Under pressure to address the nation’s soaring housing costs, the Biden administration on Wednesday announced significant new actions to protect tenants and make renting more affordable.
After months of deliberation, the moves come as the housing market continues to pose a serious problem for people who don’t own their homes — and for the economy overall. While inflation has fallen for the past six months, average rental prices have continued to increase rapidly, disproportionately hurting vulnerable households that spend the bulk of their budgets on rent. Meanwhile, the country is stuck in a massive housing shortfall, complicating efforts to lower costs or simply find enough places for the 44 million American renter households to go.
“This is something the president identified as being necessary on the campaign trail, and is not necessarily purely a product of the current surge in rents, because this is much more expansive than thinking about this in the context of rent growth,” said Erika Poethig, special assistant to the president for housing and urban policy at the Domestic Policy Council, in an interview with The Washington Post. “It’s about thinking about many other aspects of what contributes to a fair market.”
For over a year, tenant leaders, housing experts and legal organizations have pushed the Biden administration to do everything in its power to tackle soaring rent costs, arguing that America’s housing issues are an economic crisis. In recent months, advocates say they were frustrated that the proposals weren’t coming faster or with more force, arguing that the White House was hesitant to test the limits of its executive authority or issue direct requirements to local governments and federal agencies. Tenants and community organizers also met with White House officials and agency heads, and held a congressional briefing sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in November to push for a sweeping set of new regulations.
Organizers with People’s Action and its homes guarantee campaign said the announcement included some wins, like getting the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to work on identifying ways to adopt and enforce tenant protections, including policies that limit high rent increases at properties with FHFA-backed mortgages.
But in an analysis of the proposals, they said the policies weren’t enough to change “tenants’ lives materially today.” The announcement includes no conditions on federal financing, for example, but instead gets closest with a carrot approach, like providing incentives to landlords who accept vouchers.
“The White House announcement introduces potential for agency-level action but falls short of issuing directives to regulate rent and address consolidation of the rental market,” said Tara Raghuveer, the homes guarantee campaign director at People’s Action who organized tenants to speak with White House advisers throughout the process. “The rent is too … high, and landlords, many who receive federal financing and subsidies, made record-setting profits in the past two years. There is much more the president can do to provide material relief to tenants, and we’re counting on this administration to continue working with our campaign to make it happen.”
Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, said the announcement gave an important nod to tenant rights at such a high government level. But he was struck by weak commitments and “some real absence by" agencies that could have taken on heftier roles, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Treasury Department.
“[The announcement] formalizes and launches a number of processes that may have significant implications in the future, but that requires a lot of follow up within the administration to make that happen,” he added.
Twice last year, Mary Osborne came from her home in Dover, N.H., to Washington to meet with administration officials at the White House and federal agencies that handle housing policy. Osborne, who is on disability, has been homeless several times. She finally secured an emergency housing voucher during the pandemic, helping her and her son move into a two-bedroom apartment built into an old mill.
She said rent in her area used to climb by $50 each year. But now costs go up by hundreds of dollars or more. The latest announcement from the White House won’t fix that problem, Osborne said, but she’s hopeful more will come.
“It’s just a matter of, well, how do we convince them that they do have that power. You don’t know what you don’t know," Osborne said. “There’s some space there for accountability.”
The proposals are the Biden administration’s latest attempt to influence the housing market. All told, $46 billion was appropriated by Congress for emergency rental assistance, amid fears that the expiration of a pandemic-driven federal eviction moratorium would trigger a flood of evictions. While those fears did not materialize, steep rent remains a bleak reality for many families with fewer and fewer places to relocate.
A coalition of tenant unions, community organizations and legal groups have called for an all-out approach, drafting an executive order for the Biden administration, urging for a state of emergency on housing and exploring ways to regulate rents. Those proposals spanned multiple government agencies and were intended to push federal regulators to consider new ways to curb rental costs.
But White House advisers and administration officials deemed many of the ideas impractical, and some questioned the legality of such forceful action. Officials said the president, for example, does not have the authority to regulate rent nationwide. Plus, the nation’s housing laws are a patchwork of state and local rules and zoning restrictions. Ultimately, the consensus was that rather than direct agencies, it could be more effective to have those agencies commit to goals on their own.
That means much of Biden’s plans rely on state and local governments, as well as housing providers around the nation, to join in. To that end, the administration will run a “challenge” this spring to encourage states, local and tribal governments, housing organizations and landlords to develop policies that expand fairness and transparency across the rental market.
The administration has already gotten commitments: It pointed to two state-level agencies, in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, saying they are capping annual rent increases for publicly subsidized housing. And it has gotten a commitment from the National Apartment Association to work on programs to help tenants build and improve credit. Realtor.com is also piloting a new program to pinpoint units and landlords that take federal housing vouchers.
The Biden administration is releasing a “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights” that highlights the need for clear and fair leases, the right to organize, and eviction prevention and diversion, among other principles. But a core tension is whether these initiatives will gain steam, especially if they are not mandated or tied to federal funding. One of the reasons the administration’s emergency rental assistance program was slow to get off the ground was because of slow uptake by state and local governments.
A handful of agencies have made guarantees, though. The Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will collect information exploring unfair practices in the rental market, including the use of tenant background checks. This marks the first time the FTC has issued a request for information exploring unfair practices in the rental market. The CFPB will also work on ways to hold background check companies accountable to ensure accuracy in credit reporting systems.
The Justice Department will look at competition issues in the rental market. The FHFA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are also taking part.
Ultimately, solving America’s housing issues goes beyond the White House. Last year, the administration unveiled a plan focusing on the dearth of housing supply in the United States. But plugging that gap — the United States needs 1.5 million to 5 million homes, according to a wide range of estimates — will be especially difficult in a time of high interest rates, high inflation, labor shortages and ongoing supply chain issues.
Housing initiatives fell out of final negotiations of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and weren’t included in a bipartisan infrastructure law or in the Inflation Reduction Act. And Congress is not expected to pass sweeping housing legislation anytime soon. This month, 50 lawmakers led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to the White House urging Biden to take executive action to address the rising cost of rent and end corporate price gouging.
Diane Yentel, head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, who has been a close adviser of the Biden administration on renter issues, participated in multiple meetings at the White House to discuss renters rights, housing affordability and supply issues. She said that while these announcements are a historic step, the work cannot stop here.
“The hard truth is that administrative action on its own can’t resolve the housing crisis that we’re in,” Yentel said. “It’s going to require major action from Congress, and unfortunately, the opportunity we had through Build Back Better passed by … We are clear-eyed about the limitations of administrative actions but are still pushing to do all we can now. The need is greater than ever.”