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“The rent is too damn high.”
It’s a statement backed up by the data: August’s CPI report showed rent was up a historic 6.7 percent year over year, and will likely continue to drive up core inflation for months to come. This August, tenants signing on to new leases across the country faced record-high rents. In Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Nashville, rents were over 20 percent more than last year, and national average monthly rent clocked in at $2,039, an 11 percent jump since last year. With pandemic-era eviction protections gone and landlords now rolling out historic rent hikes, millions of struggling renters are on the brink of homelessness in America every month.
Skyrocketing rents are also something that the Homes Guarantee campaign – a tenant-led, national network of state and local grassroots groups – wants top officials in the Biden administration to do something about.
As part of the national People’s Action network, the Homes Guarantee campaign is grounded in a belief that the people closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions. The campaign is a bottom-up movement, with tenants themselves playing the lead role in developing organizing strategies and policy solutions. Among their top priorities is for the Biden administration to take immediate-term, executive action to ease the burdens of vulnerable renters today.
It’s a worthy and essential demand, and one that Democrats have largely failed to address. Congressional Democrats – once poised to make historic investments in housing affordability before Joe Manchin stopped them– have all but abandoned housing as a legislative priority. The White House is mainly interested in boosting long-term housing supply – a necessary goal, but one that does nothing to alleviate tenants’ suffering right now. Without swift executive action to correct the imbalance of power between tenants and landlords, millions of Americans will be left to fend for themselves and housing as a human right will remain a distant, unachievable goal.
That goal is something the Homes Guarantee campaign has been fighting for since its inception. In 2019, the campaign debuted with a sweeping progressive vision for housing policy, calling on Congress to support building 12 million units of social housing over the next decade and enact a “National Tenant Bill of Rights” to include universal rental control, robust eviction protections, and a fundamental right to affordable housing. As the pandemic ravaged America over the following two years, the campaign mobilized in support of a federal eviction moratorium and engaged with the Treasury Department to effectively disburse Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) funds. Homes Guarantee members used experience from active mutual aid efforts in their own communities to advise Treasury, urging the Department to adopt program guidelines that would shift funding allocations to priorities identified by tenant leaders. The campaign ultimately got the Treasury Department to adopt several of its recommendations, including better promoting the availability of ERAP funds to the public, setting up hotlines to report misuse of funds, and clarifying that ERAP funds could go to workers who didn’t qualify for the federal direct payments.
Today, the campaign is applying that same approach of direct engagement with executive branch agencies to the rental inflation crisis facing tenants across the country. In July, Homes Guarantee tenant organizers met with top Biden housing officials to learn about ongoing administration efforts to address the rental housing crisis. The Revolving Door Project joined campaign leaders – including tenant organizers from Kansas City, Chicago, Louisville, and the Bronx – in D.C. for their meetings with HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra, and several high-ranking White House and FHFA officials. In a commanding display of grassroots power, it was the Homes Guarantee tenants – not Biden officials – who led these meetings and set the agenda. Tenant organizers relayed their experiences with rent hikes and abusive landlords directly to agency heads, urging them to “have our backs.”
Campaign leaders also presented a set of executive policy demands directly to Biden administration officials, drawing strongly from the National Tenant Bill of Rights. The demands included calling on the Federal Housing Finance Agency to condition all federally- backed mortgages to include key tenant protections that affirm the humanity of renters, calling on the Federal Trade Commission to issue and enforce “regulation defining excessive rent increases as an unfair practice in or affecting commerce, in violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act,” and calling on HUD to “issue guidance advising entitlement jurisdictions that, as part of their duty to affirmatively further fair housing, they must identify the disproportionate cost burden among protected classes, investigate rapidly rising rents as contributing to those disparities, and adopt rent controls as a remedial step.”
In meetings with HUD and FHFA, campaign leaders honed in on the role that institutional investors have played in fuelling the housing crisis. As ProPublica and the New York Times have reported, private equity firms like Greystar and Brookfield Asset Management are on a residential real estate acquisition spree, gobbling up multi-family rental properties across the country. According to Americans for Financial Reform, private equity firms own at minimum real estate rented by 1.6 million American families – including 1.07 million apartment units, 275,000 manufactured home lots, and 239,000 single-family rental homes. These million-plus tenants – including Homes Guarantee members – live their daily lives at the mercy of corporate landlords who have slashed maintenance spending, jacked up rents by record levels, and evicted scores of tenants at the height of the pandemic – all to maximize their shareholders’ profits.
For years, corporate landlords have been getting almost everything they want from the executive branch without much pushback, from closing billion-dollar acquisition deals with HUD and Freddie Mac to killing the CDC’s eviction moratorium. Now, Homes Guarantee leaders want to swing the balance of power back to tenants. Among the campaign’s core private equity-focused demands of the Biden administration are limiting the industry’s access to HUD property and Fannie/Freddie loan sales, imposing strict tenant protections on any future federal private equity real estate deals, and creating a national landlord registry to combat private equity’s use of LLCs to mask true property ownership.
The campaign’s focus on the executive branch comes as Congress continues to neglect the housing crisis. None of President Biden’s major legislative accomplishments – the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) – contained provisions to reduce housing costs or expand housing supply. The Build Back Better Act – which did contain transformative investments in housing supply and affordability vouchers – was killed by Joe Manchin last December and its housing provisions were abandoned for the scaled-down IRA. Congressional funding for HUD, long a low priority on the Hill, continues to lag behind current needs as Congress enters the end-of-year budget talks.
The executive branch has ample power to step in and fill the void of Congressional housing action – and both the White House and tenants know this. On building long-term housing supply, the Biden administration has already invoked executive action. In May, the White House unveiled a sweeping executive action plan to boost housing supply over the next five years – mostly without the need for Congressional intervention. Key provisions of the White House supply plan include conditioning federal transportation grants to local zoning reform, incentivizing manufactured housing construction through new FHFA loan products, and making regulatory changes to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).
On the more immediate-term needs of tenants, the White House has yet to show the same level of interest it gave to supply with a robust executive action plan. Homes Guarantee leaders hope to change this through sustained engagement and grassroots pressure of the Biden administration, just as student debt and drug policy organizers have done in recent months. If (as the campaign hopes) the Biden administration unveils executive tenant protection actions early next year, many worry the White House will do the bare minimum and choose the most conservative policy options available (sound familiar?).
Also of concern: the Senate’s confirmations crisis. Last week, we wrote in The American Prospect about Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey’s blockade of 5 top HUD nominees in the Senate, which is preventing qualified and creative housing experts from doing their jobs. Some of these stalled HUD nominees stand to play a direct role in helping tenants in the immediate-term. For example, HUD Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity nominee Dave Uejio would be tasked with investigating tenant fair housing complaints and leading enforcement efforts against discriminatory landlords if confirmed to his post. Toomey – a former Wall Street Banker – is a top recipient of campaign cash from the private equity and real estate industries and all too happy to do their bidding by keeping HUD’s leadership ranks empty.
But motivated leadership at housing agencies is just one piece of the puzzle. As our colleague Toni Aguilar Rosenthal has written, HUD continues to suffer from chronic staffing shortages, leaving the nation’s top housing agency ill-equipped to handle tenant casework or respond to bad actors in the housing system. Decades of Congressional underfunding and intentional sabotage of the Department by Republican presidents have led to a sharp drop in full-time HUD staff by over 30 percent in the last 20 years. As full time staff dwindled, so did institutional expertise and morale, leaving a Department that handles millions in federal programs without the bodies or brainpower to do anything other than the increasingly-bare minimum. FHFA, our colleague Fatou Ndiyae has noted, has suffered similar capacity shortfalls as the agency’s regulatory duties have grown faster than its staff levels. Though a self-funded agency, FHFA has struggled to attract staff due to its own failure to implement a system workforce planning strategy and streamline barriers in its own hiring process. Regardless of the underlying reasons, executive branch capacity shortfalls are bad for America’s tenants: in lieu of robust funding, agencies that could be powerful tenant advocates have instead become corporate landlords’ top accomplices.
So what can Biden and Democrats do now that the long-festering capacity crisis has collided with the more recent confirmations crisis and rent spikes?
The good news is that they are not without options, though the clock is ticking on a few. In the Senate, Democratic leadership can modernize procedural rules and close loopholes to streamline the confirmation process to end Republican obstruction of Biden nominees. As the end-of-year budget talks draw closer, the Biden administration can also push to robustly fund HUD and fully staff other executive agencies that can alleviate the burdens tenants face. With the midterms only a month away and control of the Senate at stake, Biden has a limited window to pursue these options
But on the matter of executive action to protect actions, Biden has much better news. The President and his top housing officials have broad legal authority to hold corporate landlords accountable by conditioning existing federal subsidies and mortgages to robust tenant protections – all without the need for Congressional intervention. The Homes Guarantee campaign continues to do the leg work of determining how the Biden administration can help tenants across the country, immediately and under existing authorities.
It is no longer a question of if or how Biden can act on his own to protect tenants, but rather if he has the political will to do so. Historic rent hikes have only strengthened tenant organizers’ desire to guarantee safe, accessible, sustainable, and affordable homes for everyone.
The question remains: will the White House have their back?
For more coverage of the Homes Guarantee campaign: