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White House unveils new tenant protections amid soaring rental costs

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced actions to make renting more affordable. Multiple federal agencies will set clear guidelines to help renters remain in affordable housing under a "Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights."Ralf Kleemann

Under pressure to address the nation’s soaring housing costs, the Biden administration on Wednesday announced new actions to protect tenants and make renting more affordable.

The announcement involves multiple federal agencies that will gather information on unfair housing practices and includes a “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights” that, while not binding, sets clear guidelines to help renters stay in affordable housing.

The White House is also launching a call to action, dubbed the “Resident-Centered Housing Challenge,” that aims to get housing providers as well as state and local governments to strengthen policies in their own markets.

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.

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“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 Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, in November to push for a sweeping set of new regulations.

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Some say the new initiatives do not go nearly far enough.

“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.”

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.

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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.

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