A new Biden administration plan announced Wednesday aims to make rent more affordable and protect tenants’ rights. This comes as rental costs in the United States rose nearly 25% between 2019 and 2022. It also comes as investors bought nearly a quarter of all single-family homes sold in 2021, making home ownership increasingly impossible for people forced to spend much of their money on ever-increasing rent. Housing activists pushed for the “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights” in the administration’s finalized plan to regulate predatory rental practices and provide relief for tenants, but say what was ultimately included is full of weak commitments and a lack of federal enforceability, while landlords retain their power to set prices and hoard housing stock. We discuss the affordable housing crisis, tenant organizing and the limits of Biden’s new plan with Tara Raghuveer, Homes Guarantee campaign director at People’s Action.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we look at how millions are struggling to find housing within their budgets as the United States faces an affordable housing crisis, and how a new Biden administration plan, announced Wednesday, aims to make rent more affordable and protect tenant rights. Rental costs in the U.S. rose nearly 25% between 2019 and '22. This comes as investors bought nearly a quarter of all single-family homes sold in 2021, making home ownership increasingly impossible for people forced to spend much of their money on ever-increasing rent. The Biden administration's new plan includes a “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights,” called for by housing advocates, but the statement isn’t binding.
On Wednesday, Democracy Now! spoke to Davita Gatewood in Lexington, Kentucky, a mother of six, a tenant leader with Homes Guarantee campaign. Gatewood described her housing crisis.
DAVITA GATEWOOD: In December of 2021, my landlord decided to sell the house that we were living in, so he could flip it, sell it and make a profit. We have been living there for five years. How many times have you heard this story? For us, it’s a home. For them, it’s an investment, a vehicle, an asset, a commodity, a safe retirement.
That summer was supposed to be a high for my family. My son had just graduated magna cum laude from high school with an athletic and an academic scholarship. Instead, I spent most of the summer searching for a new place for us to live. It was impossible. Landlords across the country were using inflation as an excuse to hike our rents at the highest rate in over 40 years. …
My only option was to move into a place that I couldn’t afford. My rent went from $656 to $1,303 per month. I’m a single mother of six. Paying twice as much in rent has been life-altering and ruining. I’ve been seeing in some headlines that say that things are getting better, that inflation is going down. Let me be clear: Eggs are $5 at the grocery. My utility bills have been at least $450 every month. My rent has doubled.
I’m waking up every day asking myself, “Do I have the money to feed my kids? Can I afford gas to take them to school? Can I afford our medication?”
Tenants like me, mothers like me, families like mine are suffering every day, because the administration has failed to take the action to regulate the rents, our biggest monthly expense. Mr. President, the rent is too damn high. Do you hear me? The rent is still too damn high. We need you to provide real relief for families like mine by regulating the rents. Nothing less.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Davita Gatewood, speaking to Democracy Now! from Lexington, Kentucky.
For more on the housing crisis and Biden’s new housing plan, we’re joined by Tara Raghuveer, Homes Guarantee campaign director at People’s Action.
Tara, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you just lay out what the new tenants bill of rights is all about, and your concerns?
TARA RAGHUVEER: Thanks, Amy.
So, yesterday, the White House rolled out a renters bill of rights, a “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights,” and a fact sheet full of actions that the administration is committed to. And this comes after a months-long process of engaging across agencies with various stakeholders both in the rental market, in the industry, and with tenant advocates and leaders, like Davita Gatewood.
One of the first observations that I have about the actions that were announced yesterday is that they do affirm that the federal government has a role to play in intervening in the power imbalance between tenants and landlords. The actions announced yesterday also provide us some good organizing hooks for future action at the agency level.
But the White House announcements fall short of regulating rent. And you heard Davita say it extremely clearly: The rent is too damn high. What we needed from the president was an announcement and, really, a directive to agencies to use every authority available to them to regulate the rent and combat the rampant consolidation of the rental market.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tara, could you explain how — why and how rents have increased so exponentially in such a short period of time — as we said, almost 25% from 2019 to 2022 — and whether those rental increases are concentrated in certain places or basically across the U.S.?
TARA RAGHUVEER: The rent crisis is a crisis that’s really decades in the making. There have been decades of deregulation and privatization. The federal government has all but abdicated its responsibility to us in relationship to our homes, and, therefore, the private market has swooped in. But a lot of their business is predicated on federal financing and federal subsidy. So the federal government absolutely still has a role. So, the rent crisis that we see today is particularly acute, because the federal government has been in business with these private market actors, has actually financed the consolidation of the rental market, and then, worse still, during COVID, we gave away hundreds of billions of dollars in public money to private industry with no strings attached. And then those landlords turned around, they hiked the rent, they evicted their tenants. Tenants are facing the worst of it, and landlords are raking in record profits.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what you call the essential actions the White House needs to take.
TARA RAGHUVEER: The main things that we were asking the White House to do, which they failed to do in the announcement yesterday, but we’re counting on them to do in the future, is to condition every dollar of federal financing and federal subsidy on a universal set of tenant protections, including rent regulations. The idea is quite simple, and we don’t believe it’s radical. We also believe that it’s completely legal for the president and the administration to do this.
So, the Federal Housing Finance Agency is the regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those are the government-sponsored enterprises that provide government-backed loans. What we can say is, if you are in business with the government, you are subject to these loan terms. For example, you can’t raise the rent more than 2 or 3% year over year. These are all things that are well within the government’s authority to do. It’s just a matter of building the political will to make sure it happens.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What can people do in the meanwhile at the local level? How can tenants organize? And if you could address specifically the issue of corporate landlords?
TARA RAGHUVEER: Absolutely. Tenant organizing is actually the only answer to the scale, scope, depth of the crisis that we face related to our rent right now. Tenants are organizing in unions across the country at the building level, at the block level, in neighborhoods and across cities. And they’re forging together across those geographies, which is great.
What they can do is forge together — what tenants, what we can do is forge together into these powerful unions and actually use our power as collectives to go after the money that is extracted from us by our landlords, right? Our power is when we come together. And like workers in labor unions, we can actually use that collective power to intervene in the money-making scheme related to our homes.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute, Tara. You’re also calling for a database of all the landlords that are getting federal subsidies, as well as an eviction database? Explain.
TARA RAGHUVEER: Sure. We called on a database because we want to understand, and we want the federal government to understand, all of the ways that they are in business with private industry.
One thing I want to say before we leave here is that yesterday the National Apartment Association was celebrating the announcements from the White House. They were celebrating that they had defeated rent regulation. This is an association that has been part of colluding against eviction moratoriums and for rent hikes across the country. We should not take pause in our organizing when these lobbyists, who are some of the biggest spenders in Washington, D.C., are celebrating an announcement that was meant to protect tenants.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Tara Raghuveer, Homes Guarantee campaign director at People’s Action, speaking to us from Kansas City, Missouri.
And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. Thank you also to Sonyi Lopez. Check out our website, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.