Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Rishi Sunak is the UK’s new PM. Here’s what he doesn’t want you to know

From offshore dealings to right-wing think tanks, here’s our guide to the UK’s richest prime minister

Adam Bychawski

25 October 2022

Prime minister Rishi Sunak – reportedly the richest MP in Parliament – will be a boon for the financial lobby, tax justice campaigners have warned.

The man trounced by Liz Truss just weeks ago has been confirmed as her replacement with the exit of Penny Mordaunt from the Tory leadership contest. But experts say Sunak has not been transparent with his finances and that his hedge fund background raises questions about his commitment to fighting tax avoidance.

His profile has risen sharply since he became chancellor in early 2020, just weeks before the first lockdown began. But critics say a slick public marketing campaign has disguised a man with an ultra-privileged background, who is a committed Thatcherite ideologue. 

Here’s the openDemocracy guide to the UK’s next prime minister, originally published in January 2022.

He went to private school

Sunak marked his first year in the Exchequer by tweeting two photos of himself: one as a child in school uniform, and one as the chancellor, standing outside Number 11. 

He wrote: “Growing up I never thought I would be in this job (mainly because I wanted to be a Jedi) […] It’s been incredibly tough but thank you to everyone who has supported me along the way.”

The message carefully tip-toed around his privileged upbringing. Until the age of 11, Sunak attended Oakmount Preparatory School and then the Stroud Independent Prep School,  the latter of which now charges fees of up to £18,500 a year. 

From there, he studied at King Edward VI School in Southampton (now £17,000 a year) before moving to Winchester College (now £43,335 a year). 

Five chancellors and one prime minister have attended Winchester, one of England’s oldest public boarding schools and a long-standing rival of Eton, before Sunak.

“[Sunak’s] tweet made me smile,” said Richard Beard, an author whose latest book ‘Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England’ assesses the private education system and the many politicians that have been through it.

“The idea that, while studying in Winchester College, he would have never thought he would be at the top of government is very unlikely to me. Leadership qualities are one of the things that they teach you and you’re bound to think of your future in those terms.

“So he would definitely have thought that that is the kind of job that he’d be in, even if he didn’t explicitly think of chancellor of the exchequer.”

In media profiles, Sunak’s allies describe him as “immaculate”“calm” and “organised”, qualities befitting of a former Winchester head of college. None volunteer that he is empathetic or compassionate. When given examples of people who are experiencing hardship in Parliament or press interviews, as he was on ‘Good Morning Britain’ last year, Sunak listed policies in response, but offered no consolations.

Beard, whose book is partly based on his own experiences, believes all-male boarding schools emotionally harden their students. To survive, he says, boys cannot show any vulnerability among their peers.

“If you repress emotion for yourself then ultimately it becomes very easy to repress feelings for other people,” he argues. 

And while boarding schools like Winchester may prepare students well to advance in politics, Beard says they instil a worldview that is far from ordinary. 

“Money is at the centre of it all because everyone knows it costs a lot of money, including the boys, but the actual money is abstract. The needs of everyday life are simply taken care of for you,” said Beard. 

“How can you actually then think in terms of people struggling for five pounds and ten pounds?” 

He cut benefits

Last year, Sunak was heavily criticised for axing a £20-a-week increase to Universal Credit that had helped some of the poorest families through the pandemic. More than 200,000 would have been pushed into poverty as a result of the cut, according to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Just weeks before the cut was confirmed in July, the chancellor requested planning permission to build a private swimming pool, gym and tennis court at the Grade II-listed Yorkshire manor that Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, purchased for £1.5m in 2015. 

After several MPs from his own party spoke out against the Universal Credit cut, Sunak increased in-work benefits in his Autumn Budget – but not by enough to offset the cut.

He has a lot of money

The Sunaks’ Georgian mansion, where locals described attending parties with liveried staff pouring champagne from magnums, is not the only property they own. There is also the £7m, five-bedroom house in Kensington, west London; a flat, also in Kensington, that the couple reportedly keep “just for visiting relatives”; and an apartment in Santa Monica, California.

The chancellor’s extensive property portfolio is just one source of his wealth. After studying at Oxford University, Sunak went on to work for US investment bank Goldman Sachs for four years. He left to pursue a business degree at Stanford University in California, where he said meeting influential figures in the multi-billion US tech industry “left a mark” on him.

From there, Sunak had a stint working at hedge funds back in London. He was a partner at the Children's Investment Fund (TCI) where he is believed to have made millions of pounds from a campaign that helped trigger the 2008 financial crisis.

Sir Chris Hohn, the fund's founder paid himself a record £343m in the first year of the pandemic. TCI is ultimately owned by a company registered in the Cayman Islands, according to its accounts. Its philanthropic arm, the Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), donated £255m to charitable causes last year (full disclosure: openDemocracy has received funding from CIFF since 2019).

Sunak then left to co-found his own firm Theleme, which had an initial fund of £536m – and is also registered in the Cayman Islands.

His financial interests aren’t very transparent

The Cayman Islands are one of the world’s top offshore tax and secrecy havens. When an investment is made through a hedge fund in the Caymans, “nobody can possibly know where the money has come from”, said Alex Cobham, the chief executive of the Tax Justice Network.

Not all the money that goes through the Caymans is dirty, and hedge funds argue that they need to keep their investment strategies secret to be competitive.

Nevertheless, “it is probably the best, certainly the most reputable, way of allowing fairly questionable money in large volume to go into mainstream financial markets,” said Cobham.

An estimated $483bn (£357.62bn) a year is lost in cross-border tax abuse by multinational companies and by individuals hiding assets in havens like the Cayman Islands, according to the Tax Justice Network

“Somehow, in the financial sector, we still have this idea that it’s basically smart to game the system. If these are the people, and the culture, that is coming into public life then we’ve got a real problem,” said Cobham.

When Sunak became a minister in 2019, he placed the investments he held from his years of working in finance into a ‘blind trust’. Such agreements are intended to avoid conflicts of interest by handing over control of assets to a third party, but whether that works in practice is questionable.

“These trusts don’t necessarily come with any legal mechanism to prevent the owner of the assets actually dictating what happens, or indeed seeing through any claimed blindness,” said Cobham.

“If politicians were willing to make the arrangement transparent, including the legal documents, we might have some confidence in them,” he adds.

Sunak has declared the trust in his entry on the Register of Ministers’ Financial Interests, but not the contents of it. The rest of his disclosures are remarkably minimal for a man with an estimated net worth of £200m.

Aside from the trust, he has listed his London flat and the fact his wife, Akshata Murty, owns a venture capital investment company, Catamaran Ventures, which the couple founded together in 2013.

Murty, who Sunak met at Stanford, is the daughter of Indian billionaire NR Narayana Murthy, who co-founded the IT company Infosys. Her shares in that firm are worth £430m alone, a fortune larger than the Queen’s and enough to make her one of the richest women in Britain.

The Murthy/Murty family (Narayana’s children have dropped the ‘h’ from their name) is reported to have invested part of their wealth through Catamaran Ventures, though how much is unclear. Sunak resigned his directorship of the company in 2015.

Ministers must declare the financial interests of their close family – including in-laws – which might give rise to a conflict, but Sunak has declared only one of the companies that his wife owns. A host of other family assets – including a £900m-a-year joint venture with Amazon in India, owned by his father-in-law – are not mentioned, according to the Guardian.

Sunak is said to have met with the government’s then head of propriety and ethics, Helen MacNamara, before becoming chancellor, to review what interests should be declared. MacNamara said she was satisfied with what had been registered at the time.

He has strong links to right-wing think tanks

Sunak reportedly led the hawks within the cabinet who opposed taking action when scientists recommended a circuit-breaker lockdown in September 2020, arguing that restrictions would be too economically damaging. Johnson delayed the decision and infections spiralled leading to a more punitive and lengthier lockdown in November.

“Sunak’s been the voice most consistently pushing for watering down of COVID restrictions in the cabinet. So, if you like, he is a kind of a logical continuation of that Thatcherite impulse within the Tories,” said Phil Burton-Cartledge, the author of ‘Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain’.

Soon after becoming an MP in 2015, Sunak wrote a report calling for the creation of ‘freeports’ around the UK for the right-wing think tank, Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), which was co-founded by Margaret Thatcher. 

The policy idea – that tax-free, deregulated outposts will revitalise post-industrial coastal cities – was fittingly tried by the former PM in the 1980s, before being dropped by David Cameron in 2012 after proving unsuccessful.

Sunak also worked for another right-wing think tank, Policy Exchange – which, like CPS does not declare its donors – before becoming an MP, and has spoken at the Institute of Economic Affairs since becoming chancellor. All three think tanks have been consistently ranked among the least transparent in the UK.

He has a slick PR operation

During the pandemic, billionaires such as NR Narayana Murthy saw their wealth increase – Murthy’s fortune was up 35% to £2.3bn in 2021– while inequality between the richest and poorest grew. What, then, explains the seeming popularity of a former hedge fund manager like Sunak at a time in midst of a cost of living crisis?

Part of the answer might be the way Sunak has presented himself. Unusually for a chancellor, he hired the co-founder of a social media agency to manage his public image after he was appointed. 

Since then, the content on his social media channels – from casual ‘ask me anything’-style YouTube videos to puppy pictures on Instagram – have more closely resembled a celebrity influencer than a frontrunner for Tory leader.

Jonathan Dean, an associate professor of politics at Leeds University, says this reflects broader political trends: “Forms of celebrity are increasingly prominent within politics, and that can either take the form of people who were conventional celebrities entering electoral politics, or it can also take the form of politicians trying to ape the publicity and performance traditionally associated with celebrity culture.”

Politicians draw on tactics from the world of celebrity influencers, Dean suggests, partly because they can mask their political views. 

“A lot of politicians don’t have a particularly coherent or well-thought-through set of ideological commitments or kind of policy ideas. And I think certain forms of celebritisation allow them to circumvent that,” he said. 

In Sunak’s case, it seems he has been even more successful in influencing journalists than the public. A picture of him working from home in a hoodie became a media frenzy after columnists from Vogue and GQ complimented his looks, which, in turn, spawned mockery on social media. It wasn’t long after that Sunak was being asked how he felt about being described as ‘Dishy Rishi’ in an interview with LadBible.

While Sunak may be the most popular Tory politician among the public, among party members he is second to the foreign secretary Liz Truss, his main rival for Tory leader if Johnson goes. 

Burton-Cartledge suggests that this might be because he has not demonstrated the same zeal as Truss for pursuing a ‘war on woke’.

“He is of the same mould as Cameron: economically Thatcherite, but socially liberal,” said Burton-Cartledge. “That said, I can’t see him rowing back on the tough rhetoric about migrants in the Channel.”

This article was originally published on opendemocracy.net

Monday, October 17, 2022

WaPo Wants US ‘Beacon’ for Ukraine Refugees—but Not for Haitians

It’s a fair comparison: Migrants from both countries seek protection in the United States because they fear for their lives in their home country. While Ukraine is actively at war, Haiti’s violence and instability have ebbed and flowed for decades, a result largely of foreign exploitation and intervention, compounded in recent years by devastating earthquakes and hurricanes; neither can provide a basic level of safety for their citizens today.

All have the right under international and US law to seek that protection, including at the US border, where they are required to be given a chance to apply for asylum. Under Title 42—an obscure and “scientifically baseless” public health directive invoked under Donald Trump at the start of the Covid pandemic, and largely extended under Joe Biden’s administration (FAIR.org4/22/22)—that right has been violated, as Haitian (and Central American) asylum seekers have been summarily expelled without being screened for asylum eligibility.

One might imagine that this trampling of rights, more actively nefarious than the foot-dragging on resettling Ukrainian refugees, would prompt more, not less, outrage among media opinion makers. Yet the opposite is true for the Post editorial board, which has written about both situations repeatedly.

‘These could be your children’

WaPo: Why isn’t Biden taking in refugees from Ukraine?

Washington Post editorial (3/4/22) in support of Ukrainian refugees calls attention to the fact that “these could be your children.”

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked a mass exodus of refugees, the board (3/4/22) quickly and passionately urged the Biden administration to “welcome Ukrainians with open arms”: 

The images linger in your mind: Ukrainian children pressed against the windows of a bus or train sobbing or waving goodbye to their fathers and other relatives who remain behind to try to fight off an unjustified Russian war on Ukraine. It’s easy to imagine this could be your family broken apart. These could be your children joining the more than 1 million refugees trying to flee Ukraine in the past week. 

The board argued that accepting Ukrainian refugees would be a “way to truly stand with the brave and industrious Ukrainian people and our allies around the world”—and “also provide more workers for the US economy.”

Less than two weeks later, the Post (3/16/22) returned to the issue, forcefully demanding that Biden’s inaction on bringing Ukrainian refugees to the US “must change” and suggesting that the Department of Homeland Security “step up” and grant them entry under a humanitarian parole system. “At the moment, it’s hard to think of a cohort of refugees whose reasons are more urgent,” the board wrote.

A few weeks after Biden’s March 24 announcement that the US would admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, the Post (4/19/22) found the idea “heartening,” but called the lack of implementation “an embarrassment to this country.” This was at a time when, as the board noted, most Ukrainians who managed to make it to the US/Mexico border were being allowed entry under the parole system the Post had favored.

Later, the Post (6/22/22) celebrated that its exhortations had been followed: “The US Door Swings Open to Ukrainian Refugees.” In that editorial, the board explicitly highlighted that the Ukrainians who had thus far entered the US had done so “in nearly all cases legally.” They wrote: That tens of thousands of them have successfully sought refuge in this country over about three months, with relatively little fanfare—and even less controversy, considering the toxicity that attends most migration issues—is a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to its values as a beacon to the world’s most desperate people. That commitment must be sustained as the war in Ukraine drags on, which seems likely.  

But the Post board doesn’t want that beacon to shine too brightly for all the world’s most desperate people—such as Haitian asylum seekers.

‘Inhumane to incentivize migrants’

WaPo: Biden’s mixed messaging on immigration brings a surge of Haitian migrants to the Texas border

Washington Post editorial (9/20/21) on Haitian refugees takes President Joe Biden to task for suggesting he would “relax the previous administration’s draconian policies” toward Latin American asylum seekers.

After the Del Rio incident, the board (9/20/21) expressed umbrage that “Haitian migrants, virtually all Black, are being subjected to expulsion on a scale that has not been directed at lighter-skinned Central Americans.”

Yet this was quickly balanced by the Post‘s indignation at Biden’s “on-the-ground leniency” toward migrants that “led many or most of [the Haitians at Del Rio] toward the border.” 

The board wrote that Biden had suggested he would “relax the previous administration’s draconian policies” for “others, especially Central American families with children, tens of thousands of whom have been admitted to the United States this year,” thereby encouraging Haitians to come but then expelling them by the thousands. “The policy is inhumane,” the board lamented; “equally, it is inhumane to incentivize migrants to risk the perilous, expensive journey across Central America and Mexico.”

To be clear, the Biden administration expelled migrants under Title 42 in more than a million encounters in 2021; however, a change in Mexican policy meant the US could no longer expel Central American families with young children (American Immigration Council, 3/4/22). What the board is suggesting here is that the policy of sending away migrants who have a right to seek asylum in the US, and will almost certainly face a dire situation upon arrival in their home country, is equal in its inhumanity to reducing the use of that policy—because that incentivizes more people to exercise their right to seek asylum.

So what’s the answer to this conundrum? Ultimately the board pinned the blame on “partisanship in Congress” that has “doomed” attempts at comprehensive immigration reform. Setting aside the absurdity of the idea that both parties are equally at fault in stymying immigration reform, that analysis implies that any sort of immediate relief for actual Haitians is not a priority for the Post editorial board, regardless of their suffering.

After the Del Rio incident, the Biden administration cleared out the migrant camp the Haitians were staying in, and most were flown to Haiti or fled to Mexico to avoid that fate. Many Democrats criticized Biden for the treatment of the Haitian migrants, but the Post (10/13/21), in its next editorial on the subject, argued that those critics “fail[ed] to acknowledge the political, logistical and humanitarian risks of lax border enforcement.”

The headline of that editorial, “How the Biden Administration Can Help Haitian Migrants Without Sending the Wrong Message,” clearly signaled the board’s priorities; when advocating for helping Ukrainians, the Post never betrayed any concern that such help might send the wrong message.

While it’s “easy to sympathize with the impulse behind” calls to end Title 42, and to grant Haitian refugees asylum if they are judged to have a “reasonable possibility of fear,” the board wrote, “the trouble is that it would swiftly incentivize huge numbers of new migrants to make the perilous trek toward the southern border.”

They argued that their concern wasn’t theoretical; it was “proved” by the “surge” of Haitian asylum seekers “driven in large part by the administration’s increasingly sparing use of Title 42″—implying that the human rights of Haitian migrants must be judiciously balanced against the supposed threat of a “surge” of them at the border. The board members concluded that “Americans broadly sympathize with the admission of refugees and asylum seekers, but a precondition of that support is a modicum of order in admissions.” First comes order, then come the Post‘s sympathies.

Two months later (12/30/21), they argued that the mass expulsion of Haitian migrants was “deeply troubling,” quoting a UN report that Haitians are “living in hell.” And yet they found themselves unable to forcefully condemn the Biden administration’s continued use of Title 42 to prevent Haitians from exercising their right to seek asylum, arguing that the policy is “politically defensible,” since “Americans do not want to encourage a chaotic torrent of illegal immigration.” The strongest umbrage they could muster was to call the situation “worth a policy review, to say the least.”

‘Main export is asylum seekers’

WaPo: As chaos mounts in Haiti, the U.S. takes a tepid stance

The Washington Post (5/7/22) calls for a “vigorous US policy” to oppose Haiti “chaos.”

The Post editorial board is clearly very aware of the plight of Haitian refugees. As they pointed out in an editorial (5/7/22) calling for a “concerted, muscular diplomatic push” to address the Haitian government’s lack of legitimacy, they wrote that for those deported to Haiti, their “chances of finding work are abysmal, but the possibility that they will be victimized amid the pervasive criminality is all too real.”

The board has been vocal (7/7/22) about calling for US policy change toward Haiti to reduce the “human misery”—and the “outflow of refugees”—arguing that “deportation is a poor substitute for policy.” Recently, it has ramped up its rhetoric, even suggesting (8/6/22) the idea of a military intervention in Haiti; in its most recent call for intervention, the board argued:"It is unconscionable for the Western Hemisphere’s richest country to saddle the poorest with a stream of migrants amid an economic, humanitarian and security meltdown. But it’s the country, not its people, at the center of concern here. At no point in the piece are those people, or the impact of US policy on them, described. (Certainly it’s never suggested that “these could be your children.”) Worse, the board calls Haiti a “failed state whose main export is asylum seekers,” reducing those asylum seekers to objects. (One might add that comparing Black human beings to “exports” shows a callous disregard for Haitian—and US—history.)

The board wants intervention in Haiti in part to relieve the “humanitarian suffering” in the country (9/22/22)—but it’s not ashamed to put “death and despair” in the same sentence as “a steady or swelling tide of refugees” as the two things the Biden administration should be seeking to prevent via such an intervention.

The source of the discrepancy between its position on Ukrainian and Haitian refugees seems to be that the Post editorial board sees them as fundamentally different problems. Ukrainians fleeing violence and instability are themselves at risk and need help; Haitians fleeing violence and instability are a risk to the US.

That framing of the problem was perhaps most clear in their editorial (2/10/21) condemning Biden’s support for Haiti’s “corrupt, autocratic and brutal” then-President Jovenel Mo├»se: "As with Central American migrants, the problem of illegal immigrants from Haiti can be mitigated only by a concerted US push to address problems at the source." Haitian migrants are, to the Post, more a problem for the US than human beings with problems of their own.

And the editorial board’s use of the term “illegal immigrant”—a dehumanizing and inaccurate slur the widely-used AP style guide nixed ten years ago—is also telling. The board repeatedly refers in its editorials on Haiti to “illegal border crossings” and “surges.” But as mentioned previously, Haitians, like Ukrainians—and the Central American migrants the Post dreads in the same breath as Haitians—are legally entitled to come to the US border and seek asylum. In fact, to request asylum, migrants are required to present themselves on US soil. The only thing that makes their crossings “illegal” is Title 42, which itself is clearly illegal, despite judicial contortions to keep it in place. Yet it seems the moral (and legal) imperative to offer the opportunity to seek asylum must always be balanced, in the Post‘s view, with their fears of an unruly mob at the border.

‘An enduring gift to their new country’

Early in the Ukraine War, some journalists came under criticism for singling out Ukrainian refugees for sympathy, in either explicit or implicit contrast to refugees from non-white countries (FAIR.org3/18/22). CBS‘s Charlie D’Agata (2/25/22), for instance, told viewers that Ukraine: isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that, it’s going to happen

They seem so like us,” wrote Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph (2/26/22). “That is what makes it so shocking.”

Both journalists were white; it is perhaps worth noting that nine of the ten members of the Washington Post editorial board are likewise white. (Post opinion columnist Jonathan Capehart, who is Black, is the sole exception.)

WaPo: Don’t forget the Afghan refugees who need America’s support

The Washington Post (4/28/22) shows no fear of a “surge” of Afghan refugees.

And yet the differential treatment it accords migrant groups may go beyond racism or classism for the Post; in April, the board (4/28/22) published an editorial headlined, “Don’t Forget the Afghan Refugees Who Need America’s Support.” In it, the board asked, “Why can’t the administration stand up a program for US-based individuals and groups to sponsor Afghan refugees to come here, as it has done for Ukrainians?”

Earlier, the board (8/31/21) had argued that Afghan refugees “​​will become as thoroughly American as their native-born peers, and their energy, ambition and pluck will be an enduring gift to their new country.”

The Afghanistan case illustrates that the Washington Post doles out its sympathy on political, not just racial, terms: Afghans, like Ukrainians, are presented as victims of enemies the Post has devoted considerable energy to vilifying—the Taliban on the one hand, Russia on the other. The plights of Haitians (and Central Americans), by contrast, can in no small part be traced back to US intervention—something the Post has little appetite for castigating.

And Afghans, for the most part, have not been arriving at the US/Mexico border, which is clearly a site of anxiety for the board, with its fear of “surges” and lawlessness.

The humanization and sympathy the board offers to both Afghans, and especially the Ukrainians that “could be your children,” is never offered to Haitians. Their circumstances are described, sometimes in dire language, but they themselves—their “pluck,” their “children pressed against the windows of a bus or train sobbing or waving goodbye to their fathers and other relatives who remain behind”—remain invisible and, ultimately, unworthy.

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'Rent Is Too Damn High': Biden Pressured to Act as Housing Costs Fuel Inflation

"Biden can fix it by doing everything in his power to regulate rents and stop landlords from profiteering off this inflation crisis," said Tara Raghuveer of People's Action.

Newly released inflation data showing that rent has jumped 7.2% over the past year—the largest increase in four decades—is sparking fresh demands for President Joe Biden and Congress to take action to curb soaring housing costs, including by pursuing rent control measures and a host of other policy interventions.

"Without a real strategy to regulate rents, President Biden lacks a real strategy to fight inflation," Tara Raghuveer, director of the Homes Guarantee campaign at People's Action, said in a statement Thursday. "That problem will play out in the midterms. But Biden can fix it by doing everything in his power to regulate rents and stop landlords from profiteering off this inflation crisis."

In an analysis unveiled after the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index (CPI) showed that inflation rose again last month—fueled to a significant degree by rent, which makes up about a third of the CPI—the Homes Guarantee campaign warned that rent increases are an even "bigger problem" than the new data suggests.

"The CPI's measure of rental inflation doesn't factor in rising prices in new rentals and leases, and therefore underestimates the rental inflation people face day to day," explains the analysis, which was co-authored by experts at the Groundwork Collaborative. "Some privately collected measures have reported that rents rose 7.5% year-over-year in September."

The brief also argues that far from combating rent inflation, the Federal Reserve's interest rate hikes are actually making it worse by driving mortgage rates to a 20-year high, which has had the effect of "pushing would-be homebuyers into the rental market" and "putting even more upward pressure on rent prices."

"The Federal Reserve seems intent on making housing increasingly unaffordable, forcing prospective homebuyers into the rental market, and making people even less able to pay their rent by putting millions out of work," the analysis warns.

In addition to calling on the Fed to stop raising interest rates before it induces a devastating recession, People's Action and Groundwork demanded that Congress and the White House do everything in their power to reverse the trend of skyrocketing rents—part of a broader nationwide housing crisis made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

"The president has the authority to take executive action and direct agency-level action to regulate rent," the groups note. "For example, the president can direct the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to impose rent controls on borrowers of federally-backed mortgages, which would apply to approximately 43.8 million rental units—immediately slowing down rental inflation."

"Over the longer term," they add, "policymakers must transform housing from a commodity to a guaranteed public good—making large-scale investments in the supply of housing that is off of the private market, with a goal of guaranteeing safe, accessible, truly and permanently affordable homes: a Homes Guarantee."

Tenant advocates have voiced dismay in recent months at the lack of serious attention that Democratic lawmakers and the Biden administration have devoted to rental inflation, even as both have vowed to bring down surging prices.

"If federal policymakers aren't working around the clock to figure out how to regulate rent, by any means necessary, what exactly are they doing about the economy?" Raghuveer asked in a Twitter post on Thursday. "What are they doing to fight for the people?"

In his statement on Thursday's CPI data, Biden touted the Inflation Reduction Act—a law that doesn't include any affordable housing provisions—while not mentioning rental inflation or housing at all.

While the Biden administration garnered qualified applause from advocates for its Housing Supply Action Plan—which carries the stated goal of closing the housing supply shortfall within five years—campaigners say nothing the White House or Congress have done in recent years has been anywhere near sufficient to curb the nationwide rental crisis.

"None of President Biden's major legislative accomplishments—the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—contained provisions to reduce housing costs or expand housing supply," the Revolving Door Project's Andrea Beaty and Vishal Shankar noted in a Wednesday blog post. "The Build Back Better Act—which did contain transformative investments in housing supply and affordability vouchers—was killed by Joe Manchin last December and its housing provisions were abandoned for the scaled-down IRA."

"The president and his top housing officials have broad legal authority to hold corporate landlords accountable by conditioning existing federal subsidies and mortgages to robust tenant protections—all without the need for congressional intervention," Beaty and Shankar added. "The Homes Guarantee campaign continues to do the leg work of determining how the Biden administration can help tenants across the country, immediately and under existing authorities."

On its website, the Homes Guarantee campaign outlines a number of executive and agency actions that the Biden administration can take to tackle rental inflation and bolster tenants' rights.

For example, the campaign argues Biden can condition all federal financing and rental subsidies on robust tenant protections, including:

  • Rent Control: Limit rent increases to 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index or 3%, whichever is lower.
  • National Right to Lease Renewal: Prohibit evictions without good cause, ensuring every tenant has the right to a lease renewal. Good cause is defined as serious and repeated lease violations provable in a court of law.
  • Tenant Opportunity to Purchase: If a landlord should choose to sell a property, tenants have the right to purchase the property before it is available to the public market.
  • Tenant Right to Organize: Tenants have the right to form tenants' unions free from fear of retaliation from the landlord or managing agent. Ownership and management representatives must not interfere with the creation or actions of tenant organizations.

"It is no longer a question of if or how Biden can act on his own to protect tenants, but rather if he has the political will to do so," wrote Beaty and Shankar. "Historic rent hikes have only strengthened tenant organizers' desire to guarantee safe, accessible, sustainable, and affordable homes for everyone. The question remains: will the White House have their back?"

This article originally appeared at CommonDreams.org. Originally published on October 13th, 2022. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. 

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