The Minnesota congressperson thinks the federal government should guarantee a place to live for every American.

Housing is a human right, says Ilhan Omar, the Democratic congressperson who was just reelected to represent Minnesota’s 5th district. And she believes that a private marketplace will never have an incentive to provide it for all Americans.

Last year, she introduced the Homes for All Act. The bill proposes that the federal government spend $1 trillion to build 12 million new housing units in the next decade, rolling back tax cuts for the rich and reducing wasteful military spending to cover the cost. The bill is a loud call for what had been politically unutterable for generations. We asked her why it’s time for the country to revisit public housing in a big way.

Dwell: Why have you made affordable housing a legislative priority? 

Omar: Affordable housing is limited for poor and working-class people. Even before this crisis hit, more than one in four—or 572,133—households in Minnesota paid more than they could afford for housing, making it likely that they cut back on necessities like food, education, and medicine simply to pay their rent or mortgage. The pandemic has only worsened housing insecurity. 

As we know well in the Twin Cities, affordable housing is hard to come by for poor and working-class people—disproportionately people of color. Half of Black Minnesotans are unemployed due to the pandemic, many of them formally employed in service jobs or other lower-paid positions. 

As someone who lived in a refugee camp, I know the pains of not having a place to call home. In the richest country in the world, it is a moral outrage that we don’t provide housing for all. 

A view of North Minneapolis, where, Ilhan Omar says, nearly half of all renters have experienced eviction in the last year.

A view of North Minneapolis, where, Ilhan Omar says, nearly half of all renters have experienced eviction in the last year. “It’s clear we have a housing crisis in the Twin Cities,” says the U.S. representative, whose district covers most of Minneapolis and some of its suburbs. “Thousands are living in temporary shelters or transitional housing, most of them caught in a perpetual cycle of housing insecurity.”

Photo by North News/Calvin O’Keefe

Dwell: You often refer to the Homes for All Act as a “just build it” strategy. Is it that simple?  

Omar: The Homes for All Act is a long-term vision for solving the housing crisis in this country. It would authorize 12 million new public housing and permanently affordable rental units— vastly expanding the available affordable housing stock. This would drive down costs throughout the market and create a new vision of what public housing looks like in the United States. If we simply shifted our priorities to prioritize everyday needs like housing, we could easily accomplish this. If we repeal Trump’s tax cuts for the rich and rein in wasteful Pentagon spending, we can afford to provide homes for every person in this country.

The best way to solve this is to, well, just build it—just fund the construction of new affordable homes. This strategy will ensure millions of Americans will have a safe place to call home. Right now, millions are falling through the cracks of existing federal rental assistance programs. This legislation ensures no one is left behind.

Dwell: Why is federally built public housing an essential component of combating the affordability crisis over and above incentives for private developers? 

Omar: The problem is free market capitalism does not incentivize addressing the basic needs of those who need housing the most: people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. The current incentive systems have failed to ensure areas in need of help are being properly targeted, and in many cases the incentives lack the financial potency needed to attract private developers. Meanwhile, the U.S. has not made a large-scale investment in public housing since the New Deal. The construction of new public housing has been banned since the 1990s—forcing more than 1.6 million families onto a near-endless waitlist for public housing and another 2.8 million families onto the waitlist for vouchers.

Dwell: How can federally built developments shake the stigma of neglect associated with “the projects”?

Omar: In several ways. We would provide residents with free, voluntary wraparound services that help address the needs of those experiencing chronic homelessness or housing instability—like access to health care, employment or education assistance, child care, and financial literacy classes. The housing would be integrated with public transit and vehicle alternatives like walking and biking—to help avoid residents being segregated geographically.

The bill also ensures future funding needs are fully met so that these public units are able to optimally serve the public. Many federally backed developments had negative stigmas because they lacked the resources needed to provide for tenants. My legislation will transform housing to a non-discretionary funding stream, like Social Security or Medicare, which would make maintenance and operation mandatory for these units. 

Dwell: The bill also proposes a “Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund.” What is it, and how would it be administered?

The Community Control and Anti-Displacement Fund would be the first federal housing proposal to specifically combat gentrification. It would give grants to local governments who design programs that help re-house  people displaced by gentrification, regulate exploitative developers, or provide communities with the resources necessary to protect tenants’ rights. Gentrification takes many different forms. So the specific design is up to the localities, allowing them to craft programs that match the specific needs of their city. 

Dwell: Where does design fit in? 

Omar: The bill requires housing to be built and operated with the highest possible environmental standards, with a focus on minimizing energy costs and achieving carbon neutrality. We also made sure there was adequate funding to build modern, livable units. As to the aesthetics of the housing, I’ll leave that up to the architects! 

Illustration by Sam Kerr