Obama's housing reform panel angers affordable-housing advocates

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; A10

Affordable-housing advocates raised concerns Thursday that the Obama administration is excluding consumer and community groups from playing prominent roles in a government-sponsored conference next week that will kick off efforts to overhaul national housing policy.

After the administration announced the 12 panelists for Tuesday's conference, the nonprofit National Community Reinvestment Coalition said consumer and community groups had been "muscled out" by financial companies, economists and academics without a sense of how housing policy plays out in communities.

"Apparently being a community organizer qualifies you to be president, but it's not good enough to be part of HUD and Treasury's think tank on housing," said NCRC chief executive John Taylor, whose group works with hundreds of community organizations to promote access to financial services for low- and middle-income people.

The criticism by affordable-housing advocates was notable because the Obama administration has so far paid much more attention to their concerns than previous administrations have. Advocates, for instance, had credited the administration with listening to community groups that argued that the government must do more to embrace rental housing for those who cannot afford to buy a home.

Panels and players

Almost everyone agrees that the government's role in providing financing for home loans -- now standing behind nine in 10 new loans -- is too big and must be replaced by private capital. But an emerging flash point in the debate is how much the government may compel private companies to spend on ensuring that low- and middle-income people have access to housing -- either by renting or buying.

Tuesday's conference will feature two panels on housing reform -- one led by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and focused on financial markets, and another led by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and focused on broader housing policy goals. Six executives, five academics and a representative of a civil rights group will participate as panelists. After the panel discussions, breakout sessions will take up topics such as securitization and rental housing.

"Across the spectrum, stakeholders agree that our current system of housing finance requires fundamental reform," said Jeffrey A. Goldstein, undersecretary of the Treasury for domestic finance. "This conference is an opportunity for us to broaden our perspectives on a number of key issues in a transparent way to make certain that all of the best ideas are on the table."

The panelists include Bill Gross, Pimco's chief investment officer, who has been a large buyer of securities backed by home loans; Moody's economist Mark Zandi, who has advised politicians on economic policy; and Lewis Ranieri, who helped pioneer mortgage securitization.

The heads of Bank of America and Wells Fargo's mortgage units will be panelists, as well as former bank regulator Ellen Seidman.

Seidman, who now runs a community-oriented bank in Chicago, and Marc Morial, a former New Orleans mayor who is now president of the National Urban League, are likely to be among affordable-housing advocates' biggest allies at the conference.

Still, "it's really not much diversity or real community perspective from folks that represent the end user of mortgages," said Janis Bowdler, deputy director of the wealth-building program at the National Council of La Raza. "I am concerned that the process will be heavily influenced and informed by major industry players and economists."

But Andrew Williams, a Treasury spokesman, said consumer advocates will have a voice. "A number of consumer advocates will participate in the conference to ensure that a broad range of stakeholders have input into the reform discussion," he said.

White House's approach

Some say that, regardless of who is being invited to speak, the topics the administration is addressing are important ones.

"While I think it's important that the right people are at the table, the agenda really points to them trying to get the issues that the housing finance system has left behind -- like multifamily housing and affordability," said Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The Obama administration has taken an incremental approach to reforming housing. It faces a January deadline, imposed by the new financial regulatory reform law, to come up with a plan for overhauling housing finance.

But officials say they fear that any specific proposal could rattle the fragile housing and mortgage markets, which are now supported to a great extent by government programs.

In April, the Treasury and HUD released seven broad questions to guide thinking on how to reshape housing finance. They received more than 300 comments.

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