Renting Representation

Antonia Noori Farzan takes a look at the proportion of legislators who own a home vs. rent for The Providence Journal, and the numbers are stark:

While renters represent nearly 40% of all households in Rhode Island, they make up less than 10% of the General Assembly.

ANF (we call her that, right?) takes a look at how this impacts housing policy (especially around tenant protections), with legislators often using their biography as a way to discuss their approach to these issues:

“My personal experience is the experience of so many Rhode Islanders,” [Sen. Dawn] Euer wrote in an email. “My rent has increased faster than my income, and I was told that Realtors have been calling my landlord (and other landlords) to find out how much they were charging for rent and offering to find a tenant who would be willing to pay more per month for the apartment.”

“My mom was a lifelong renter until moving to Pawtucket to live with me in 2019. I think this makes me more sensitive to the challenges facing renters and their concerns,” wrote Rep. Jennifer Stewart, D-Pawtucket. She cited that experience as her motivation to sponsor the House version of the bill that would require more advance notice of rent increases.

Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket, who has sponsored legislation to create a housing development fund and a landlord registry, said that she, too, draws on personal experience. “As a child we spent more than a year living in the back of a camper van, and so housing insecurity is deeply personal to me,” she wrote.

Much of the reaction to the article on Twitter seemed to call for more renters in office, and to think about how to do that. And Reps. Morales and Sanchez were quoted in the article explicitly noting that homeowners aren’t able to fully grasp the housing crisis.

I think that’s mostly right. If you’re stably housed (and homeowners are much more stably housed than renters), the housing crisis just doesn’t hit you the same way as someone who is homeless, or someone who’s been on the waitlist to get a housing voucher for nearly a decade, or someone who’s been foreclosed upon.

But, as with an article by Ian Donnis published four years ago about Providence politicians not being parents in Providence Public Schools, my reaction is pretty similar: it should matter less who does the representing than who gets represented.

That’s not to say biography doesn’t matter; it can matter a lot in an thinly-staffed, part-time legislature. In 2013, then-Rep. O’Grady once rallied opposition to sneaky legislation that would’ve jeopardized affordable housing across the state that had passed unanimously in the Senate. The major difference between the chambers: O’Grady worked in the field and thus understood the implications, while no one in the Senate did.

But legislators are still people who need to cater to the whim of their constituents, particularly the people who donate and vote. What value, for instance, to renters is a legislator who rents if they represent a district that is overwhelmingly homeowners? If their constituents oppose development to address the housing crisis, will they defy those constituents, or will they fear going the way of former Sen. Conley, defeated in no small part due to his association with a development? It’s on these sorts of issues where incumbents become vulnerable.

It’s not merely that there are few renters in office, it’s that, as Rep. Cruz points out to Farzan, renters don’t have the same ability to participate in politics:

Cruz, similarly, said that tenants don’t always have time to get to the State House to testify on bills. That’s one reason why representation in the General Assembly matters, she said: “I think it helps our colleagues to put a face to it.”

And it’s more than just testimony. Homeownership has a marked impact on voter turnout, especially when it comes to things like zoning. It’s understandable, homeowners are motivated to protect a valuable investment, which means that their needs from housing policy is at odds with the crisis; the housing crisis only makes their investment more valuable. In a past job, part of my work was to read op-eds from people opposing affordable housing. And it was hard, as a renter and someone making below median income, to understand why people in the suburbs were so opposed to new housing. How did they think their kids and grandkids would live in these towns once they priced everyone out?

But that’s exactly it, the point isn’t to have a thriving town, it’s to have a personal asset that always goes up in value. Less housing equals more demand for housing. Fewer new families means smaller schools, which means lower property taxes, which can reduce demand. The incentive structure is exactly wrong for solving the housing crisis from the homeowner’s perspective.

But if almost two fifths of households rent, then surely there should be a pretty significant opposition to that. Surely we should be able to split off a portion of homeowners and have a pro-housing majority? Well no, because take a look at who is most likely to rent in RI:

Image from HousingWorks RI’s 2022 Housing Fact Book

Young people, low-income people, and people with lower educational attainment. In addition, renters are more likely to be non-white; and significantly more likely to be cost-burdened than homeowners. These are people who are less likely to vote and less likely to donate to politicians (either because of structural factors, cultural factors, or that they’re in a moment of economic crisis). Which means even a politician who represents an area where the majority of their constituents rent might find themselves funded and supported primarily by homeowners.

A winner-take-all system also helps reinforce a politics that’s slanted towards homeowners. Why back the 40% of households who rent when, even if you succeed in achieving positive policy outcomes, many of them may not be able to support you in an election and take significantly more resources to turnout anyway? Why not go the easier route and push for the policy preferences of homeowners?

So while putting more renters in office is an admirable goal, it isn’t going to change those fundamental dynamics. Personalist politics won’t overcome the societal inequity we face alone. So what can we do?

  1. We can improve our legislators’ ability to inform themselves. Having individual personal staff, more committee staff, making the legislature full-time so that politicians can spend more time attending to constituent needs rather than working, all of these help legislators to ensure they’re hearing a fuller range of voices than just the folks who attend their fundraisers or who they live and work near.
  2. We can help renters run for office. That can be making the salary more attractive by going full-time, but that doesn’t help renters who then have to take the leap to run. So we can publicly finance elections and think about whether personal expenses could be paid for by campaign spending while running. We could also shorten the campaign season (right now, a full campaign lasts from late June to early November). That could mean doing something drastic like eliminating the primary or something less drastic like extending the legislative session. Renters are also less likely to have extensive networks from which to draw donations and support, and so strong parties which can both recruit renter candidates and supplement their networks have to be part of this conversation.
  3. We can switch to consensus and proportional systems to ensure renters get representation. I understand I’m a broken record on this, but I bring it up because it’s important. The value of proportional systems is that you can run on an explicit pro-renter platform and win seats, even if your supporters don’t make up a numerical majority. And having seats means having a seat at the table. Furthermore, because proportional systems have competition at the general election, we can meet renters when they’re more likely to turn out, rather than having primaries dominated by high-propensity voters who are more likely to be homeowners. And, because to have competition you have to have more parties, we’ll have to allow multipartyism by relaxing our party formation laws. It may be that renters are poorly served by the Rhode Island Democratic Party and they’d be better served by a party that explicitly centered renters in its policy platform, but we’ll never know because the Democrats are the only option available that even speaks to, and has power to address, their needs.
  4. We can address the housing crisis and tackle poverty. This may seems backwards, isn’t this exactly why we need renters in office in the first place? Yes! But it’s also how we get more renters into office. If economic insecurity and produces unequal political participation, then every step we take to address economic insecurity counts. Whether it’s stronger family leave policies, improving RI Works (RI’s TANF program), providing more generous unemployment benefits, raising the minimum wage or more radical solutions like social housing, universal healthcare, and sovereign wealth funds; addressing poverty ensures that people have more time and resources to participate in politics. Producing more rental housing not only has the effect of relieving the housing crisis and potentially slowing or lowering rents, but it also can change the proportion of people who rent. If homeowners make up 60% of households, then even setting aside the ways homeownership impacts participation, they’d be likely to make up the majority of candidates. But if renters make up a larger share of householders, then you’re going to see more renter candidates run.

I get that this is a lot. I was excited to see an article like this, because I think it draws out a lot of the problems of our current system, and what “representation” actually means. All of the things I’ve laid out above are within our power to change. It’s important to remember that the outcome over an overwhelmingly homeowner-dominated General Assembly Farzan that describes is the result of policy choices that were made. Those choices were not preordained, the outcomes were not natural. It is within our power to change.

Rhode Island has a long way to go on housing policy. It is more than a decade (perhaps closer to two decades) into a housing crisis that has engulfed more and more of its people. But the issue has been elevated. And it’s hopeful that Farzan ends on this quote from the Speaker: “As long as there are Rhode Islanders without a place to live, I’m going to keep housing at the top of my agenda”.

Say what you will about Shekarchi, but it’s hard to imagine his predecessors saying anything like that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s