Jeffrey Lubell is executive director of the Center for Housing Policy.
The research affiliate of the National Housing Conference (NHC), the Center works to broaden the understanding of the nation's housing challenges and develop solutions through research.
This month, Lubell tells us what the Center is working on and what housing issue is weighing on his mind.
To learn more about NHC and the Center, visit www.nhc.org and www.housingpolicy.org.
Q: How did you get interested in affordable housing?
A: When I was in college, I was trying to decide what career to follow. That led me to volunteer at a legal services office in Yonkers, N.Y., to see if I might like to be a lawyer. The office was involved in a case involving housing and education discrimination. I got involved working on a lawsuit in which a family with a Sec. 8 housing voucher had been denied the right to live in a particular apartment.
Q: We hear that you recently testified before the Senate. What was that about?
A: I did. It was testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, which was looking at the state of the nation's housing markets. My particular focus was on housing affordability.
Q: And, what was your message?
A: Despite the decline in home prices, housing affordability has actually worsened for most Americans. Incomes have gone down. Rents have gone up. Even for homeowners, housing costs have only declined slightly on average for low- and moderate-income families. There are many more families today that are spending more than half of their income on housing than there were a year ago.
Q: The Center recently released a new report, “Housing Landscape 2011.” What key findings came out of the study?
A: It had a very similar message. It focused on the population that we call “working households,” which are households that report at least 20 hours of work per week and have incomes up to 120 percent of the area median income. It's a large group—46 million households. Overall, about one in four of those households has a severe housing cost burden, spending more than 50 percent of its income on housing. In 2009, 10.5 million households had a severe housing cost burden in 2009—600,000 more than in 2008.
Q: What's brewing that might change the way affordable housing is financed or developed in the future?
A: You can think about this in different ways. From a political standpoint, the biggest thing looming on the horizon for the multifamily industry is what's going to happen to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If the government were to withdraw its backstop for the financing market, that would change things considerably.
There are other drivers that could change things in the short to medium term. Increases in oil prices will increase utility costs for families, which will make it more difficult for them to afford their rents and may reduce the effective rent that owners can charge. Transportation costs for families will also increase with gasoline prices going up. That will make it more difficult for families to pay their rents if they live in areas that are far from jobs and public transit.
For me, the long-term impact that is really going to shape this industry has to do with consumer preferences—where people want to live and what kind of product they want. Over the long run, rising energy prices combined with changes in demographics, with more older adults and younger adults without kids, will increase demand for housing in “close-in” neighborhoods.
Q: Close-in neighborhoods?
A: Depending on the metro, it could be desirable neighborhoods in either the central city or first-ring suburbs. I think you are going to see more demand for urban living and more demand for mixed-use, mixed-income developments and neighborhoods. These developments are more difficult to finance. As a field, we're going to have to figure out how to finance that type of development efficiently.
Q: What issue is weighing most on your mind these days?
A: The issue that I would highlight is the one I mentioned—rising energy prices. People don't think about it as a housing issue, but it's very much a housing issue. It's going to effect where we build and how we build. To the extent that increased demand drives up housing prices in close-in locations, it may also affect who can afford to live there.
Q: What's a favorite business book and why?
A: The business book that I've read most recently is “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis. It tries to explain why there was such a demand for subprime mortgages that had little prospect for being repaid. It's the scariest book I've read in a long time.
Q: What other affordable housing-related research is the Center currently working on?
A: We're doing a lot of work thinking about the combined challenges of housing and transportation costs. We are looking at the relative costs of new construction and acquisition-rehab properties. We are also doing work looking at the economic impact of affordable housing in terms of jobs and other fiscal impacts as well as the impacts of affordable housing on health and education outcomes.