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People worry about housing costs and they want solutions. Why don’t politicians talk about it more?

A worker carries wood at a housing complex in Palo Alto, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 16 , 2011. Home construction rose at the fastest rate in 20 months, pushed up by a spike in apartment building. But construction of single-family homes declined, a sign that demand for housing remains weak. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Housing prices are up and affordable options for renters are limited. But politicians often are reluctant to talk about housing problems.

Housing prices are up. Polls say Americans are worried and want elected officials to do something about it. And few politicians seem to be hitting the campaign trail with a pitch to be Congress’s housing problem-solver, at least in North Texas.

Katherine Levine Einstein, a political science professor who studies housing at Boston University, said housing may first appear like a good issue — it’s broadly salient, several policy solutions have bipartisan support, and it’s a real issue affecting people’s lives. But there are challenges that make it less-than-ideal campaign fodder.

“I can think of a number of compelling reasons why, if I were running for congressional seat, I might not choose to talk about housing,” Einstein said.

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There are 33 candidates running for Texas’ three open Congressional seats this year. A review of their campaign websites shows just a handful mention housing among the issues they’re concerned about. That’s also true for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and the top Democrats vying to replace him.

Some of the candidates don’t list any priorities, but most do. Where housing affordability shows up, it’s often in passing or as a general issue of concern.

Few talk housing in North Texas

A few Democrats vying to replace Rep. Colin Allred, who is running for Senate, raise housing. The Democratic-leaning 32nd Congressional District covers much of northeast Dallas County and bits of Collin and Denton Counties.

Most prominent is Brian Williams, an ER doctor, who calls for investing in affordable housing and fighting housing discrimination. Chris Ponayiotou says he’d “pressure [the] Federal Reserve” to drop interest rates, and use antitrust laws to prevent investors from “buying up large swaths of the housing market.” Zachariah Manning says he’d “ensure that our veterans and military have the healthcare, housing and funding needed.”

Allred, in his bid for the Senate, says he wants to expand Medicaid to cover senior assisted living and to expand housing for homeless veterans. One of this opponents, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, notes the high cost of buying a home, but doesn’t offer specific solutions beyond “building an economy that works for everyone.”

Brandon Gill, a Republican running the 26th Congressional District, opines that “housing is unaffordable,” but doesn’t include specific policy solutions. The district, which covers much of Denton County, all of Cooke County and some of Wise County, is heavily Republican and is represented by Michael Burgess, who is retiring.

And Trey Hunt, a Democrat running in the 12th Congressional District which includes areas around west Fort Worth and Weatherford, puts “affordable housing for all” at the top of his agenda, and lays out a fairly robust argument for prioritizing government incentives to spur construction and expanding housing programs.

Hunt faces tough odds as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district represented by Rep. Kay Granger, who is retiring.

Why not to talk about housing

Einstein pointed to three reasons why housing issues don’t make good campaign fodder.

First: policies to increase affordable housing aren’t as popular as they look because people often support them in the abstract but oppose them when they play out in their neighborhoods.

For example: 81% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans favor expanding federal incentives to develop more housing that is affordable to lower-income households, the Bipartisan Policy Center found. There’s bipartisan support for incentivizing cities to reform land use and zoning policies to allow for denser housing to be built, and to increase public subsidies to build long-term housing for people experiencing homelessness.

“But then when we actually ask people, hey, is it okay if we build an apartment building right down the street from you, they uniformly will say, ‘No thank you, we don’t want that,’” Einstein said.

That means actually following through on a campaign pledge to build more homes could face a political liability when they get built.

Second, the lag-time for construction and development makes housing a lousy campaign issue: It’ll probably take five to ten years for policies to move the needle on the housing shortage, even if they got passed tomorrow, Einstein said. Congressional elections are every two years.

And last: Housing is really, really complicated. There are a mix of actors involved, each with a variety of priorities. And fixing the nation’s housing shortage and helping ensure people aren’t priced out of decent housing will require a mix of federal, state, and especially local policy changes, she said.

“I might not want to take responsibility for an issue over which I actually don’t have a lot of control; I can’t control a lot of the zoning and land use and planning decisions that are ultimately going to dictate what housing gets built.”

Daron Shaw, a political science professor at the University of Texas – Austin, adds one more that the issue rarely gets ranked by voters as one of the most important issues facing the nation or state.

“Now, this could be a chicken and egg thing: Political elites and public officials don’t talk about something, so the public is less likely to offer it up as a big issue, so the politicians ignore it,” he said. “But whatever the origin point, housing loses out to issues like the economy, immigration, education, crime, etc.”

A changing tide?

This is despite increased action in Congress, in some state capitals and in a lot of cities to increase the supply of homes and to help people struggling to afford their housing costs, said Dennis Shea, executive director of the Terwilliger Center for Housing Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. But few of those politicians seem to champion the issue on the campaign trail.

“I’d like to see a couple of people running for Congress hit this one hard: Housing affordability. And really make this the centerpiece of my campaign,” Shea said.

Nicole Nosek from Texans for Reasonable Solutions said in places like California, politicians are more regularly facing questions from voters and constituents about how they’ll address the housing shortage and affordability challenges. Homes there are significantly more expensive, and the state has grappled with wide-spread affordability problems for longer than Texas.

“I would love to see politicians get ahead of this so let’s not wait for it to be at San Francisco price of $1.2 million dollars before they act. And at that point, some might say it’s too late,” said Nosek, whose group backs policies to make it quicker and cheaper to build more homes that more people can afford in Texas.

Half of Texas renters are paying more for housing than they can afford. And after years of climbing home prices, homeownership is increasingly a pipe dream.

And the median price tag for a home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was almost $390,000. In Austin, where housing is the most expensive, Nosek said politicians have been forced to talk more about the issue, at least at the local level. She thinks that is only likely to increase.

“Whether it’s going to be this session or it’s going to be two sessions from now, you’re going to see Texans opting in to leaders who have solutions to these issues,” Nosek said.

Pew Research found 89% of Americans are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about housing costs. The Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult found 75% of American adults think Congress should prioritize legislation to increase homebuilding and improve housing affordability. Their polling shows a whole host of solutions have strong support among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

“It’s percolating not from just lower-income concern, it’s really percolating up into the middle-income folks,” Shea said.

Einstein said the potential downside, if housing issues become more politicized and politicians spar over them during campaigns, is that solutions that currently enjoy broad bipartisan support solutions could take on partisan valences that make them harder to get passed.

“I can point to both Democratic and Republican states that have passed really promising zoning reforms that preempt a lot of local control in ways that may do wonders for reducing exclusionary zoning,” she said. “And I think, if this became a more hyper-partisan issue, those kinds of innovative policy reforms would become probably much harder in right-leaning states, many of which are also facing affordability crises.”

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.