A Tale of Two Houses

Update 399 — A Tale of Two Houses:
Impact of Inequality on Housing Politics

Although not generally considered a major policy remit of the federal government — housing accounts for under one percent of federal spending — housing and related markets represent 15 percent of GDP. Problems in the streets and on the Street have prompted responses on the Hill, and on the 2020 presidential hustings. 

The odds are long against major reform until 2021. Even must-pass bills and formerly automatic reauthorizations are having trouble in the run-up to year-end Congressional adjournment. But the wages of inequality are bringing housing issues to the presidential campaign forefront willy-nilly. More below. 

Warm Thanksgiving wishes to all,

Dana

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This month, a number of big picture housing bills emerged from prominent Democrats on the Hill. On Nov.14, Sen. Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez unveiled the Green New Deal Public Housing Act, to invest $180 billion over ten years in retrofitting (“decarbonizing”) 1.2 million public housing units for energy efficiency. Other recent proposals include House Financial Services Committee Chair Waters and Sen. Harris’ Housing is Infrastructure Act and Representative Omar’s Homes for All Act. 

While Democrats are designing affordable housing policy ideas for 2020 and beyond, some smaller housing bills have been quietly passing through the HFSC this Congress. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration continues to undermine the activities of HUD and has recently hinted at returning the Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — to private ownership. 

For Democrats, is there a trade-off to be made? Housing finance reform for affordable housing and other progressive reforms?  Looking at the various housing reform moves by the Trump Administration as well as some of the more progressive legislative proposals on a federal and local level, do they relate to the macro condition of the housing market?

U.S. Housing Markets: Mixed

  • Affordability concerns: In August, we wrote an update on the state of the housing market. Unlike ‘08, there are few signs of a housing bubble. Despite a sluggish start to the year, home sales are starting to increase thanks to low mortgage rates. Under the rosy macro picture, serious issues abound, chiefly a grave and growing shortage of affordable homes. Per the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the country lacks an estimated seven million affordable homes or apartments — to rent or to buy. For every ten low-income renters, under our homes fit their price range. There are regional variations too:
  • GSE reform: According to recent figures, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration have increased their exposure to risky mortgages. They now guarantee around $7 trillion in mortgage-related debt, a third more than before the housing crisis. Moral hazard perhaps remains, but current default rates on loans are low. Meanwhile, investment management firms BlackRock and PIMCO are calling for any Trump Administration move to return the GSEs to private ownership to include a government guarantee of the $5 trillion of mortgage-backed securities they issue — hardly a market-oriented reform. 

The House is Busy with Housing

Chair Waters’ recently-filed Housing is Infrastructure Act would provide over $100 billion in much needed renovation of existing public housing stock, new public housing units, and expanding Community Development Block Grants. Rep. Omar’s Homes for All  goes further, committing $1 trillion to build an additional 12 million public housing units over ten years. 

The House Financial Services Committee has taken up 67 other more piecemeal bills related to housing and community development this Congress. These bills range from transformative to small scale reforms. Some of the bills are bipartisan and have a chance to pass the Senate and get signed into law. Below, we survey several of the housing related bills that have passed through committee and even the House. 

  • H.R. 5 – Equality Act prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in a wide variety of areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system. Specifically, the bill defines and includes sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination or segregation. The Equality Act passed the House on May 17 by a vote of 236-173. 
  • H.R. 2398 – expands the eligibility for the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, or HUD-VASH program, to veterans experiencing homelessness who have received an “other than honorable” discharge. This bill was introduced by Rep. Scott Peters and passed the committee by a unanimous vote of 54-0.
  • H.R. 3018 – Ensuring Equal Access to Shelter Act of 2019 seeks to prohibit the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from implementing a proposed rule regarding requirements under Community Planning and Development housing programs intended on protecting LGBTQ homeless people. Introduced by Rep. Jennifer Wexton, the bill passed the committee by a 33-26 vote.
  • H.R. 4029 – The Tribal Eligibility for Homeless Assistance Grants Act of 2019 seeks to address homelessness among Native Americans and Alaska Natives by making tribes and tribally designated housing entities eligible for McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grant funding. This bill was introduced by Rep. Denny Heck and passed the House by a voice vote.
  • H.R. 4300 – The Fostering Stable Housing Opportunities Act would help to ensure that youth who are aging out of foster care and are at risk of homelessness will have critical assistance to help them achieve housing stability and self-sufficiency. This bill was introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean and passed by a voice vote.
  • H.R. 4302 – The Facilitating Access to Homeless Assistance Act of 2019 seeks to authorize public housing agencies to share certain data regarding homeless individuals and families for the provision of housing and services, and for other purposes. This bill was introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman and passed committee by a 49-0 vote.

Agency Issues at HUD

Today, the Trump Administration is reshaping the federal government’s role in housing and local community development through cruel and politically-motivated policy changes at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In September, HUD proposed a rule change that would allow shelters receiving HUD funds to discriminate against transgender people — a high-risk population in terms of housing insecurity and homelessness. Another HUD proposal would evict all undocumented immigrants from public housing and hold liable legal immigrants if they sheltered undocumented family members. 

President Trump and HUD Secretary Carson are also trying to starve HUD of resources needed to carry out its mission. The Administration’s budget requests for fiscal year 2020 proposed a funding level of $44.1 billion, $8.7 billion less than enacted 2018 funding — drastic cuts to HUD programs such as the public housing capital fund and the public housing operating fund. It would also eliminate the Community Development Block Grant Program.

Congressional appropriators, as they have since Trump’s inauguration, have largely disregarded these unreasonable budget requests. Enacted funding for fiscal year 2019, via continuing resolution, was $53.025 billion. 

State and Local Activity

California, Oregon, and Washington have some of the highest rates of homelessness. In California this past September, a package of thirteen new bills aimed at curbing the crisis was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. Many of these bills give the state and cities greater leeway to build affordable housing and provide temporary shelter in vacant armories and emergency shelters. This year in Oregon, a historic $70.5 million investment was made to address and prevent homelessness. It was part of a statewide plan to provide more affordable housing. In Washington, a package of laws was passed this year to protect tenants from evictions, encourage density in affordable housing units in cities with the worst incidents of homelessness, and provide $175 million to the Housing Trust Fund.

Another Progressive Reform

Today, there are 550,000 homeless in the United States, close to the number of Civil War dead. Democrats in Congress are rightly focusing on proposals to address this dire state through the lens of affordable housing, discrimination, and homelessness directly. Further limits on the distortive and regressive mortgage interest deduction — seen to suffer from mission creep — have broad support, especially when progressives seek payfors.  

Housing is central to the economy and an important issue for many voters in 2020. Democrats are clearly grabbing the bull by the horns, proposing sweeping reforms and setting up much-needed piecemeal bills for a time when the Senate is no longer a legislative graveyard. As the 2020 campaign gathers pace, watch how voters respond to the housing policy smorgasbord on offer.

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