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January 29, 2020

MassLive: Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and other progressives propose platform to combat homelessness, expand affordable housing

Progressive lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday, including U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts’s 7th District, declared housing a fundamental human right and called for a new wave of investments in combatting homelessness and expanding affordable housing.

Citing stark statistics on homelessness across the country and blasting the federal government for essentially ignoring affordable and public housing since the New Deal, the lawmakers announced a package of new and existing bills dubbed the “People’s Housing Platform,” targeting what they describe as a housing crisis that overwhelmingly impacts low-income individuals and communities of color.

In a news conference, Pressley said that in her district, too many are “forced to make impossible choices between putting food on the table, paying for life-saving medicine or paying for rent.”

According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, minimum-wage workers in the Massachusetts 7th must work 84 hours a week to afford “a decent one-bedroom,” Pressley said. Life expectancy in Back Bay is 92, while in Roxbury it’s 62, she said, calling the matter “an issue of public health, economic inequality … and an issue of racial justice as well.”

“Housing is more than a commodity. It is a basic necessity. It is a human right,” she said, calling for strengthened resident councils to empower tenants and a “massive investment” in affordable housing stock. “How we choose to spend our money is a reflection of our values.”

The lawmakers’ proposals would steer tax incentives away from wealthy developers and instead into investments in public housing and expanding affordable housing opportunities. The lawmakers also want to establish greater protections for tenants and penalize landlords and companies who profit from displacement.

“We’re talking about freedom,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “If your belly isn’t full, you aren’t free. If you don’t have a roof over your head, you’re not free. If you can’t afford a life-saving prescription, you’re not free.”

Ocasio-Cortez chastised those who respond to such discussions by saying, “Why do you have to make it about race? It’s because it is about race. We are being discriminated from living in certain neighborhoods, from access to certain leases, codified in economic policy.”

The lawmakers noted that nearly half a million people are homeless on any given night in America, including 100,000 children.

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said in her state, more than 10,000 people were homeless on a single night last year, the highest number ever recorded. Nearly 6,000 of them were youths, she said.

“It’s past time we invest in housing with the same vigor we did during the New Deal era,” Omar said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon noted his report, “Locked Out,” which examines opportunities to “reverse federal housing failures,” had similar statistics and disparities seen in reports from decades ago.

“These are not new issues,” he said, noting the government subsidizes housing but “most of that goes to high-income earners.” He said he’ll soon propose a low-income tax credit for renters as part of the legislative package.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan noted that too often, low-income communities and communities of color aren’t informed of property tax breaks already available.

“You can call it systemic racism, a broken system, what it is, is wrong,” she said. She will propose legislation that would expand homeownership opportunities and prevent wealthy developers from reaping the benefits of community land banks at the expense of families.

The lawmakers also pledged to combat Trump administration plans to roll back Obama-era rules pushing local governments to build more low-income and affordable housing in wealthier areas.

In a statement, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said the crisis “most severely impacts America’s lowest-income seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, families with children, and other individuals who struggle to afford to keep a roof over their heads or who have no home at all.”

“Our country can choose to end homelessness and housing poverty – we have the data, the solutions, and the resources,” she added. “We lack only the political will to fund solutions at the scale necessary.”