By Vas Panagiotopoulos
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump leave the stage following the first presidential debate. Image: Getty.
Nearly two thirds of Americans (62 per cent) live in cities, while an impressive 52 per cent of total GDP is generated in the country’s 20 top metropolitan areas. Those cities continue to face considerable challenges, in areas as diverse as transport, housing, poverty, public investment and economic growth.
And yet, urban policy has largely been ignored during the 2016 election campaign. “We have heard precious little on this front from Mrs Clinton,” says Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management. The only comments on urban policy worth noting, he adds, came from unsuccessful Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley in the early part of the Democratic campaign.
When asked about Donald Trump’s urban policies, Lynn Richards, the president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), says that she doesn’t take them seriously: “He’s like a child with a crayon.” Richards is not alone in thinking that way. Many of the DC-based policy wonks think that the Republican candidate’s proposals lack specifics.
The possibility of Trump winning the keys to the White House on 8 November is steadily diminishing. But the Republicans are still likely to win the House of Representatives, even if the Democrats take the Senate.
So let's take a closer look into some key urban issues – transport, infrastructure and housing – and how the views of the two big American parties compare.
Transport and infrastructure
On issues related to mass transit, biking, and the environment, the two parties hold radically different views. Democrats advocate a substantial boost for investments in transport, with the focus on moving away from car use, while Republicans promote a limited federal role and a return to car-based transport.
Deteriorating infrastructure is a huge issue. Some 32 per cent of US roads are now rated “poor” or worse for bumpiness, an increase of 16 per cent since 2005. In addition, the next government will be required to address the numerous ageing railways, bridges and sewers needing improvement and replacement. With an enormous spending deficit, the Democratic Party has suggested a five-year plan to create a $275bn National Infrastructure Bank to fund such projects.
An infrastructure bank would be “hugely powerful for city building and place making,” explains CNU’s Lynn Richards. She adds that she hopes that the error of single-objective spending is over. “We should be spending our infrastructure dollars in ways that meet multiple community outcomes.”
And despite Donald Trump’s loose talk about the importance of infrastructure, the Republican platform would shift how the Highway Trust Fund would be spent. The multi-billion-dollar source of federal support for mass transit, biking programmes, sidewalks and other would be channelled back into building roads, leaving such initiatives to local governments.In order to fund the bank, the Democrats plan to raise the gasoline tax. The Republicans, by contrast, are set against increasing a tax that has remained stable for 23 years.
The final outcome will depend what kind of win ensues. “If Clinton is elected but the Democrats do not get control of the House and Senate, then it will be like Obama' last years; nothing much gets done except by presidential directives,” explains University of Maryland Professor John Rennie Short. If that happens, rather than grand policies from the federal government, we can expect the encouragement of local initiatives such as the DOT Livability Initiative. “Increasing gas taxes for the Highway Fund would be off the table as would the National Infrastructure Bank,” Rennie Short says.
A Trump win would almost certainly mean that Republicans win Congress too, he adds. “Expect no tax increases, no local initiatives, more toll roads and probably some privatisation schemes touted.”
Looking to the future, an important issue to be addressed within the next presidential cycle will be adopting the technology and installing the infrastructure required to guide autonomous vehicles, such as the ones developed by Tesla and Google. “Who owns that technology is going to own the road essentially,” explains Lynn Richards.
America has an affordable housing crisis: there is not a single US state where a minimum wage employee working full-time can reasonably afford a one-bedroom apartment at a fair market rent. Meanwhile, the supply of rental housing is not expanding fast enough to accommodate household growth, which creates pressure on rents.
Buying is becoming harder, too. Older millennials are having a hard time getting into homeownership because mortgages are still hard to get, while seniors are living longer, and more independently, than they used to. According to their differing views on the role of government, each party has proposed different ways of dealing with the crisis.
In February, Hillary Clinton proposed a $125bn Economic Revitalisation Initiative that includes some major housing reforms. It makes a number of proposals to make sustainable homeownership more accessible: offering more families down payment assistance, expanding beyond traditional credit scores and building more affordable rental housing.
To help current homeowners keep their homes, and fight the effects of homelessness, Clinton also proposes substantially increased funding for the National Housing Trust Fund, with the aim of creating new homes and jobs in the process. She also plans to boost the Neighborhood Stabilisation Programme, whereby municipalities can purchase foreclosed homes, get them renovated and then subsidise their sale to new home buyers with low incomes.
It's worth noting, too, that Clinton's vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine has spent yearsadvocating for fair housing reform.
Trump, on the other hand, a real-estate developer himself, has yet to offer a position on housing finance reform. The Republicans believe that regulations and rules are holding back the free market from finding a solution.
The party has heavily criticised the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, that requires cities which receive federal money to examine their housing patterns and look for racial bias. Their reasoning is that is it tampers with local decision-making in community planning.
Under the banner of “responsible home ownership” the Republican party platform champions the virtues of a property-owning democracy that safeguards individual liberties, strengthens communities and builds wealth, while blaming Democratic housing policies for any problems. It only briefly mentions renting, within the context of “eliminating restrictions to promote greater supply of rental opportunities”.
What the US needs is a multi-faceted strategy to allow people to achieve economic mobility whatever their housing situation. Rolf Pendall, co-director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, believes policies need to focus on rental affordability for young tenants, access to credit for mortgages for first home buyers, and strategies to improve homes for older age owners.
“These trends play out differently in different metro areas,” he says. “However, with hot markets much more bottled up at the younger end and cooler ones needing more to help seniors transition comfortably.”
Bipartisan and local
There are bipartisan approaches to addressing metropolitan issues, which would allow either candidate an excellent starting point for a realistic reset of US urban and housing rules. Professor Short believes that the most interesting policy developments in the US are not emanating from a stalled Congress, but “from progressive towns and cities experimenting with new schemes instead”.
Richard Florida concludes that a strong urban policy – linked to economic growth and addressing the challenges like inequality, segregation and affordability – is the key to get American economy moving again. “Cities are the key sources of innovation and economic growth. Urban policy needs to leverage this and address the challenges it brings.”