With the California primary elections less than two months away, what are the positions of the leading Democratic candidates with respect to housing and low income communities? While few of us concerned about housing look to either party for salvation, at minimum some of us hope that the Democratic candidates will bring some attention to deepening housing crisis that impacts millions of low income Americans.

To assess the campaign season’s attention to housing issues, I looked at what was posted on the official websites of Clinton, Edwards, and Obama. This may be an imperfect gauge for what the campaigns’ positions are. Talk is (relatively) cheap. There are no guarantees any policy proposal offered during a campaign will ever be pursued. But the issue statements on websites do set forth at least the highest aspirations of the candidates and their advisors. We rarely get more than what they promised during campaigns--we probably will get less. Websites and policy statements also tell us who candidates are trying to mobilize and with whom they are seeking to build a base.

Hillary Clinton’s website offered the least comfort for someone hoping to see housing and urban issues put back on the national agenda. Her homepage’s ‘issues’ menu includes no category that would logically address ‘poverty’ or ‘housing.’ The closest one gets on Clinton’s ‘issues’ menu is a category entitled “Strengthening the Middle Class.” A third tier link within the Clinton’s “Middle Class” issues page is entitled “Hillary’s Housing Initiatives.”

But “Hillary’s Housing Initiatives” page only addresses home loan related issues—no doubt a valid set of needs, but clearly tailored to appeal to the middle class. There is no mention of rental housing or addressing the needs of cities. Another third tier page is entitled “Protecting the Dream of Home Ownership.” Towards the bottom of a long list of proposals addressing homeownership is a statement supporting the creation of housing trust fund. Only buried within this page, mischaracterized as a “homeownership” proposal, is there mention of the need for rental housing— hidden away like suburban planners discretely tuck away apartments in the periphery of exclusive neighborhoods.

Clinton’s message is obviously neatly tailored to speak to the concerns of the suburban middle class. Her website offers no vision or grand initiative to address the systemic barriers that have increased poverty and deepened the rental housing crisis. This middle class orientation may be only smart political marketing, but it also seems suspiciously familiar. While there were some initial efforts at addressing urban needs, Bill Clinton’s Administration adopted the same approach to federal housing policies as it did to welfare reform, it co-opted the right’s agenda. That Clinton Administration brought us ‘devolution’ (or ‘de-regulation’) of federal housing policies and a continued transfer of support away from impoverished urban centers to the suburbs and expanding ‘exurbs.’ Hillary’s starting proposals on housing (and the absence of an agenda to address urban poverty) already look like an encore of the first Clinton Administration.

John Edwards’ website is organized differently. Launched from his home page, Edwards’ issues page begins with reference to his “Plan to Build One America” and prominently places “eliminating poverty” as a central goal. He offers a sharp critique of America’s economic divide with a message that is clearly intended to speak to and mobilize blue collar workers. And within his agenda to fight poverty, Edwards explicitly addresses housing issues. In particular, his 80-page document entitled “Plan to Build One America” specifically proposes creating a million housing vouchers “to help low-income families move to better neighborhood,” challenge predatory lending through new federal regulations, and “reform and expand” the HOPE VI program.

But his overall platform is incomplete. The plan offers no specific program for deteriorating urban centers. In contrast, within his “Plan” there is a lengthy proposal to “restore hope to rural America.” While Edwards’ website makes a general call for “revitalizing” cities, the lack of a specific plan raises a question about his approach particularly because his limited policy proposals seem to point in one direction.

Edwards’ housing proposals in “Plan to Build One America” places greatest emphasis on moving low income families to “better neighborhoods.” He targets present policies that “concentrate low income families in poor neighborhoods.” In place of present policies, Edwards would increase the number of vouchers and “phase out housing projects” in those poor neighborhoods in favor of “private-sector alternatives.” But he is silent on what he would do to give real choices to existing residents of low income neighborhoods to remain in place.

Similar to Edwards’ site, Barack Obama’s home page identifies “fighting poverty” as an explicit goal under its ‘issues’ menu. And within the “fighting poverty” webpage there is much more thorough attention to addressing urban areas. The site expressly addresses the need for a national housing policy, endorsing full funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, expanding CDBG funding, and increasing regulation of the mortgage industry.

Of the three Democratic frontrunners, Obama’s is the only site providing specific attention to urban poverty. A seven page document posted on the website entitled “Changing the Odds for Urban America,” states that Obama would take “addressing urban America seriously” and would create a White House Office on Urban Policy. While not a blueprint, the document does address key urban issues including addressing the need for programs to “make jobs pay ” and to expand efforts to provide childcare, public transit, housing and urban reinvestment.

Obama’s “Changing the Odds” policy document also pointedly notes that between 1993 and 2003 the country lost more than 1.2 million units of affordable housing—a loss of units that occurred in large part during Bill Clinton’s term. The document expressly ties affordable housing programs to fighting poverty but also emphases the need for ‘in place solutions,’ i.e., improving opportunities within urban centers, not merely moving people out. This is an important alternative message to the traditional narrative that the solution is to move poor people out of poor cities. In contrast with the Edwards message, “Changing the Odds” states: “Barack Obama will lead a new federal approach to America’s high-poverty areas, an approach that facilitates the economic integration of families and communities with efforts to support the current low-income residents of those areas.”

It is healthy to be skeptical about the campaign promises that candidates make. But what about candidates that do not even make promises to find solutions to poverty or who do not speak out against the loss of affordable housing? Equally important for those of us who care about the fate of cities, the poor, and affordable housing, how do we make the rental housing crisis an issue that all the candidates speak to and commit to addressing?