Every June, William C. Apgar, executive director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies, run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would bask in the academic equivalent of Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame as one of the authors of the "State of the Nation's Housing," an annual appraisal of the trends in costs and availability of shelter in America.
In 1992, he belittled then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp's program to push homeownership for the urban poor in reaction to the Los Angeles riots: "It's not that it is a bad idea. It's just that it is a small idea."
In 1996, he called the Federal Housing Authority the "agency many loved to hate."
Now Apgar is head of that same beleaguered HUD agency.
Gone are the days of teaching 25 classes on 25 topics in a semester. Now, he says, "I can face all 25 issues in a single day."
Apgar initially came to Washington to head HUD's office of policy development and research, a more typical fit for an academic. But on the day of his confirmation hearing last June, he was nominated for the job as FHA commissioner and assistant secretary for housing.
This nomination catapulted him into deep political surf. Apgar was put in charge of the FHA's loan portfolio of half a trillion dollars. The FHA is the home mortgage lender to 6.8 million families and 2 million apartment dwellers. HUD was trying to change the law to allow the FHA to insure higher-priced housing, saying that in places such as Washington, with its expensive real estate, the limits on the size of loans that could be insured by the FHA were unreasonably low. Private mortgage insurers that stood to lose business and other groups strongly resisted the plan.
Eventually, the loan limits were raised. The issue was propelled by a powerful lobbying coalition of home builders, real estate agents and mortgage bankers and was pushed by HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo. But Apgar marshaled the facts into a quiet but effective presentation about the FHA's importance to first-time, and particularly minority, home buyers.
At the same time, National People's Action, a consumer group led by Chicago housing activist Gale Cincotta, was hounding HUD about an increasing rate of foreclosures on FHA mortgages. Cincotta protested against HUD for allowing repossessed houses to sit vacant in the inner city, attracting drug addicts and ruining neighborhoods.
Cincotta charged that appraisers working for lending institutions were conducting "drive-by" appraisals, overlooking major problems, such as a lack of heat or the elimination of structural supports, and overvaluing properties that sucked unsophisticated home buyers into purchasing homes they couldn't afford and couldn't sell.
Apgar met with Cincotta at her conference here in Washington in April. He promised to crack down on poor appraisers and to take action against repeat offenders in the program, along with other reforms.
"The night before [the] conference, he came to our hotel, stayed a long time by himself--at one point the air conditioning went out, everybody was sweating, but we all stayed--and he negotiated a very good agreement," Cincotta said.
One of Apgar's strengths is his close relationship to Cuomo, says Kent Colton, outgoing chief executive of the National Association of Homebuilders.
"Early on, he became one of the key go-to people," Colton said. "Because of this, and his background and interest, he doesn't have to say he has to confer with his people before he can answer. He knows the issues."
Apgar, however, has not been able to solve all the problems he raised in his earlier "State of the Nation's Housing" reports. Longtime academic colleague Karl E. Case, a professor of economics at Wellesley College, said Apgar is most worried about the poor, "the bottom end of the income distribution" and their inability to find housing.
Now that Apgar is in the government, he is not particularly given to the withering quips he once issued about the state of the nation's housing. But the warnings he used to routinely issue about the plight of the nation's low-income renters remain in effect.
Apgar acknowledges that there is not nearly enough money set aside to meet the nation's housing needs. All the more reason, he said, to make sure that the "money already out there is spent better."
William C. Apgar
Title: Assistant secretary for housing/federal housing commissioner.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Williams College; doctorate in economics, Harvard University.
Family: Married to Kristen Reasoner Apgar, general counsel, Massachusetts Department of Social Services; two sons.
Previous jobs: Executive director, Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; lecturer in public policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Hobbies: Coaching youth sports.
On the switch from teaching 25 classes a semester in academia to government: "Now I can face all 25 issues in a single day."
CAPTION: Federal Housing Authority Commissioner William Apgar seeks more housing aid for poor renters and hopes the "money already out there is spent better."