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A Bipartisan Prescription for America’s Housing Woes

Neal Peirce / May 16 2013

For Release Sunday, May 19, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON – Is there a shadow of a chance that bipartisan, middle-ground common sense could be applied to solve pressing issues of America’s housing future?

A housing commission formed by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center has a plan, formed over 16 months of debate and released in March. The center will now “take it on the road” for intensive discussions across the country.

The need is indisputable. Precious little has been done to revamp America’s housing finance policy in the 4 1/2 years since rampant speculation and malleable regulations triggered the Great Recession.

The Treasury Department did take over the failing housing-finance giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But few think that’s a good long-term solution. For the most part, the $10 trillion U.S. mortgage market has been left to float unguided.

It’s a dangerous course, writ in multibillions. With federal resources short, the country owes itself a robust debate about the exorbitant costs (now close to $100 billion yearly) of the home mortgage tax deduction. Concurrently, it needs to figure out how the United States meets the housing needs of a fast-aging population and does far more to assure affordable shelter for imperiled low-income and minority Americans.

The Bipartisan Policy Center assembled impressive leadership for its housing commission – on the Democratic side, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; on the Republican side, former senator and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez of Florida and former Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri.

The 21 commission members – including homebuilders, bankers, consumer advocates and city housing commissioners – worked to evaluate a deluge of housing reform proposals. In the end, they produced what Julia Stash of the MacArthur Foundation (which supported the effort) called a “smart, sophisticated, contentious but in the end productive conversation” and final report.

To wind down Fannie and Freddie, publicly traded companies with implied U.S. government guarantees, the commission suggested phasing in a more limited “Public Guarantor.” It would have major power to require financiers to be well-capitalized and have guarantee funds to cover potential catastrophic losses. And in stark contrast to the federal government’s massive bailouts through Fannie and Freddie, it would pay out rescue funds only under catastrophic conditions, and only after the capital of the big outside investors – borrowers, private capital enhancers and security issuers – have been exhausted.

Perhaps most wondrous, even while it lauded the virtues of homeownership, the commission reached agreement that the home mortgage deduction – its benefits now flowing overwhelmingly to more affluent Americans – should be eligible for reduction in the context of general tax reform. But there was a proviso, worked out in what must have been tortuous debates with homebuilders at the table, that any funds saved should be channeled to affordable rental housing.

The big reality, the commission noted, is the massive demographic shift underway in America. Partly it is a rapidly aging population, with the number of Americans 65 and older set to double by 2040 and the number of those 85 or older more than tripling. The commission called the country “largely unprepared to meet the needs of the overwhelming numbers of seniors who wish to ‘age in place’ in their own homes.”

That means modifying homes for safety and then “applying universal design principles in the construction of new homes” – not to mention a massive increase in social service demands communities will face. Yet when seniors elect to sell their homes, they may have difficulty finding buyers unless the new Americans – Latinos and other minorities projected to constitute a third of U.S. households by 2020 – are more economically successful.

There’s another, even more alarming reality: 41 million renter households now account for 35 percent of our total population. And one segment – extremely low-income renters – must spend a numbing 50 percent or more of their incomes on housing. Today, federal assistance reaches only a fraction – perhaps a quarter – of that population. We should transition, the commission urges, to guaranteeing that, at a minimum, all extremely low income households (at or below 30 percent of median income) receive public support through housing vouchers.

Taking those steps, then channeling more federal aid to help poor renters meet emergencies, would mean the nation was taking a big step toward “elimination of homelessness – through production, preservation, and rental assistance.”

There’ll be debate about the budget impact of the commission’s proposals. But the principle is clear: It’s the apportionment, the equity, and moving beyond our pattern of subsidizing mostly middle-class suburban housing to meeting the very real needs of a new, minority-heavy, more urban America. The good news is that the professional housing community, sitting down to look at the trends and emerging needs, can agree on so much.

Message to the White House and Congress: “Listen!”


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com. (c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

One Comment

  1. Posted May 19, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    The only problem with housing is that the politicians change the rules every other month. Buyers and sellers cannot make long range plans because the rules keep changing. It is exactly the same as starting out to play a football game and then the referee decides that the teams need to run bases instead of heading for the end zone. The players adapt to that rule only to find that now the referee wants them to throw the ball through a basket.

    The government decided to support housing because studies showed that property owners were, in general, better citizens than non-property owners. The belief was that all Americans who were willing to work, plan, and save for it, could eventually own a home of their own. The government was not discriminating against any given class of citizen.

    The “now” government seems to believe that Americans simply are not capable of handling their own affairs; that it is necessary to have a new “plan of the day” each and every time the sun comes up. That it is the government’s job to micro manage the life of each of it’s citizens.

    All we need is stability so we can set our own goals and plan how to achieve them. If the government does not want to support housing, then fine. Drop the interest deduction on home loans. In fact, repeal the income tax law and go to the Fair Tax. That way the government would be forced to cease using the tax code for social engineering experiments.