On rental crisis, candidates engage in 'sounds of silence'

Story highlights

  • More than half renter households in New York pay too much for housing, study says
  • Rick Lazio: High rents sap home ownership dreams of young, impose burdens on the old
  • But the presidential candidates aren't speaking out, Lazio says

Rick Lazio is a member of the executive committee of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America's Families and a partner at Jones Walker, a New Orleans-based law firm, where he heads the national housing finance practice group. He served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and ran as a Republican against Hillary Clinton for U.S. Senate in New York. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Much is at stake when New York holds its two presidential primaries Tuesday. Hillary Clinton has the chance to halt the Bernie Sanders insurgency. Donald Trump can widen his lead, making the prospect of a contested Republican convention less likely.

Rick Lazio
While Tuesday's outcome remains uncertain, what's beyond question is that the candidates of both parties can improve their chances by speaking about affordable housing, an issue that deeply resonates among voters across the state.
    Yet inexplicably what we are hearing so far are the "sounds of silence," to borrow the words of two favorite sons of New York.
    The Empire State is in the midst of a rental affordability crisis. According to the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly 53% of all renter households in New York, about 1.8 million, are "housing cost-burdened" under federal standards, meaning they pay in excess of 30% of their monthly income just on rent. About three in 10 New York renters pay more than half their income on housing, one of the worst records of any state.
    New York City, of course, is the epicenter of the state's rental affordability crisis. But cities such as Albany, Buffalo and Rochester are also home to tens of thousands of renters with excessive and unsustainable housing costs.
    High rent burdens can be devastating to the aspirations of the young college graduate, already burdened with student loan debt and just starting out in the workforce.
    They can dash the homeownership dreams of families who find themselves unable to save for a mortgage down payment to purchase their first home.
    For the senior citizen on a fixed income, high rents may mean less money to spend on essentials such as medical care, prescription drugs and nutritious food.
    Why are so many New Yorkers devoting so much of their income to rent?
    Over the past decade, housing costs have risen faster than incomes. The Great Recession and weak recovery have meant the U.S. economy is not producing enough good-paying jobs. Household incomes have stagnated. New York has not been immune from these national trends.
    At the same time, the demand for rental homes has soared. Millions of families transitioned from homeownership to rental in the wake of the subprime debacle. The millennials, 83 million strong, are now forming households for the first time, with most opting for rental housing. Add the fact that New York is a great place to live, attracting people from all over the world, and the result is predictable: soaring demand for rental housing.
    Unfortunately, the supply of affordable rental homes has not kept up. This supply-demand imbalance hits the lowest-income families the hardest, many of whom struggle mightily to find an affordable place to live. Excessive regulation that increases the cost of new construction and housing preservation has also contributed to the affordability problem.
    To his credit, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed the city to build and preserve 200,000 affordable homes over the next 10 years. If he is to achieve this goal, the federal government must be a strong and reliable partner.
    That's where the presidential candidates come in. New Yorkers should demand from those seeking their vote how they intend to respond to the crisis in housing. What role should the federal government play and what policies would they deploy if elected? Are they committed to being a president who puts housing at the top of the nation's domestic agenda? Of course, questions about housing affordability should be raised in future candidate debates.
    Unfortunately, rising rental costs are not just a New York problem but also a national one affecting communities of all types across the country.
    Today, a record number of renters have "severe" housing cost burdens. Because of powerful demographic trends now unfolding, these burdens will likely worsen over the next decade unless there is a concerted national effort to increase the supply of affordable rental homes.
    Rising rents are also limiting access to homeownership. The National Association of Realtors reports the first-time homebuyer share of the housing market is at a 29-year low, in part because of high rents and their impact on savings.
    Our next president must have a deep understanding of these problems as well as a plan to solve them. New York is the perfect place to test which candidate is up to the challenge.