Mar 11, 2024 - Economy

Why Biden's so obsessed with housing policy

Illustration of a small house viewed through a magnifying glass

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's a big focus on housing in the 2025 budget President Biden just sent Congress.

Why it matters: America's housing shortage plus record high mortgage rates, rising home prices and rents are a big worry for voters — and a key area for the president as he makes his pitch for a second term.

  • It's also an area where the White House feels it can get Republican support.
  • Finding ways to reduce housing costs is a "central concern" for the administration, White House domestic policy advisor Neera Tanden tells Axios. "There's a bipartisan interest in housing and in increasing housing supply."

Driving the news: "I know the cost of housing is critical [for] families nationwide," Biden said in a speech Monday, touting his housing plan. "Every family deserves a place to call home and a place to have your American dreams come true."

  • "The bottom line is that you have to build, build, build. That's how we bring housing costs down for good."

The big picture: The pace of home building fell off a cliff in the wake of the Great Recession and housing bust back in 2008.

  • The lack of new supply coupled with soaring demand that began in the pandemic — drove home prices through the roof, with rents soaring right alongside.
  • Building more supply "really does reduce rents and reduce the cost of housing," Tanden says, noting that new home construction has picked back up over the past few years, as some of the administration's initiative from prior years take hold.

Zoom in: The 2025 budget sets aside $258 billion for housing.

  • It includes tax credits for buyers and sellers, and more funding for low-income housing, investments in public housing and down payment assistance for first-generation home buyers, whose parents don't own a home.

The centerpiece of the plan, per the White House, is a $20 billion grant proposal — an "innovation" fund that will lead to more construction.

  • The idea is to support states and localities doing innovative things to get homes built.
  • We're talking trendy ideas, like building so-called accessory dwelling units (that's a house that a homeowner builds on their property); changing zoning laws to allow for more multifamily development in areas zoned only for single-family use; converting offices into homes, and other new models.

Reality check: The 2025 budget is a wish list, with little chance of spurring legislative action.

  • It's more useful as an indicator of what Biden wants to do if he wins a second term and a sign of once-edgy housing ideas becoming mainstream.

Zoom out: The big idea is to make it easier for developers to build places people can live — as related policies are picking up steam around the country.

  • For example: Late last year, Spokane, Wash., relaxed land-use restrictions to allow townhomes, smaller lots and more multi-family construction; two years after the town's mayor declared a "housing emergency."
  • Minneapolis's reforms in this area are credited for the city's minimal rent growth at a time when those costs are soaring in the rest of the state.

Between the lines: There's little the administration can do about one of the biggest reasons housing is in a bad place these days. That's record high mortgage rates.

  • Rates are driving up costs for buyers and keeping the market in the doldrums.
  • One of Biden's habits lately is asking aides about mortgages rates, as the NYT reports — and Tanden confirms. (They're hovering below 7% at the moment.)
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