Call for Bipartisanship: Congress Must Focus on the Future of Housing
The Republicans now find themselves with a big seat at a big table – a feat that seemed unreachable two short years ago.
While much will be said that Tuesday’s vote was more about the electorate’s rejection of the Democrats versus their love of the Republican Party, that reasoning is of no consequence when the 112th Congress is seated in January 2011.
That said I would hope my fellow Republicans avoid the “over reach” temptation – the very same toxin that led to Tuesday’s march to the gallows for Democrats.
The noted American playwright and raconteur Wilson Mizner once declared “a good listener is not only popular everywhere but after a while he knows something.”
I hope the Republicans and President Obama listen and learn from Tuesday. Within a short two year time span both parties were able to pound their chests in a victory dance that would make an NFL linebacker proud. Both vanquished the other.
Following the election, Senator Mitch McConnell warned his fellow Republicans to avoid “irrational exuberance.” Soon-to-be Speaker John Boehner at his post-election appearance avoided the temptation to gloat and even offered a fresh approach going forward (without defining it).
While both parties are far from any sort of “group hug,” I hope they at least collectively decide it is time to do the people’s work in a bi-partisan manner. I will also offer that getting our economy back on track solves many problems. Another place both parties could work together would be solving the nagging housing crisis specifically the very future of the housing finance system. The same for the issue of affordable housing for our fellow Americans be they lower-income, elderly, or disabled.
For one, if we can date certain the pull-out of combat troops then we can date certain the day when Uncle Sam shrinks the 90% share of the mortgage market it has today. Remember this word: “liquidity.” Until that returns we’re stuck with a nationalized housing finance system. We have to get private capital back into the system.
Going forward, I would offer several areas where bi-partisan focus and support are needed within the housing arena.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – Does anyone actual think they’ll pay back the $160 billion (and counting) they’ve borrowed from the taxpayers? Next to the Great Depression, this is probably the single largest economic calamity facing us in generations. Opinions and options abound as to what version 2.0 of these entities should look like. I implore Congress to not kick this can to the next President. Remember that word liquidity? Amend the National Housing Act (once again) and leave one standing but altogether different in name, structure, function, focus, funding, and oversight. And while reforming the secondary mortgage market, both FHA and Ginnie Mae not only should be part of the debate, but factor into the ultimate design of a new liquidity vehicle.
Section 8 Housing (Vouchers and Project-based)– these vital programs, which count two-thirds of its recipients as either elderly or disabled, has seen costs continue to soar without a corresponding increase in persons assisted. Worse, each year many projects came off their initial contracts and “opt out” of the program. HUD Secretary Donovan is attempting to tackle this growing concern through his Transforming Rental Assistance initiative. While the general industry response has been somewhat lukewarm, he at least deserves credit for taking on this formidable and politically unpopular task.
FHA and Ginnie Mae – the two pure federal homebuyer programs will continue their stratospheric market share for the foreseeable future. While Congress has made some limited funds available for hiring and long overdue IT system upgrades, going forward Congress should decouple both from HUD and allow them to keep a portion of the estimated $6 billion in surplus revenue they’ll reportedly generate in 2011. Both could pay their employees at a higher pay band (like FHFA, FDIC, and others) not to mention retooling an IT infrastructure that is largely written in COBOL and assembled by dozens of contractors over a 30 year period.
Section 202 – the Nation’s only housing program for low income seniors saw its new construction program zeroed out by the Administration in FY2011 as it retools. Elderly housing advocates were ecstatic when Congress rightfully put the money back in. Regardless, $525 million will produce roughly 4,500 units of housing a year – this in a country where more than 1.2 million low income seniors experience a worst case housing need according to a 2010 HUD Study. Worst case means paying more than half your income for housing or living in substandard housing. I think our senior citizens, in particular those with lower incomes, deserve better from their representatives.
Before the first 2012 presidential candidates begin to announce themselves in only a few short months, I would hope the new Congress gets to the serious business of governance and tackles these and many other problems facing us.