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As Rent Soars & Evictions Spike, Will Biden Address Housing Crisis with Same Urgency as Gas Prices?

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Image Credit: Facebook: KC Tenants

Housing activists are in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with Biden administration officials and urge them to take immediate action to address the rent inflation crisis, as prices soar and the end of eviction moratoriums has caused eviction rates to spike again. Aside from gas and groceries, “rent is the largest expense for most American households, and it’s a core driver of inflation,” says Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants and the People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee campaign.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Housing advocates are calling on the Biden administration to address the soaring cost of rent with the same level of dedication he’s shown to reducing gas prices. This comes as a new report shows evictions are spiking as rental protections disappear. A coalition of hundreds of tenant unions and housing activists call the situation a national emergency as rental costs rise at the fastest pace in three decades.

This is Zonnie Thompson, an organizer with Faith in the Valley in Stockton, California, who is in Washington, D.C., this week as a tenant delegate with the Homes Guarantee campaign. He spoke to Democracy Now! after meeting with Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Sandra Thompson.

ZONNIE THOMPSON: I experienced my rent going from $1,500 to $1,700 in one year. And the thing is, is that with paying $1,500, that was already high, but to hike it up from $1,500 to $1,700, I felt like it was ridiculous. …

When it comes to a 10% rent hike, like, actually, like I said, it does have a big difference, or it does mean a big difference for a lot of folks in California. Like, in my own personal situation, that 10% rent hike meant a $200 difference in my rent. And that, within itself, meant that I was not able to, you know, fix my car when it needed maintenance, due to having to forfeit that $200 every month to rent. And then it also meant, you know, getting in a cycle of overdraft fees — I mean, of overdrafting my account and incurring fees, and then paying it off when I got paid. But then, because I paid that money to those fees, now I have to overdraft my account again so that I can cover my bills. And then I have the fees again, and then I have to pay it off when I get paid again. And then it’s just this vicious cycle that starts up, and it almost seems like it has no end. …

I think that it’s a no-brainer that rent prices are definitely tied to inflation — right? — and that for them to not include it is kind of, like, disheartening, but that this issue, this housing crisis issue, is not going to go anywhere, and that they cannot continue to ignore it. And prolonging addressing it is only going to make it worse for American citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s tenant delegate Zonnie Thompson, part of the Homes Guarantee campaign underway now in Washington, D.C.

For now we stay in D.C. to speak with Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants, a grassroots tenant-led organization based in Kansas City. She’s also the Homes Guarantee campaign director at People’s Action.

Tara, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain why you’re in D.C. and the level of pressure on people who are renting, and rents increasing in a way we haven’t seen in like 30 years.

TARA RAGHUVEER: Thank you so much for having me back, Amy.

We are in D.C. because the rent is too damn high. You heard Zonnie speak to this. But people across the country are being squeezed at the gas pump, at the grocery store, but the biggest expense for most American households is their cost of their housing. It’s their rent. And rents are up 6.3% in the latest inflation figures. This is the biggest increase in rents in 35 years. Median rent across the country is over $2,000 for the first time ever. And people simply can’t afford it. This rent inflation crisis is really sparing no one and no place. So we’re in D.C. with tenants like Zonnie, a delegation of tenants who have been impacted by these rent hikes, to push the president to do everything in his legal authority to regulate the rent now.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain about pandemic protections being rolled back and how that affects people?

TARA RAGHUVEER: So, the eviction rates are back up to prepandemic levels, but really there’s no rate of eviction that should be acceptable. We can’t celebrate lower-than-normal rates, and we can’t celebrate returning back to normal. What we believe is every eviction is an act of violence.

And what the administration did during the pandemic to alleviate the risk of eviction or provide some relief to tenants was really a bailout to landlords. There was billions and billions of dollars of federal assistance put out in the form of rental assistance, that put the burden on tenants to apply, but they didn’t get to keep that check, right? They had to turn that check over to their landlord. The abomination in all of this is that none of that public money came with strings attached, right? None of that actually built in any structural shift of power from landlords to tenants.

So, today, not only do we see evictions returning back to prepandemic levels, we also see a different type of eviction crisis playing out outside of the courtrooms as people simply can’t afford their rent. See, when a landlord increases the rent beyond a place where a tenant can afford it, they don’t have the choice to just scrape together another $200 and try to make it work. Often that is tantamount to an eviction. And people are losing their homes because their rent is increasing or their lease is not getting renewed.

AMY GOODMAN: And in just a moment, we’re going to speak with one of the leaders of the movement to help the unhoused in Los Angeles and the growing tension there. But if you can talk about — I mean, we know the rents are going up in coastal cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, here in New York City. You’re from Kansas City. Talk about it all over.

TARA RAGHUVEER: In Kansas City, the rent is up 7.5%. City Hall defines affordable as $1,200 for a one-bedroom apartment. And that’s based on an area median income of $86,000. I don’t know a single person in Kansas City who’s making $86,000 or who can afford a $1,200 apartment. So, people are sent into the cycles that Zonnie described, where they’re paying extra in their rent, and they’re having to cut back on other bills, like their medication or their groceries. Unlike something like gas, rent is not an expense in your monthly budget that you can simply choose to cut back on, right? The alternative is homelessness.

And to your point, homelessness is being criminalized in states like mine, like Missouri, and all across the country. So, people are trapped in a really violent cycle right now, where they’re either forced to overdraft and cut back on meals and turn off the lights and sacrifice their humanity, or they’re forced to the streets, where they’re criminalized for their poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to two tenants. As safeguards to prevent evictions during the pandemic expire, tenants across the country facing these rent increases of up to, what, 5%, 10% — in California, 10%. These are Los Angeles tenants Juan García, his neighbor of over 17 years, Eulises Del Bosque, describing the burden of rising rents.

JUAN GARCÍA: [translated] Yes, I am worried, because they — well, they wanted to raise the rent, but, unfortunately, I told them no. No, I did not accept that they raised it. But the other tenants did. They raise it by 10%, and the tenants give them the rent.

EULISES DEL BOSQUE: [translated] There are going to be more problems because of the evictions that are increasing as a result of rents starting to rise. And there is too much, too much inflation. Then, it is impossible to be able to live quietly with everything that — all the situations that there are that are happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Tara Raghuveer, talk about the demographics of who’s being priced out of their rentals.

TARA RAGHUVEER: Disproportionately, the people who are impacted by rent hikes and by the type of rent gouging that we see corporate actors employing in the rental market are Black and Brown tenants, are poor and working-class tenants. Black women are the people who are the most at risk of eviction during, quote, “normal times,” and these are accelerated — these are accelerated conditions that are also having that disproportionate effect on those same communities.

You know, there’s recent research that tells us that institutional investors, private equity funds, real estate speculators target communities where there’s actually higher percentage of Black and Brown neighborhoods and people who are renting their homes, and then they raise the rent, right? They raise the rent to levels that the people there can’t afford, and force them into this kind of eviction cycle.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Federal Housing Finance Agency, how it can help in fighting against rising rents? That’s who you’re meeting with in Washington.

TARA RAGHUVEER: We had a very promising meeting with the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency yesterday, Director Sandra Thompson. And we talked to her about the ways that FHFA, in its role as a regulator of Fannie and Freddie, can actually have a massive impact on regulating the rents and protecting tenants. So, as a regulator of Fannie and Freddie, FHFA has a role to play to actually add conditions to any federal financing.

I’ll give you an example. There’s a corporate landlord called Starwood, where the CEO, on a recent earnings call, called inflation “the gift that keeps on giving.” And they’ve raked in record profits during the pandemic while they’ve been hiking rents across the country. Starwood has federally backed mortgages, right? So, that’s something within FHFA’s purview. They could add conditions to the federal financing that many of these institutional investors rely on, in order to rein in their rents. We could regulate rent increases, regulate lease renewals. That’s all within Sandra Thompson’s purview as the director of the FHFA.

AMY GOODMAN: And Congress? President Biden? What can they do?

TARA RAGHUVEER: So, Congress is set to pass the Inflation Reduction Act. It doesn’t have anything to do with reducing the rent. In our view, the president and his team have been talking about, thinking about gas and many other elements in inflation, and they’ve really been neglecting rent. This is the elephant in the room. Rent is the largest expense for most American households, and it’s a core driver of inflation. So, even as the Inflation Reduction Act passes, for it to not include rent is a major red flag. We’re calling on the president to do everything in his executive authority to direct agency-level action, of course to direct congressional action, and to use the power of the pulpit to call this crisis what it is, which is a national emergency, and to call out those actors in the private market that are actually rent gouging, using inflation as an excuse, but raising rents beyond the rate of inflation.

AMY GOODMAN: Tara Raghuveer, I want to thank you for being with us, director of KC Tenants, grassroots tenant-led organization in Kansas City, also the Homes Guarantee campaign director at People’s Action, speaking to us from Washington, D.C., where they are trying to meet with federal agencies and others to deal with the rising rents.

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