By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10:56 PM
David H. Stevens plans to leave his post as head of the Federal Housing Administration by the end of April after guiding the agency through its toughest financial challenges in one of the housing market's darkest periods.
Stevens, a former mortgage banker who joined the agency in July 2009, said he plans to return to the private sector, though he has not accepted a job offer yet. No decision has been reached about his successor, officials said.
"It's really time for a set of fresh legs," said Stevens, 54. "It's a good point to transition. It's not uncommon for people in these roles to transition around midterm, and I stayed a little longer than I had planned because we had some issues to take care of."
Stevens quickly emerged as a major player in crafting the Obama administration's housing policy after he took over an agency that was overwhelmed by the surge in demand for the low-down-payment mortgages that it guarantees. Some of the policies have come under attack, most recently by Republicans who say that the administration's foreclosure prevention programs have been a failure. Some of the agency's critics also fear that it may ultimately need taxpayer bailouts.
By the time Stevens joined the FHA, the housing market had tanked, mortgage credit had virtually dried up and borrowers rediscovered the agency's government-backed loans. But as the FHA's popularity soared, its default rates climbed and its cash reserves eroded to dangerously low levels.
The administration had selected Stevens to restore the FHA's financial health based on his knowledge of the mortgage business, in which he worked for more than two decades. Stevens was the only commissioner in recent years with a strong background in single-family-home mortgages, having overseen every aspect of home financing, from originating mortgages to selling them on the secondary market.
Within months of joining the FHA, Stevens started to root out problem lenders that did business with the agency. They included two of FHA's largest partners - Taylor, Bean & Whitaker and Lend America, both of which closed their doors almost immediately afterward.
Stevens went on to hire a chief financial risk offer for the first time in the agency's history. To boost its cash cushion, the agency raised the insurance premiums charged to FHA borrowers and the down payment requirements for especially risky borrowers.
Last year, the agency defied the expectations of many of its critics when an independent auditing firm reviewed the FHA's books of business and concluded that its cash reserves had stabilized even as the housing market remained in tatters. They remain below the threshold required by law, but they have not deteriorated.
"His leadership at a historic time for FHA has not only contributed to a renewed sense of confidence in the FHA, but also a restored trust in government and what it can do," Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which includes the FHA, said in a statement.
During his tenure, Stevens had a seat at the table in practically all of the administration's top-level housing policy discussions, including ongoing settlement negotiations involving mortgage servicers that took part in shoddy foreclosure practices.
He also played a role in shaping the administration's policy paper, recently submitted to Congress, that called for eliminating mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, where he once worked as a senior vice president in charge of single-family housing.
Immediately before joining the FHA, Stevens was president and chief operating officer at Long & Foster in Washington, the nation's largest private real estate firm.
Stevens, a native of New York City who grew up in Connecticut, began his career at World Savings Bank, a California savings and loan, where he worked on the banking and mortgage side of the business and left as group senior vice president after 16 years. He went on to Freddie Mac, then Wells Fargo, where he was an executive vice president.
On Thursday, House Republicans voted to eliminate a program Stevens helped create that would enable troubled borrowers to refinance into FHA-insured loans.
President Obama has said he would veto the Republican-led bill if it reaches his desk.
"It's not over yet," Stevens said.