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Rent inflation drives call for White House to do more for tenants

Aug. 9, 2022 Updated Tue., Aug. 9, 2022 at 6:14 p.m.

Miriam Aguilar and Enrique Medina with daughter, Kaline, stand outside their apartment complex last month in Laurel, Md., where more than 50 families planned a rent strike in August 2022.   (Washington Post )
Miriam Aguilar and Enrique Medina with daughter, Kaline, stand outside their apartment complex last month in Laurel, Md., where more than 50 families planned a rent strike in August 2022.  (Washington Post )
By Rachel Siegel Washington Post

The White House hasn’t done enough to fight rent inflation, says a coalition of tenant unions, community organizations and legal groups calling on the Biden administration to launch an all-out government response to intervene.

A set of proposals, shared with The Washington Post, calls on the Biden administration to declare a state of emergency on housing and explore ways to regulate rents.

The proposals span six government agencies and are intended to push federal regulators to consider new ways to curb rental costs, which were up 5.8% in June compared with the year before.

Overall prices are up 9.1% compared with last year, and inflation remains the top economic problem facing households, businesses and policymakers alike.

In recent months, the Biden administration has come under enormous pressure to find any means of slashing gas prices, another major way people feel inflation in their daily lives.

The White House has responded with oil releases and by calling on Congress to consider a gas tax holiday, which didn’t happen.

Advocates want the same urgency and solutions for housing, calling it its own economic crisis.

“We urge the President to act immediately to regulate rents, as part of the Administration’s efforts to curb inflation, and as a critical foundation for long term protections to correct the imbalance of power between tenants and their landlords,” according to a memo the coalition sent to National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and other White House advisers.

The effort, part of a campaign called Homes Guarantee, comes one week after the White House held a summit on its efforts to prevent evictions during the pandemic and keep financial support flowing to struggling renters.

During an online forum, White House officials touted progress under the Emergency Rental Assistance program, which was propped up in the thick of the COVID crisis to stave off a wave of evictions once a federal moratorium was no longer in place.

The money was exceedingly slow to go out at first, but the program ramped up.

Some $40 billion, out of a $46 billion pot, has been obligated or spent, according to the Treasury Department, and eviction filings nationally remain below their historical averages.

While the summit was presented as a kind of victory lap, Biden administration officials acknowledged there is more work to do, especially as soaring rents narrow the options where families can afford to live.

Redfin data shows that in May, the median monthly asking rent in the United States surpassed $2,000 for the first time, with rental increases spanning the nation.

“The question is, are we content to let this first-ever national infrastructure for eviction reduction crumble?” Gene Sperling, coordinator of the American Rescue Plan, the 2021 pandemic relief package, said at last week’s summit.

“Or are we going to build on it and strengthen it and make permanent gains?”

A big reason housing costs are soaring is that there aren’t enough homes.

The United States needs 1.5 million to 5 million housing units built, according to a broad range of economic estimates.

In May, the White House unveiled its Housing Supply Action Plan, which aims to close the country’s housing shortfall in five years.

But those investments would do little to combat rental inflation now. Curbing inflation is the job of the Federal Reserve, which has launched an aggressive effort to bring prices down through interest rate hikes.

But the Fed cannot target any specific parts of the economy, let alone build houses, leaving more tailored solutions to elected officials.

“Tenants have to pay their rent every month, and the alternative is homelessness,” said Tara Raghuveer, Homes Guarantee’s campaign director at People’s Action.

“If the president intends to take meaningful action to curb inflation, he must be serious about using every available authority to regulate the rent.”

Specifically, the coalition wants a Cabinet-level task force to look into regulating rents and securing legal help for tenants in eviction proceedings.

Advocates also want the Treasury Department to issue new rules that direct state and local grantees to keep landlords from increasing rent beyond a certain amount as a condition of receiving rental aid.

They say the Department of Housing and Urban Development should look into whether rising rents are contributing to inequality and preventing access to fair housing.

And the group wants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to impose rent regulations on all borrowers of federally backed mortgages.

Zonnie Thompson, 23, lives in one of those properties in Stockton, California.

His rent recently went from $1,500 to $1,700.

As part of a tenant delegation, Thompson is traveling to Washington this week to discuss solutions with the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

“We want them to commit to working with organizations across the country, such as our own, to roll out policies that will protect tenants and increase their ability to stay in their homes – without forfeiting a majority of their paycheck to rent,” Thompson said.

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