Patch: ‘Renters Bill Of Rights’ Could Help PA Tenants Find Affordable Housing

PENNSYLVANIA — Facing corporate price gouging and an enormous rent crisis that has forced millions of middle-class Americans to pay skyrocketing costs and put others out on the streets in the middle of winter, the White House introduced a program Wednesday to provide some measure of relief. But advocates say it doesn’t go nearly far enough, and the move was cautiously praised by industry lobbyists anxious to avoid more overt federal interference.

President Joe Biden’s administration said that their new “Blueprint for Renters Bill of Rights” aims to root out unfair housing practices that prevent Pennsylvanians and Americans around the nation from accessing or staying in housing. The plan directs multiple agencies to take steps in that direction, but the plan is not binding.

And U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) said that while it’s a step in the right direction, Biden needs take executive action to bring renters immediate assistance and to help avoid evictions, foreclosures, homelessness, and related health problems.

“Simply put, the rent is too high and millions of people across this country are struggling to stay stably housed as a result,” Bowman and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote in a letter that was co-signed by dozens of other federal lawmakers. “Reports of corporate landlords and real estate companies increasing the rent for their own profit are rampant, placing additional strain on already struggling working families.”

Multiple members of Pennsylvania’s delegation to U.S. Congress were among those who signed on to the letter, including Rep. Dwight Evans and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon.

And Pennsylvania is no exception to the historically high rental rates. The average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Philadelphia is $1,410, and a two bedroom is $1,700, according to a real estate analysis at Zumper.

Lobbying groups and corporate interests saw the lack of an executive order as a big win. The National Apartment Association said they’ve been working with the White House and advocating hard to eliminate any changes to “federal involvement in the landlord/tenant relationship.”

“What we can say with certainty is NAA’s advocacy helped avert an executive order advanced by renters advocates and members of Congress, which would have imposed immediate policy changes,” the group said in a statement.

About 44 million households, whose occupants represent about 35 percent of the U.S. population, live in rental housing. About 19 million renter-households, or 43 percent of them, spent more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing costs in 2021, according to the 2017-2021 American Community Survey five-year estimates released in December.

The Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Violence Against Women Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act all offer some protections for renters, but there is no comprehensive set of federal laws protecting renters, resulting in a patchwork of state and local laws and legal processes renters must navigate.

“In a country where increase in rental costs have far outpaced wage growth, it is clear that these heightened costs and acts of corporate profiteering are exacerbating an already-existing crisis of housing unaffordability and instability,” Bowman and Warren added.

Nationally, rent costs increased 8.3 percent for the 12-month period ending in December 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest Consumer Price Index report.

While Biden’s plan The Washington Post reported

For the first time in its history, the Federal Trade Commission is seeking information on unfair rental practices. Along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it will also suss out the use of tenant background checks, including ensuring the accuracy of credit reporting systems. And the Justice Department is exploring competition in the rental market.

Much of the success is hinged on buy-in by state and local governments and market-level housing providers. A “Resident-Centered Housing Challenge” aims to get those parties working together to strengthen policies in their own markets.

That’s happening to some degree. For example, both the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency have agreed to cap annual rent increases at 5 percent per year for federal- or state-subsidized affordable housing.