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Tenants Demand Emergency Measures From White House as Rents Skyrocket

White House officials met with tenants on Monday but did not commit to declaring a housing emergency.

Tenants and activists march after a rally at the Delta Pines apartment complex in Antioch, California, on June 22, 2022.

President Joe Biden spent much of 2022 facing Republican attacks over inflation and anxiety among Democrats who worried that working-class voters would turn against them in the midterms over the economy. For months, candidates and pundits waxed poetic about the rising price of everything from a gallon of gas or milk to a platter of crudité. But activists meeting with Biden administration officials and top Democrats in Congress this week say a massive budget item for millions of households did not get enough attention ahead of Election Day: Rent.

Historic rent increases over the past two years are a core driver of inflation, and the median cost of rent exceeded $2,000 per month for the first time ever in June. Corporate landlords raised prices in 2021 and saw soaring profits despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with one executive calling inflation an “extraordinary gift that keeps on giving.” Rent prices are still rising in 2022 after spiking last year, and eviction rates already reached pre-pandemic levels in cities across the country. In August, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics clocked the highest annual rate of rent inflation in the past 35 years.

“As of now, the Biden administration is dangerously silent on the single biggest line item in Americans’ budgets: their rent,” said Tara Raghuveer, the director of the People’s Action Homes Guarantee Campaign, in a statement ahead of a meeting with stakeholders and White House officials on Monday.

Housing prices are finally showing signs of stabilizing, but experts say tenants will continue to feel the pain for months and even years to come, especially those who live on lower incomes and split housing costs with other necessities. Last week, the Federal Reserve further increased interest rates to combat inflation — a move which encourages prospective homebuyers to stay in rental units longer, compounding price pressure on an already-crunched rental market. The top 10 publicly traded apartment companies already raised housing costs for millions of tenants in fiscal year 2021 and saw their net incomes rise by 57 percent, or about $5 billion, according to Accountable.us.

Housing advocates are now calling on Biden to issue an emergency executive order to protect tenants and prevent the housing market from destabilizing the economy. An estimated 39 percent of households surveyed by the Census Bureau in early October said they were “very” or “somewhat likely” to be evicted by landlords within the next two months, up from about 35 percent in early April. These estimates are based on experimental federal survey data, but if the numbers are anything close to reality, then millions of renters are currently worried about eviction.

As winter and new COVID variants loom, the U.S. appears to be grappling with a desperate but slow-moving housing crisis. About 250 tenant-led organizations as well as housing justice and legal support groups are backing a draft executive order presented to administration officials in Washington, D.C. this week. If signed by the president, the draft order would declare a national “housing emergency.”

“Inflation doesn’t just hurt at the gas pump,” said Mary Osborne, a tenant leader with Rights and Democracy New Hampshire, in a statement. “We need the White House to take immediate action to address sky-high rents that are costing families their homes.”

The coalition’s draft executive order calls for a “whole-of-government” approach to housing policy, including an interagency council on “tenants’ rights” made up by Biden’s cabinet, top housing officials and three tenant representatives. With nearly twice as many Latinx and Black families living in rental properties than white families, housing justice groups are determined to bring those who are traditionally underrepresented in government to the federal policy table.

“The Federal Housing Finance Agency should establish rent increase regulations for tenants who live in properties with federally backed mortgages,” Raghuveer said in an email to Truthout. “If our government is in the business of financing and subsidizing privately-owned housing, public money should be leveraged to secure tenant protections.”

Biden is currently traveling abroad, and the White House said that Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, and American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling convened a meeting on Monday with administration officials and more than 70 tenant leaders. In a statement, White House officials said they underscored their commitment to enforcing the Fair Housing Act, and discussed “the need for clear and fair leases, the importance of tenants being able to live free from retaliation or interference from landlords, and tenants’ right to organize without fear.” Institutionalizing eviction diversion programs was also discussed during the meeting, but the White House did not say whether Biden would declare a housing emergency or issue an executive order.

The draft executive order lists a number of policy proposals for the administration, including the creation of a national database tracking landlords and property owners as well as evictions, rental prices and building code violations. The idea is to give both federal policymakers and the public access to crucial information about a national housing market that is increasingly shaped by corporations and Wall Street rather than smaller players at the local level. The order would also direct the Federal Trade Commission to investigate rent-gouging practices that “constitute unfair and deceptive practices as well as anticompetitive practices that inhibit market power.”

“Signing this executive order is the clearest way that the president can fight inflation and take on the corporate landlords who are rent-gouging poor and middle-income families,” Raghuveer said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is investigating private equity-backed firms for their alleged role in raising housing prices for both renters and buyers, and advocates said they would hold a briefing with Warren and other members of Congress later this week. Congress could pass legislation to protect renters that would go further than the proposals in the draft executive order presented to the White House, but it would be difficult to pass in the evenly divided Senate.

With Republicans expected to win a House majority in the next Congress, any protections for renters would most likely come through actions taken by federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, under the direction of Biden and the White House.