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White House targets junk fees in apartment rentals, promises anti-price gouging help

Renters should soon be able to expect more transparency on what they'll pay for their apartments, as some major online real-estate marketplaces agree to include hidden costs — like application and convenience fees — in their upfront advertised pricing. 

Companies including Zillow, and have agreed to heed the administration's call for clarity about how many additional charges – sometimes adding hundreds in fees – renters will face when applying for and finalizing rental agreements. 

And once renters have secured apartments, the White House noted, they may be slapped with convenience fees for online rent payment, fees for sorting mail, or what the administration referred to in its fact sheet as "January fees" that are tacked on for no discernible reason beyond the fact of a new year.

This move was announced by the White House, which has been targeting "junk fees" in other sectors, such as air travel and concert tickets. The administration says these savings will help Americans with their budgets as inflation pricing continues to linger.

The Biden administration also announced Wednesday several actions to target price gouging in other sectors and promised clearer guidelines regarding how the Justice Department will enforce antitrust law when companies decide to merge. 

As a part of the administration's anti-price gouging effort, the Agriculture Department is partnering with a bipartisan group of 31 state attorneys general to crack down on high prices as a result of limited competition in the food industry, like meat and poultry processing companies, where the administration found last year that only four companies in each of the beef, pork and poultry markets control more than half of the product nationwide. 

The Justice Department plans to assist state attorneys in rooting out anticompetitive business measures in their states by providing funds to "support complex cases" and assist in research.  

The Justice Department on Wednesday is also clarifying its approach to antitrust cases.

Along with the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department released updated draft guidelines related to mergers in the U.S., aimed at better representing how the two agencies evaluate the potential impact of a merger on competition in the modern landscape and ensuring competition is preserved.

Under federal law, the Justice Department's Antitrust Division evaluates proposed company mergers and works to ensure any acquisitions comply with anti-monopoly rules and regulations.

The revised guidelines announced Wednesday are based on the government's interpretation of law and legal precedent and reflect agency practice, evolutions in the law and changes in the economy, according to a senior Justice Department official. 

The Department says the clearer rules will continue help to guide companies, enforcers and judges alike in legal decision making. The last time similar updates were made was in 2020, according to the Justice Department, and the drafts proposed Wednesday will go through a series of public review and comment periods before becoming final.

The 13 guidelines build on past publications and include rules like ensuring mergers don't eliminate substantial competition, that they don't lessen competition, or reduce competition by creating a company that controls products that rivals may need to be competitive.

"As markets and commercial realities change, it is vital that we adapt our law enforcement tools to keep pace so that we can protect competition in a manner that reflects the intricacies of our modern economy. Simply put, competition today looks different than it did 50 — or even 15 — years ago," Jonathan Kanter, the head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, said in a statement.

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