As you head for the beach with your back issues of AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE, don’t get too relaxed. We only have a little more than a year to drag federal housing programs into the 21st century, and there’s a lot of work to do.
The first presidential primaries are just seven months away, and by next March, we’ll probably know which two candidates will face off in the November 2008 presidential election.
In our last issue, I called for an independent investigation of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonso Jackson for awarding HUD contracts based on personal and political loyalties. So far, none of the relevant Congressional committees have done anything to investigate.
I hope Congress will yet exercise its oversight responsibilities. But Jackson is already well on his way to becoming a footnote to the disaster that is the George W. Bush presidency.
The real challenge for our industry is electing a president who gives a damn about housing and community development, and who recognizes the fundamental nature of the worsening housing crisis.
I know housing never registers very highly in presidential elections. But rather than resign ourselves to failure, we must fight all the harder starting that much sooner.
When HUD was created in 1965, the problems of cities were much simpler, and much more visible to the media. Much has been accomplished as an increasing amount of private capital has been directed into urban revitalization and affordable housing.
We no longer hear about slums, and even the grittiest blocks in many major cities are now being gentrified. But today’s urban and housing problems are actually far more challenging, involving myriad interrelated issues: sprawl, land use, transportation, soaring costs and stagnant incomes, changing demographics, and increasing environmental concerns.
State and local agencies, private funders, and developers are doing great work to address all these issues, but they are falling farther behind as construction and operating costs continue to rise far faster than incomes, and planning issues get more complex.
Meanwhile, HUD is missing in action. The best real estate firms steer clear of any deal with HUD involvement. Those organizations that must work with HUD know they have an equal chance of getting the run-around as they do of getting results. As we report in our story beginning on page 32 of this issue, HUD needs to be revitalized so that it can run its programs effectively and take good care of the assets in its charge. With a strong leader at the helm, it might even lead a coordinated federal attack on housing and urban problems.
The next president can take a giant step toward that goal by making his or her choice of leadership at HUD a high priority, not an afterthought, as it has often been in the past.
Now is the time to call on the candidates to take a position on housing and HUD. This is your chance, especially if you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, to call them out on our issues and make your support contingent on their answers.
Tell them we need a strong secretary and a renewed federal role in affordable housing. If you want to name a name, I suggest Ron Terwilliger, chairman and CEO of Trammell Crow Residential. He is a strong business leader, and a very influential advocate for solutions to sprawl and housing affordability that involve close collaboration between government, housing advocates, and for-profit builders.
We must also hold Congress accountable for its responsibility to address the deterioration of HUD and the failures of federal policy.
At press time, Congress had sent the president one simple housing measure: a bill to address two problems with HUD’s 2530 previous participation clearance process. That’s a great start, but there is so much more to do.
Leaders in the House have been active in holding hearings and crafting legislation, but in the Senate, the Iraq war is sucking up all the air in the chamber. There is little happening on any domestic policy issue, let alone housing.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) chairs the Senate subcommittee on housing, but has little to show for his efforts.
If you are from New York, write to Sen. Schumer. If you are from Connecticut, write to Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd.
Wherever you live, use every opportunity to lobby your members of Congress to look beyond the longanticipated subprime lending "crisis," which they could have seen coming years ago. Tell them they must look at the bigger picture of how to fix federal housing policy and the agency charged with implementing it, or they will have solved nothing.
Major increases in funding are not likely while the war continues, but Congressional leaders can make dozens of improvements that will not cost much.
They need to recognize that HUD programs are desperately in need of an overhaul. The Millennial Housing Commission, which was appointed by Congress, said as much in its 2002 report, but its recommendations were ignored.
In the Senate, the Banking Committee needs to hold the next president accountable for his or her housing and urban policy. When Bush nominated his friend Alphonso Jackson as HUD secretary, the panel failed to ask tough questions about his integrity and his ability. They simply did not care enough to do more than rubber-stamp that and many other HUD appointments.
It’s up to you, dear readers, to let our politicians know that kind of inattention to housing issues is just not acceptable anymore.