A national US tenant movement is rising out of a crisis that has seen rents spiking 20 percent over the past two years, increased corporatization of the nation’s rental housing, and evictions on the rise. Tenants from multiple states, including some who were evicted during the pandemic, have laid out a housing reform program and demanded meetings to lay out their demands to Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Marcia Fudge and multiple other Biden administration officials. Tenants also convened a congressional briefing on rent inflation hosted by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Jamaal Bowman, and other members of Congress.
But the result of that advocacy so far hasn’t been much beyond a new, weak statement by the Biden administration claiming to include renter protections. “The White House announcement introduces potential for agency-level action, but falls short of using the full power of the administration to regulate rent and address market consolidation by corporate landlords,” says Tara Raghuveer, a Kansas City–based tenant advocate and director of the People’s Action Institute’s Homes Guarantee Campaign.
Tenant groups have been demanding that Biden order federal agencies to cap rent increases on properties with government-backed mortgages, an order which would cover nearly one-third of US rental housing and require a similar rent-control commitment from states and cities that seek federal Community Development Block Grants. The tenants’ agenda also calls for aggressive investigations of unfair trade practices by institutional landlords and good-cause requirements for lease nonrenewal or eviction from housing funded by federal tax credits. Their argument is that landlords and local politicians may boast about the private market’s beneficial role in housing, but they should be forced to provide basic renter protections if they want to keep dipping their hands into the federal government’s multibillion dollar housing till.
Yet Biden’s announcement last week failed to include any immediate action to bring relief to the 7.5 million households who are behind on their rent or the millions more struggling to get by each month. Instead, it is awash with bureaucratic commitments to “collect information,” “examine proposed actions,” and convene meetings. Equally wispy was a supposed “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights” that vaguely called for “clear and fair leases” and unenforceable aspirations for safe and affordable housing.
The Washington Post called the Biden announcement “significant,” but one very interested stakeholder doesn’t seem fooled: the landlord industry. A wave of furious lobbying of the White House by the National Multifamily Housing Council, the National Apartment Association, and the National Association of Realtors had paid off, and they were not shy about saying so. ”
“What we can say with certainty is NAA’s [National Apartment Association’s] advocacy helped avert an executive order advanced by renters advocates and members of Congress, which would have imposed immediate policy changes,” the apartment owners group bragged in a statement responding to the Biden announcement.
The organizations representing the corporate landlords that used historic rent hikes to earn a whopping 57 percent increase in profits in 2021 even received lengthy shout-outs in the Biden announcement, in return for their toothless commitments to “improve the quality of life for their renters.”
So far, Biden appears to be betting that the politically expedient path is to appease wealthy landlords and pacify tenants with platitudes. But the administration’s own announcement admitted that one-third of the US population is renting their homes, and many are struggling. The widespread frustration resulting from such desperation has caused rent control and other tenants’ rights efforts to succeed in recent months, even some that failed before. At the law school clinic at Indiana University where I work, we represent tenants in eviction court every week. A lofty-sounding presidential statement won’t prevent them from soon being forced to sleep in their cars, on a relative’s floor, or on the streets.