This article was originally published in The American Prospect. Read the article on the original website.
American families spent a staggering 35 percent of their yearly budget on housing in 2020, a trend that is providing major fuel for inflation. September’s Consumer Price Index numbers showed rent was up 6.7 percent year over year (the highest increase in 35 years), accounting for a whopping 40% of core inflation. Factor in rising prices in new rentals and leases, and year over year growth stood at 7.5 percent in September.
Without affordable housing, families have fewer alternatives for moving or downsizing, bringing vulnerable tenants closer to homelessness. And while median rents in the 50 largest metropolitan areas are 22.8 percent higher than they were two years ago, landlords have no federal obligation to improve the quality of homes to match higher prices. Just as other big businesses have blamed inflation to hike prices, landlords are also using rising inflation as cover to increase rents. We have a term for that: price gouging.
The Homes Guarantee campaign, a grassroots group of tenant organizers from across the country, is calling for rent regulation through executive action and by placing new conditions on federally-backed mortgages including protections such as rent control and tenant rights to habitability, lease renewal, organizing and the opportunity to purchase, moves that would bring relief to millions of tenants. (The authors are advisors to the Homes Guarantee campaign.) Key demands would rely on Biden’s top housing appointees to take creative and bold action. Yet almost halfway into Biden’s term, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) lacks five top officials necessary to deliver Biden’s vision of “affordable, stable, safe and healthy” housing.
Why are so many HUD nominees stuck in confirmation purgatory? Look no further than retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey. As the ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee, the Pennsylvania senator has spent his final months in office blocking Biden nominees from being confirmed. He attacked Comptroller of the Currency nominee Saule Omarova, a former Bush Treasury advisor born in the Soviet Union, as a radical Communist. Toomey’s real reason for opposing Omarova? She had written an academic paper about how the Comptroller could regulate derivatives trading. But the culture-war attacks on Omarova’s background worked, ultimately forcing her withdrawal.
Toomey similarly led the campaign against Sarah Bloom Raskin, Biden’s nominee for Fed Vice Chair for Supervision. He argued that her climate risk assessment in financial regulatory work would “threaten the Fed’s independence and effectiveness” and “abuse the Fed’s statutory mandates,” despite the Fed’s own staff investigating such questions as part of their non-politicized work.
Now, Toomey is training his vitriol on the nominees necessary to fight the housing crisis and keep American families in their homes.
Dave Uejio has been waiting for more than a year for the Senate to confirm him as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO). Uejio formerly served as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s acting Director and garnered praise for restoring the agency’s robust regulatory work, which had languished under Trump. If confirmed to lead FHEO, Uejio would oversee efforts to crack down on housing discrimination by investigating complaints, charging housing providers who violate anti-discrimination laws, and administering fair housing grant programs. Over 40 affordable housing groups have endorsed his nomination.
In an August press statement, Toomey claimed Uejio “show[ed] little regard for the CFPB’s jurisdictional limits”, a baseless attack he’s also levied against CFPB director Rohit Chopra’s campaign against junk fees. He has also attacked Uejio for criticizing structural racism — and just this week, Toomey praised a lawsuit attacking the CFPB for cracking down on discriminatory lending.
Meanwhile, Solomon Greene, a former Urban Institute Fellow and Biden’s nominee to lead HUD’s Policy Development and Research (PD&R) Office, has been waiting 17 months and counting for his confirmation. An Obama HUD alum with plenty of endorsers behind him, Greene is a leading expert on exclusionary zoning laws (a key driver of the housing supply shortage) and has proposed ways to improve HUD’s racial equity and eviction prevention efforts. Greene has served at HUD in an appointive role since July, but his powers are more limited than a Senate-confirmed nominee.
Greene’s expertise in racial justice and structural discrimination are naturally what Toomey finds objectionable. The Senator argued Greene should be “disqualified from HUD leadership” for writing that over-policing “endangered communities of color”—a simply undeniable fact that is both a far cry from abolitionism and has very little to do with HUD’s actual work.
Toomey’s obstruction helps explain why two more crucial HUD positions lack a nominee altogether. Public and Indian Housing (PIH) nominee Arthur Jemison—formerly Detroit’s top housing and development official—withdrew his nomination in April to work for the City of Boston, leaving the HUD office that oversees housing voucher distribution and HUD’s public housing stock without a potential leader. HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development (CPD)—a powerful division that doles out billions in annual housing development and disaster relief grants to states and cities—has been without a nominee since January, when New York state housing official Mark Colón withdrew to work for the Commerce Department. Both Colón and Jemison were nominated during Biden’s first year in office.
Toomey has blasted Colón as “vitriolic and profane” for insulting Republican Senators on Twitter (something Toomey did not think disqualified Donald Trump from serving out his term as President). Before Jemison’s nomination was withdrawn, Toomey bizarrely blamed him for Detroit’s sluggish housing supply growth (which is largely attributable to decades of declining population, declining federal housing funding, and surging acquisitions by institutional real estate investors) and complained that he did not condemn a Democratic proposal to boost funding for New York City’s Housing Authority (whose years-long chronic federal underfunding has led to billions in backlogged repairs).
That said, Biden doesn’t escape blame for failing to find new nominees for these positions.
A fifth position, Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations, has been vacant since Day One of the Biden administration and only received a nominee this summer. If confirmed, nominee Kimberly McClain’s primary role would be to advocate for HUD’s priorities and sorely-needed budget increases on the Hill. It’s not impossible that had McClain been in place from the start, some of the bold housing investments proposed in the Build Back Better package might have survived in the Inflation Reduction Act instead of being scrapped entirely. The Banking Committee has yet to schedule a hearing or vote on McClain’s nomination. Given his track record, you’re unlikely to hear complaints about that from Toomey.
So what is the real motivation behind Toomey’s bad-faith attacks on these highly qualified nominees? Follow the money. Over his career, Toomey has been a top recipient of campaign contributions from the finance and private equity industries, and the law firms that represent them. Many of his top corporate contributors are fuelling the housing crisis or have been caught violating fair housing laws, including JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, PNC Financial Services, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Blackstone Group. Toomey himself is a former investment banking executive, and we wouldn’t be shocked if he revolved back to Wall Street after leaving the Senate.
Many of the industries that have backed Toomey stand to benefit greatly from continued HUD vacancies. Without an FHEO Assistant Secretary, for example, big banks and real estate investors are more likely to get away with discriminatory lending and leasing practices. Without a full-time PD&R head, HUD will be slow to assess innovative policy responses to corporate landlords’ worst practices. A leadership vacuum at PIH and CPD, likewise, leaves government at all levels ill-equipped to promote public housing as a robust alternative to expensive private rentals.
As our colleague Toni Aguilar Rosenthal wrote, the HUD nominees are not alone: “hundreds of nominees are still left stranded at some point in the hyperpartisan battle that has plagued many confirmation pushes, and time is literally running out for Democrats to have the votes they need to guarantee their qualified nominees their roles.”
And it doesn’t have to be this way. Democrats should act on their responsibility to modernize the procedural rules, close loopholes, and streamline the confirmation process.
Tenants, already in dangerous waters from an affordable housing crisis and the pandemic, are being pushed toward even more precarious economic situations because of the rising costs of rent. Democrats must fight back against Senate Republicans’ manipulation of policy and norms, restore the executive branch to working order, and get every leader it can into a position to protect tenants in this moment of vulnerability.
PHOTO: “Pat Toomey speaking at CPAC 2014 in Washington, DC.” (Gage Skidmore, 3/7/14)