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President Joe Biden’s blueprint for a federal tenants bill of rights proposes new safeguards against the exploitation and eviction of the country’s lowest-income renters, but housing advocates and experts say the plan doesn’t go far enough to stem displacement.
The White House’s plan sets the stage for federal legislation to “strengthen tenant protections and encourage rental affordability” that would override patchy or nonexistent state and local laws, at a time when rents are rising faster than wages and institutional investors have become a major player.
“There is no comprehensive set of federal laws protecting renters. Instead, our nation’s rental market is defined by a patchwork of state and local laws and legal processes that renters and rental housing providers must navigate,” the Biden administration’s plan says.
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) organizer Foluke Nunn said she hopes the White House proposal sets the stage for more enforceable protections for renters at all tiers of government—but especially at the federal level, which could establish tenant defenses that supersede restrictive local and state laws.
“I hope that this blueprint will provide the foundation for national legislation that can guarantee rights for all renters,” she said, adding, “Georgia is [one of] the worst states for tenants, and I don’t see the state adopting the blueprint’s stated principles on its own anytime soon.”
Alison Johnson, the executive director of Atlanta’s Housing Justice League, said in an email that the blueprint lacks plans for enforcement mechanisms that would keep negligent landlords honest.
“In cities like Atlanta, many low income residents are being evicted, and there are no provisions in the Biden [proposal] that would prevent mass evictions,” she said, adding, “We need additional concrete tenant protections with teeth that local municipalities can mandate.”
While positive, Johnson said, the president’s proposal “is merely a stepping stone and nothing more.”
In short, the blueprint, a roadmap for potential legislation, proposes the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau examine exploitative practices by landlords and background check companies “that unfairly prevent applicants and tenants from accessing or staying in housing” and urges those agencies to consider measures to prevent rent-gouging, evictions for nonpayment of rent, and other actions that take advantage of marginalized people.
The plan underscores guidelines for “clear and fair leases” that are understandable to tenants and outline exactly when and how they could be impacted by “actions related to the unit”—such as eviction filings—as well as for mandates requiring landlords to inform renters of their right to legal counsel and to organize “without obstruction or harassment from their housing provider or property manager,” according to the blueprint.
“All of this is much further than I’ve ever seen a White House go in amplifying and promoting the importance of renter rights and protections,” Diane Yentel, who heads the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said on Twitter. But the White House and Federal Housing Finance Agency, she said, must “take action to hold corporate landlords accountable for documented, egregious, and often unlawful behavior.”
During a Jan. 30 webinar focused on federal housing policy, Yentel called the White House’s proposal “a significant step forward” for housing affordability. But she said it should go further to shield renters from predatory evictions and other exploitative actions from landlords—especially when it comes to Wall Street’s national grip on the residential housing market.
In metro Atlanta, Wall Street investors have been buying homes at an increasing rate in recent years. They often turn houses into high-priced rentals that lower-income tenants can’t afford or simply sit on the properties without doing any maintenance, letting them fall apart as they appreciate in value—and at times flout local laws created to deter blight.
Deirdre Oalkey, a housing expert at Georgia State University, told Atlanta Civic Circle that lawmakers from the local level up to the federal government must find ways to hold institutional investors, like hedge funds and private equity funds, accountable.
“These are the drivers of corporate investments in housing, and they don’t care how high the rent is,” she said, adding, “the corporate landlords in particular set the rent typically well above the fair market rate, so any type of rent limit (due to potential rent-gouging bans) would mean they are not making as high a profit but they would still be making a healthy profit.”
Echoing Oakley’s concerns, Nunn, from AFSC, told Atlanta Civic Circle she was “disappointed that there is not more in the blueprint about the need to address negligent landlords and property owners who refuse to make repairs/are slow to make repairs.”
Oakley added that she worries some might see the White House blueprint and simply interpret it as a call for rent control and eviction bans, as a Jan. 30 Forbes article suggested. “This is fearmongering—or attempting to start a moral panic,” she said. In truth, the document merely underscores the ways many renters are abused by landlords and pitches potential fixes.
But Terri Montague, a senior lecturer at Emory University’s law school and an expert on housing, said in an email that she anticipates the general public “will welcome the blueprint as important reinforcement and progress in the right direction, especially for municipalities, like the city of Atlanta, that have already adopted their own local tenants’ bill of rights.”
The resolution the Atlanta City Council approved in June is largely symbolic; it calls on the Georgia legislature to repeal a decades-old law that bans rent control, and encourages the creation of a city-level Office of the Tenant Advocate to assist lower-income renters with landlord problems and educate them on their legal rights when facing disputes with landlords.
Though she lauded the White House’s efforts to further conversations on housing affordability, Yentel, the NLIHC leader, said, “There is much more work still to be done.”