New U.S. Federal ‘Renter Bill of Rights.’ Housing Help Or Hot Air Balloon?

What appears to be two Uncle Sam's pointing at viewer
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Believe it! Uncle Sam and I are going to rent YOU an affordable home.

The strains of the COVID-19 pandemic have laid bare the increasing crisis faced by America’s renters that is now reaching into the middle classes. The U.S. Biden administration plans to tackle the problem by not only providing some practical relief, but by creating a renters bill of rights. That document will hopefully be a blueprint for further action to alleviate renter woes1.

While it’s an encouraging sign from the current Biden administration, the document itself will undoubtedly be little more than a map of a road ahead — a declaration of intent, rather than an immediate action.

Much of the legislation that currently drives renters towards poverty in America is the governed by individual states, making a federal ‘Bill of Renters Rights’ an exercise in aspiration rather than execution. For one example of how individual states hold ultimate power to address renter concerns, consider Section 8 vouchers that are funded by the federal government. States could require that landlords accept prospective tenants who are funded by these section 8 vouchers. Many states make no such requirement of their landlords, limiting the potential for the vouchers to help tenants.

And as far as actions are concerned, we will need to see whether new or revised federal initiatives will put teeth into renter problems, or merely gum them in the say old ways. A fine example is the number of Section 8 vouchers that top up the rent of those who cannot afford to pay current housing rents. The program currently supports one of every five households that would qualify for Section 8.

Could more funding be forthcoming in support of this blueprint? For the next two years at least, the Democrat administration will at the mercy of a Republican House of Representatives for new financial initiatives. New government financing for this blueprint may be impossible at a federal level.

The proposal, however, sketches how the federal government could throttle funds already in place — limiting or denying mortgage funding from agencies such as ‘Freddie Mac,’ and thus coercing the behaviour of the landlords that enjoy its advantages.

Much of the national press seems to welcome the initiative as a ‘step in the right direction,’ accompanied unsurprisingly by activist comments that it doesn’t go far enough. A few media outlets have analyzed the tenant bill of rights and the hurdles that must somehow be overcome.

Forbes takes a traditional economic ‘supply and demand’ approach to suggest that execution of the proposal will violate some traditional economic ‘laws,’ which will produce counterproductive results. Read more in Forbes: White House ‘Renter’s Bill Of Rights’ Worries Some Economists

Jacobin terms the bill of rights to be ‘wispy’ proposals with neither significant nor immediate impact to address America’s growing rental housing crisis. One particular feature of the following article is to reveal the glee with which the ‘landlording’ industry lobbied to create a proposal with a bite that is all gums and no teeth. Read more in Jacobin: Joe Biden’s New Relief Plan for Renters Is Incredibly Weak


  1. Read the White House Blueprint For A Renters Bill of Rights here