A New Generation of Politicians Is Showing That When It Comes to Housing, the Personal Is Political
A little over 20 years ago, Cesar Zepeda was a newly minted graduate of California’s Contra Costa College and looking for a place to live somewhere around Richmond, the East Bay community he’d called home since emigrating from Mexico as a child. In what seems—today at least—like an unusual move for a 22-year-old, Zepeda decided he wanted to buy rather than rent a home and set out looking for one, the epitome of the American dream. "It’s pretty funny," says Zepeda. "I didn’t know what I was doing." What ensued—the difficult search; the travails of setting up house; the experience of living in a newly developed corner of one of America’s most housing-challenged metropolitan areas—would eventually lead Zepeda into political life as a Richmond city council member.
When he was sworn in this January, Zepeda became one more among a growing number of mission-driven elected officials recently elevated to public office thanks in part to their ability to speak persuasively, often from personal experience, about the housing issues facing voters. Last month, when Representative Maxwell Frost of Florida declared on social media—shortly before his official installment as America’s first Gen Z congress-person—that he’d been rejected for an apartment application in Washington, D.C., his post instantly went viral. It echoed years of stories about the cost of living for newly elected politicians struggling to find second homes in the expensive city, but also resonated with a vast audience of similarly frustrated Americans hungry for change.
The U.S. has been a country where, historically, it’s been more likely that your representative is a homeowner—or even a landlord—than a renter; as outlined in "Who Represents the Renters?," a recent study from researchers at Boston University and the University of Georgia, "The disproportionate share of public officials who own single-family, relatively high-value homes may help to explain the reification of single-family homeowner-ship in public policy decisions at every level of government." The new influx of those passionate about housing options in public office sets up an ability to counter-balance that bias, and now, as first-time leaders get down to the gritty business of governing, they face the daunting task of figuring out how to turn their experiences into effective policy positions.
For Zepeda, that story is an unusual one. "Housing is a big problem for us, not just in Richmond but throughout the Bay Area," he says. Having found a home of his own at last, Zepeda discovered his new neighborhood in the Hilltop section had yet to get effective political representation, and so he worked to establish the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council. Even then, he found that the real decisions, with regard to housing especially, were made by a tight-knit group of long-time Richmond politicos. As Zepeda puts it, "Their attitude was, ‘If you want to do this project, you have to use my friend.’" In one episode, he says, an affordable, multi-family project adjacent to the nearby BART train station was delayed amid what some said was self-dealing by local officials. In a city that has, as Zepeda notes, "an alarming amount of unhoused" and a desperate need for transit-accessible homes, the furor over the stalled development helped spur his decision to challenge one of the implicated officials for the District 2 seat. Zepeda’s dark-horse win was unorthodox from start to finish: Following a tied vote, his name was drawn out of a shopping bag by the city clerk as part of the official tie-breaking process. (His opponent has contested the decision.)
Halfway across the country, in Cleveland, Ohio, 35-year-old Mayor Justin Bibb took office just over a year ago, the second-youngest person to hold the position in the city’s 220-year civic history. That history, from frontier way station to the site of industrial boom, then post-industrial struggle, is very much on Bibb’s mind when it comes to housing in Cleveland today. "We were one of the largest cities in America in the ’50s and ’60s," says Bibb; once known as the nation’s Sixth City, Cleveland had a population that grazed the million mark around mid-century before dropping by nearly two-thirds in the ensuing decades. As a native of the East Side’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, Bibb says he saw firsthand the effects of the city’s decline on working-class and minority residents, as well as how important housing security was to those who remained.
"My parents separated when I was four, and we went to live at my grandmother’s house," Bibb recalls. "That home was a source of stability for my family." In more recent years, Bibb has watched as city leaders endeavored to bring people back to Cleveland by encouraging construction—only to see developers build luxury apartments many working people couldn’t afford. "There was a lot of displacement," says Bibb. "Seniors, especially, couldn’t afford to live with dignity." Emerging from the private sector, Bibb launched his campaign as a political novice in 2021 by advocating for a change in direction, and he’s still pushing to keep the housing momentum going in his hometown. "I’m into walking to the barbershop, the grocery store, the church, talking to residents," he says, "trying to summon the political will to meet this moment."
"This is turning out to be one of those cities where, if you don’t make $150,000 a year, you can’t live here."
—Jeanette Taylor, Chicago alderwoman
For Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor of Chicago, the problem of affordable housing hits even closer to home. "When I was 19, I had three kids, and I applied for a housing voucher," she says. More than a decade later, she finally received one from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA)—but with one unacceptable condition: "My son had graduated from high school, and they told me they couldn’t have him on my lease or I would be evicted." Taylor’s fight to find adequate housing for herself and her family turned into a more dogged belief in activism, working with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization to improve housing public services while also serving as a member of a local school council.
But her decision in 2019 to pursue city-wide elective office took a little persuading. "I never wanted to get into politics," Taylor explains. "This was literally God telling me what to do." With three of her predecessors in office having been convicted of federal corruption charges, Taylor’s 20th Ward was hungry for driven, mission-focused leadership, and the seasoned change-maker connected with voters through her no-nonsense take on the gentrification that threatens to displace many Chicagoans. "This is turning out to be one of those cities where, if you don’t make $150,000 a year, you can’t live here," she says. "The powers that be don’t see that. Because, honestly, they hate poor people." As with Florida’s Frost, Taylor’s housing story became national news when she tweeted last year that, nearly three decades after originally applying, CHA would advance her application.
Now approaching the end of her first term and campaigning for her second, Taylor has a sense of both the potential as well as the pitfalls that await affordability advocates once in office. "We’ve been trying to merge CHA’s vacancy list with the other available affordable-housing lists," she says—a move that would make it easier for anyone in the city to find an open unit—"and we’ve been pushing for a one-time real estate transaction fee that would go into affordable housing." Although those two initiatives remain stuck in the legislative process, Taylor did win a pitched battle for more affordable housing near the Obama Presidential Center on Lake Shore Drive, after concerns grew that the build would further gentrify the area.
Meanwhile, a year into his affordability efforts, Mayor Bibb’s main target is now the Cleveland waterfront, a long-under-used asset that has stymied previous administrations; with a new plan from Detroit-based developer Bedrock, Bibb believes he can prevail in redeveloping it, but he’s eager for more help from Washington to enhance the quality of the site’s tax-subsidized housing. "We need more federal funding," he says. "It’s not just about housing, but housing infra-structure. No one should be living in housing without access to a park nearby."
The path for these pro-housing politicians remains steep, and for those just starting out, it’s a long climb. Possibly their most important tools on the journey ahead: their ability to identify with their diverse constituencies and vice versa. During Zepeda’s campaign, he saw the difficulty up close—but also, possibly, a way to rally Richmond voters to his vision of a balanced, all-in housing strategy. "I was door-knocking, and someone said, ‘Why do we need to build so much housing?’" Zepeda recalls. "I said, ‘You have kids, you want them to stay here. That’s why we need all kinds of housing for all.’"
Top Photo Courtesy Justin Bibb.
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