Mr. President, it’s Time for a National Housing Policy

Please Mr. President, enough with the one-off responses, it’s time for a National Housing Policy.

The only thing more predictable than the fact that the President will deliver to Congress a State of the Union Address each year is the speculation that precedes it regarding what “Big” announcements the President’s speech will contain.

This year is no different, and a great deal of current speculation surrounds the topic of housing and whether the President’s speech will include some grand proposal intended to relieve those American homeowners who continue to suffer under the weight of a housing economy that remains stuck in neutral.

One plan getting a great deal of attention would involve the government granting debt forgiveness to borrowers whose mortgages are underwater, meaning that the amount currently owed by them on their mortgage exceeds the current value of their home.

To date, the Federal Finance Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) – the primary regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – has resisted calls from Congress to approve principal forgiveness. In a report circulating today, we now understand why. According to that report, the cost of such a plan to Fannie and Freddie could well exceed $100 Billion! That $100 Billion would be in addition to the $151 Billion already owed by the two enterprises to the US Treasury. And to be clear, that means owed to US taxpayers.

Hopefully, current speculation is wrong and the President’s address includes no such proposal. Its not that we don’t sympathize with underwater homeowners, we most certainly do. We too look forward to the day when the American housing economy is once again growing and functioning well – and by extension, when the challenges facing homeowners are far less. When that day arrives, that will be a sure sign that the American economy generally has returned to a healthy condition.

Our objection is broader and goes to the fact that since 2009 the policy response to the housing crisis by the Administration has involved one tactical reaction after another – or as we have said before … “a series of one-off reactions …” and, unfortunately, little more.

And while certain tactical reactions were appropriate and even required in 2009 and even into 2010, the time is long passed for the development and introduction of a comprehensive National Housing Policy. Such a policy would lay out in clear terms the goals to be achieved through the Nation’s support of housing; the economic costs and benefits of such a policy; as well as the anticipated intangible benefits of such a policy. Finally, such a plan would identify the likely costs and risks of the failure to implement such a plan.

With such a plan in place (or at least proposed), the uncertainty that today plagues this industry would begin to lift and Congressional policy makers, regulators and business leaders alike would be better equipped to address the important considerations that must still be resolved if we hope to develop an enduring solution to the Nation’s housing crisis.

And for those who would ask, “Why should a housing policy be a priority?”, consider the following written in 2003 – perhaps the last time we had a legitimate National Housing Policy in this great Nation – by the Millennial Housing Commission:

“… housing matters. It represents the single largest expenditure for most American families and the single largest source of wealth for most homeowners. The development of housing has a major impact on the national economy and the economic growth and health of regions and communities. Housing is inextricably linked to access to jobs and healthy communities and the social behavior of the families who occupy it. The failure to achieve adequate housing leads to significant societal costs.”

Until these sort of deliberations and debate occur and a National Housing Policy is in place, it is impossible to know what we as taxpayers get (and give up) for another $100 Billion spent in this manner in support of the housing crisis.

It seems to us, that the time to answer the important question: “What do we get?” … before we give more … is long overdue.

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