Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 15, 2014

State of the Union’s Rental Housing

By David Reiss

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released its report, America’s Rental Housing: Evolving Markets and Needs. The report notes that

Rental housing has always provided a broad choice of homes for people at all phases of life. The recent economic turmoil underscored the many advantages of renting and raised the barriers to homeownership, sparking a surge in demand that has buoyed rental markets across the country. But significant erosion in renter incomes over the past decade has pushed the number of households paying excessive shares of income for housing to record levels. Assistance efforts have failed to keep pace with this escalating need, undermining the nation’s longstanding goal of ensuring decent and affordable housing for all. (1)

The report provides an excellent overview of the current state of the rental housing stock and households. Of particular interest to readers of this blog is how the report addresses the federal government’s role in the housing finance system. The report notes that

During the downturn, most credit sources dried up as property performance deteriorated and the risk of delinquencies mounted. Much as in the owner-occupied market, though, lending activity continued through government-backed channels, with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) playing an important countercyclical role.

But as the health of the multifamily market improved, private lending revived. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, banks and thrifts greatly expanded their multifamily lending in 2012, nearly matching the volume for Fannie and Freddie. Given fundamentally sound market conditions, multifamily lending activity should continue to increase. The experience of the last several years, however, clearly testifies to the importance of a government presence in a market that provides homes for millions of Americans, particularly during periods of economic stress. (5)

 The report, to my mind, reflects a complacence about the federal role in housing finance:

Although some have called for winding down Fannie’s and Freddie’s multifamily activities and putting an end to federal backstops beyond FHA, most propose replacing the implicit guarantees of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with explicit guarantees for which the federal government would charge a fee. Proposals for a federal backstop differ, however, in whether they require a cap on the average per unit loan size or include an affordability requirement to ensure that credit is available to multifamily properties with lower rents or subsidies. While the details are clearly significant, what is most important is that reform efforts do not lose sight of the critical federal role in ensuring the availability of multifamily financing to help maintain rental affordability, as well as in supporting the market more broadly during economic downturns. (8)

The report gives very little attention to what the federal housing finance system should look like going forward, other than implying that change should be incremental:

To foster further increases in private participation, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA—the regulator and conservator of the GSEs) has signaled its intent to set a ceiling on the amount of multifamily lending that the GSEs can back in 2013. While the caps are fairly high—$30 billion for Fannie Mae and $26 billion for Freddie Mac—FHFA intends to further reduce GSE lending volumes over the next several years either by lowering these limits or by such actions as restricting loan products, requiring stricter underwriting, or increasing loan pricing. With lending by depository institutions and life insurance companies increasing, the market may well be able to adjust to these restrictions. The bigger question, however, is how the financial reforms now under debate will redefine the government’s role in backstopping the multifamily market. Recent experience clearly demonstrates the importance of federal support for multifamily lending when financial crises drive private lenders out of the market. (27)

I would have preferred to see a positive vision from the Center for how the federal government should go about ensuring liquidity in the market during future crises and how it should support an increase in the affordable housing stock. Perhaps that is asking too much of such a broad report, although the fact that Fannie and Freddie are members of the Center’s Policy Advisory Board which provided funding for the report may have played a role as well. [I might add that I found it odd that the members of the Policy Advisory Board were not listed in the report.]

I do not want to end on a negative note about such a helpful report. I would note that it takes seriously some controversial ideas about increasing the supply of affordable housing.  The report advocates for the reduction of regulatory constraints on affordable rental housing construction. I interpret this as a version of the Glaeser and Gyourko critique of the impact of restrictive local land use regimes on housing affordability. As progressives like NYC’s new Mayor know, restrictive zoning and affordable housing construction are at cross purposes from each other.

| Permalink