Housing In Brief: Biden Unveils New Measures To Protect Tenants And Desegregate Housing

Most of Biden’s announced protections are baby steps toward larger policy goals, not the bold plan advocated hoped for.

In this Jan. 27, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden signs a series of executive orders on climate change, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. In a flurry of executive actions in his first eight days in office, the president is trying to steer the U.S. economy from one fueled by fossils to one that no longer puts additional heat-trapping gases into the air by 2050. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

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Biden To Restore Obama-Era Fair Housing Rules

The Biden administration has introduced a new version of rules meant to spur communities to desegregate housing. The 1968 Fair Housing Act contained a provision called “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” which requires local agencies to proactively work toward the goals of ending racial segregation and housing discrimination. For decades, the benchmarks were fairly lax, and segregation remained entrenched or grew worse. In 2015, the Obama administration introduced new guidance on how to enforce AFFH, requiring governments to identify barriers to fair housing and introduce plans to desegregate, lest their funding be revoked.

But that requirement was nixed by the Trump administration in 2018. (Some governments went ahead and released plans anyway; NYC released its plan in 2020.)

The new proposed rules are similar to the Obama-era rules, in that they require localities to identify problems and come up with a plan to fix them. But there are a few changes.

The rules require that governments submit an equity plan every five years. HUD says the new rules require a less complicated analysis and “more robust community engagement.” The rules will also give HUD “a greater set of enforcement options” besides dangling funding, including a continual review process partially informed by public comment.

In a CNN op-ed, HUD secretary Marcia Fudge said the success of the rules will depend on public input. “We are confident that thoughtful and robust feedback will fortify our collective work to ensure our commitments to affirmatively furthering fair housing can be both realized and sustained,” Fudge wrote.

Dozens of civil rights and housing organizations, including the ACLU, NAACP and National Low Income Housing Coalition praised the Biden administration for reintroducing the rules: “When used appropriately, the Fair Housing Act’s AFFH provision can reduce racial and gender wealth and homeownership gaps; increase the supply of quality accessible and affordable housing; improve educational, health, environmental, and other outcomes; increase economic opportunities; and benefit thousands of communities and millions of people,” a joint statement reads.

Biden Admin Announces Tenant Protections

The Biden administration also announced new protections for tenants on Wednesday, in response to large rent hikes during the pandemic and the end of the federal eviction moratorium.

The measures include directing the Federal Trade Commision to take action when prospective tenants and homeowners are unable to obtain housing. The FTC and Consumer Federal Protection Bureau will start gathering information to decide how to enforce this. The DOJ will investigate “anticompetitive information sharing,” likely a reference to companies like RealPage that use rent-setting software, as a ProPublica investigation revealed.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will look into “the opportunities and challenges” of limiting rent increases in properties with loans backed by these government agencies. This appears to be a nod to a request made by Elizabeth Warren, Jamaal Bowman and others to stabilize rents at properties with government-backed loans.

HUD will introduce a new rule requiring 30-day advanced notice when a public housing authority ends a lease for a nonpayment of rent.

The White House published the new actions alongside a Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights that include clear and fair leases, safe housing, making sure renters are aware of their rights, ensuring the right to organize and providing rent relief to tenants. This “bill of rights” is not a set of laws but a long-term policy guidepost that the Biden administration is sharing with local governments. The administration says it is “allying state and local stakeholders and private housing actors to drive further action to protect renters in line with the Blueprint,” by promoting a “Resident-Centered Housing Challenge,” pushing localities to enact their own policies.

In a letter to the president, a group of lawmakers led by Representative Jamaal Bowman and Senator Elizabeth Warren asked the administration to take decisive action. Their recommendations include directing the FTC to issue rent-gouging regulations similar to price-gouging regulations and using FEMA to move people experiencing homelessness into permanent affordable housing.

While clearly informed by tenant demands and advocacy, most of Biden’s announced protections are baby steps toward larger policy goals, and not the bold renter protections some expected.

Los Angeles Approves Tenant Protections

Last week, I wrote about the L.A. city council’s wavering over new tenant protections to replace its eviction moratorium. On Jan. 20, the council voted unanimously on a set of measures to protect tenants, the L.A. Times reports. They include a threshold for the amount of back rent that can lead to an eviction and a requirement that landlords pay for tenants’ relocation fees if a large rent increase results in displacement.

The council also enacted “good cause” (also called just cause) protections so that landlords cannot evict tenants without reason. Instead, a tenant must be behind on rent or in violation of their lease. Tenants also have until Aug. 1 to pay back rent owed from the first year and a half of the pandemic – or from March 2020 to September 2021, the Times reports.

Other stories we’re following:

  • NYCHA tenants paid only 65% of rent owed last year, compared to 90% before the pandemic, the New York Times reports.

  • The Legal Defense Fund and Fair Housing Alliance published a report showing that there is “there is significant discrimination based on source of income in both Memphis and Shelby County,” specifically looking at Section 8 or Housing Choice Vouchers.

  • The organization Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, California has been organizing sit-ins to bring just cause protections to Alameda County, according to their Instagram.

  • The Terner Center for Housing Innovation published a report on SB-9, the California law enacted a year ago to allow homeowners to split their lots to accommodate more housing. They found the law has not led to many new lots, thanks in part to local policy and a lack of incentives.

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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

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