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Sandra Thompson
Sandra Thompson, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, testifies before Congress. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP

Top Biden Official Disappoints Housing Advocates in Closed-Door Meeting

The director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Sandra Thompson, met with tenant rights advocates in Missouri this week. Attendees described it as a complete letdown.

As President Joe Biden was making his reelection pitch to Black voters in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, his top appointee to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Sandra Thompson, was 1,100 miles away meeting with tenant rights advocates to discuss the administration’s housing policies.

The meeting, three attendees told NOTUS, was a complete letdown.

The gathering took place inside the Trinity United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, featuring more than 40 tenant rights organizers; Thompson and some FHFA staff; the local congressman, Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, and some of his staff; and top executives from the home loan companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Organizers told emotional stories about how rent hikes led some to homelessness. They described their policy demands. And they told Thompson how current housing policies had made them feel devalued as humans.

“One of the leaders in the meeting said, ‘I feel discounted. This country treats me like I’m a dog,’” one attendee told NOTUS.

But Thompson, these three tenant advocates said, didn’t seem moved. She came off as almost dismissive, one source who spoke in the meeting told NOTUS, as though she was listening to “just another one of these sad stories.”

“It’s frustrating, you know, when you see all the layers of bullshit that you have to go through just to get something that really is, should be a nonissue,” another one of the attendees said. “We shouldn’t even be here.”

Thompson’s office didn’t return multiple requests for comment.

As Biden courts Black voters — and as Trump makes inroads with the community — the Biden administration’s housing policies have become a contentious item of dispute. Under Biden, the COVID-era eviction moratorium ended. Even though it was a Supreme Court decision that unthawed the eviction freeze, not Biden, advocates say the president and his administration haven’t done enough to address, most notably, the high prices of rent. (In Pennsylvania, however, Biden boasted at length about how he had proposed “the most significant housing plan in 50 years” that yielded a 40% cut in the gap between home appraisals in majority white communities versus those of color.)

Still, the tenant rights advocates want new limits on rent hikes, new eviction protections, new housing standards, new lease provisions and new federal protections for tenants, among many other items.

The advocates who met with Thompson last week were hoping for some promises from the FHFA director. Instead, one of the attendees said, Thompson was in “listening mode.”

“She consistently will come to the table not able to make commitments even on a timeline on what we can expect when it comes to those regulations,” this attendee, who has met with Thompson previously, said. “So, to me, it’s clear that she’s not taking the issue as seriously as she ought to and as seriously as we are conveying it to her.”

Another one of the sources said Thompson suggested she was serious about reforms — “prioritizing it” — but her refusal to provide a timeline was concerning to the tenant rights advocates. “She wants to talk about conditions; she wants to talk about access to information,” this source said of Thompson. “The tenants in the room were very clear with her: It’s all about the rent. If you don’t have a plan on the rent, you don’t have a plan to do anything to protect tenants. And she doesn’t have a timeline on the rent regulations policy.”

Yet another of the previously mentioned sources in the meeting told NOTUS there was a notable lack of action “at that top level” on rent.

“It just shows that they don’t care,” this source said. “They don’t care about the effect that this is having on us. They don’t see it as the serious issue that it is. We’ve been fighting for two years on this issue.”

The source who spoke in the meeting was much harsher. This person called Thompson’s responses “stalling tactics,” and they described Thompson’s policies as “classist.”

Not all of the attendees were aggrieved. Cleaver, whose office helped organize the meeting, anticipated that there could be some tension in the room. “I’ve spoken with some residents over the last couple of years, and so I knew the level of anger that was out there,” Cleaver told NOTUS.

But the Democratic congressman was complimentary of Thompson, likening her to a biblical character commonly associated with bravery.

“There are very few members at the level where Sandra Thompson sits who would knowingly walk into what many consider the lion’s den and come out pretty much, like Daniel, unscathed,” Cleaver said. “We left that meeting and she told me, ‘That was a great meeting. I needed to hear this.’”

For the organizers, however, it wasn’t such a great meeting.

One of the leaders in the meeting, Val Brooks Davis, a tenant rights organizer, told NOTUS she needs to see more before she commits to voting for Biden in November.

“What he needs to do to get my vote is regulate the rent,” Brooks Davis said. “I will not be voting. That’s right. I will not be voting in November.”

Brooks Davis also said she’s taken offense at some of the broader pitches Biden and his allies have made toward the Black community, such as — in her words — the argument that “If you don’t vote for me, you ain’t Black.”

“Well, I am Black,” Brooks Davis said. “And that doesn’t mean that I should actually vote for you. What are you doing for me to vote for you? Show me. I’m in the ‘show me’ state. Show me.”

Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.