NEW ORLEANS—Visiting this city for the first time since Katrina, I was not that shocked by what I saw. After all, I’m from Youngstown, Ohio, which suffered a storm of its own, only an economic one.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, where actor Brad Pitt says he plans to build 150 homes, I felt New Orleans had a slight advantage over my hometown. It had the Army Corps of Engineers on hand to tear down all the dangerous hulks that used to be homes.

The problems this city faces are not that different than those of Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit, or other cities that have been facing decay and decline for years. And if the home mortgage foreclosure disaster keeps getting worse, as it appears it will, other recently healthy urban areas will soon join this unfortunate club.

Sure, presidential candidates and congressmen are playing at housing policy as they realize the economic impact of the housing market slump, but they are tossing out possible solutions like baseball mascots tossing Cracker Jacks into the bleacher seats.

A year or three ago, those of you in the tax credit business could stick to your knitting and ignore the huge gaps in American housing and urban policy. Many of you wrote off the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and stopped dealing with that hellhole years ago.

But guess what? Your comfort zone is no longer a safe hiding place. Tax credit deals have been getting harder to put together for a while, but now we are reaching a critical phase as equity repricing continues for a second year and costs and allocating agency mandates keep increasing.

It’s time to wake up and smell the formaldehyde. We are at a crisis point in housing and urban affairs in this country. It’s no longer about complaints that our progress is too slow. Rather, as former Enterprise Chairman Bart Harvey told me, we are at risk of watching much of the progress we have made over 20 years disappear.

In 10 months, a new president takes office, and he or she will have a thousand things to worry about. We all know the fundamental nature of the nation’s housing woes and how an effective housing policy could help the economy, our children’s health and education, our transportation systems, and on and on.

But we also know that the folks in Washington and the folks advising the president-to-be have no idea what to do about any of this. It’s our job to tell them.

You have fought on the front lines of housing development. You’ve confronted NIMBYism. Now it’s time to go out and fight on the political front lines to elevate housing to be a key election-year issue and a top priority for the first 100 days of the next president’s term.

I wish Mr. Pitt good luck in his venture, but if he really wants to help New Orleans, he’d be in Washington, not the Ninth Ward.

He’d recognize that what’s needed is a new national housing commitment, and he’d lead a march on Washington. Imagine what might happen if he traveled across the United States, stopping at troubled neighborhoods and highlighting the scope and breadth of our housing and community development problems, arriving in Washington just in time for the inauguration of the next president.

Maybe that is too much to hope for, but we have to think big and act boldly to make the need clear. There hasn’t been a chance like this since the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and it’s up to us to take advantage of it. Read our story on what the next president needs to do about housing on page 24. And then get out there and take political action.

The time you invest in the next 12 months will determine what happens to this industry and the people it serves for many years to come.