing to ensure voters know they hear their concerns and have plans to address them? Or does doing so risk reminding voters of an economic concern that has only become more potent while the incumbents have been in office?

The Nevada delegation is eager to discuss housing, and their official-side offices frequently put out press releases tied to their legislation, send letters to the administration and host in-state roundtables with stakeholders. 

Much of the politicking has occurred at the state level, with the Nevada Democratic Party hammering Lombardo over rising evictions and his veto record while Lombardo promotes his own housing agenda. But federal candidates are starting to get in the game — Rosen’s campaign is launching a new ad this week highlighting her efforts to secure affordable housing funding and take on corporate investors, the first housing-centric ad of the cycle.

Given how severe the problem is in Nevada in particular — especially compared with swing states besides Arizona — it would be hard to avoid. On the trail, with little prospect of action this year, federal Democrats have to hope that the way they talk about it will resonate with voters feeling the housing squeeze.

“[Housing is] mental health, physical health,” Rosen said, potentially previewing her campaign rhetoric. “It's our economic health. All of that starts with the foundation of having some place to call home. So that's why I'm working on it.” 


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