I was interviewed by Indira Stewart on the TVNZ Breakfast show, the biggest morning news show in New Zealand, about New York City’s system of rent regulation (I serve as the Chair of the NYC Rent Guidelines Board). You can find the interview here.
The Bridge quoted me in Why Dorms for Grownups Are a New Way of Life. It opens,
If you think applying to Stanford or MIT is a long shot, consider the odds of landing a spot in a Brooklyn co-living residence. Common, the company now operating six co-living facilities in the borough, recently received more than 15,000 applications for about 300 available rooms in three of the cities it serves: New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Why the demand? Co-living, essentially the residential version of the co-working trend, offers dorm-like, amenity-filled living that’s particularly attractive to millennials. The apartments come pre-stocked with furniture, appliances, fast WiFi, and lots of prospective friends.
John Bogil, 24, has shared a giant living room, kitchen, basement, and backyard with nine other people since moving into a Crown Heights facility called Common Albany a year ago. Although it sounds crowded, Bogil enjoys the company. “It’s awesome. I’ve made friends for life,” Bogil said. Common, launched in 2015, is Manhattan-based but has found fertile ground in Brooklyn. The growing portfolio in the borough includes the newly built Common Baltic in Boerum Hill, which offers co-living spaces as well as traditional apartments. The rent varies by neighborhood, with spaces in Crown Heights starting at $1,475 and Boerum Hill spots going for $2,143 and up.
Tenants have their own private bedrooms, many with private baths, but share the living room and kitchen as well as amenity spaces including lounges, fitness rooms, roof decks, dining rooms and work spaces. Convenience is a major selling point: the suites in a Common building come fully furnished with beds, dressers, couches, tables and chairs, a TV, towels and sheets, and a weekly cleaning service. Many of the issues that traditional roommates wind up fighting about have been taken off the table, like Real World with less drama.
Common was launched by Brad Hargreaves, who earlier had co-founded General Assembly, now a global educational company with campuses in 15 cities. Like many entrepreneurs, Hargreaves was looking to solve a problem. When the Yale grad first moved to New York City, he looked for an available room in an apartment on Craigslist and found the process cumbersome. “Common offers an alternative to this,” he said. “We make living with roommates better, more convenient, and more efficient.”
With young people increasingly crowding certain urban areas, the idea of a starter apartment is changing. While rents in Brooklyn have eased lately, thanks in part to new construction, the median rent is a daunting $2,785. With rents like those, some 76% of people 21 to 34 years old say they’ve made compromises to find a place to live, including living with roommates, according to the NHP Foundation, a group advocating affordable housing.
“Co-living has proven to be more than a passing trend,” said Hargreaves. “The response to opening our first home in Brooklyn was so strong that we were able to rapidly expand in the borough as well as into San Francisco and Washington, D.C. We now have nine homes on two coasts and are actively looking at new homes and new cities.” Common chooses its spots carefully, aiming to balance affordability and urban amenities. “We look to open in neighborhoods where there’s access to public transit and great local retail for our members to explore and enjoy,” said Hargreaves.
Common has the financial fuel to grow much more. The company has raised more than $23 million in two rounds of financing from 15 investors. The budding co-living industry now has multiple competitors as well, including WeLive, HubHaus, Node, and Krash. In Long Island City, a co-living company called Ollie plans to operate what it calls the largest co-living facility in North America, occupying 13 of the 42 floors in a new skyscraper.
While much of the allure of co-living is practical, many residents appreciate having the company, which in a cosmopolitan place like Brooklyn creates diverse collections of roommates. “I really appreciate the exposure to different peoples, ideas and cultures,” said Bogil. “I’ve learned so much about Australian politics and South African sports, for example, which might sound like useless info on the surface, but it helps me to learn about the world in a way that I never would normally. It makes the world feel smaller.” More than 70% of Common members are on 12-month leases but most stay longer than a year.
While typical co-living residents are in their 20s, the format could work for older adults as well, once the format goes mainstream. “There is growing interest in more communal types of living environments of the type offered by Common,” said David Reiss, an attorney and professor of real estate at Brooklyn Law School. “Co-living appeals to different people and our membership is diverse,” Hargreaves said. “We have young professionals, married couples, those moving to New York City for their first job, those moving from abroad, and ranging in their early 20s into their 30s and 40s.”
Senator Shelby (R-AL), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, sometimes known as the “enterprises.” It provides an interesting roadmap of Republican thinking about the appropriate role of the federal government in the mortgage market:
the FHFA [Federal Housing Finance Agency] has taken steps that appear to encourage a more active, rather than a reduced, role in the mortgage market for the enterprises. These steps include issuing proposed rules regarding the enterprises’ duty to serve, creating principle [sic] write-down requirements, lowering down-payment requirements, allowing allocation of revenues to the national housing trust fund despite the enterprise having no capital, and other actions. Moreover, the development of the common securitization platform, a joint venture established by the enterprises at the FHFA’s direction, raises a number of questions about the FHFA’s stated goal to gradually contract the enterprises’ dominant presence in the marketplace.
Initially, the purpose of the FHFA’s efforts, such as the common securitization platform, was to facilitate greater competition in the secondary mortgage market, but now it appears that the FHFA is no longer taking steps to enable the platform to be used by entities other than the enterprises. Likewise, lowering the down-payment requirement for mortgages guaranteed by the enterprises will make the enterprises more competitive with others in the mortgage market, not less. Overall, these FHFA actions raise questions about the goals of the conservatorship and whether its ultimate purpose has changed.
To better understand the impact of these changes, I ask that the GAO study and report the extent to which the FHFA’s actions described above could influence:
- The enterprises’ dominance in residential mortgage markets;
- A potential increase in the cost of entry for future competitors to the enterprises;
- Current and future financial demands on the Treasury;
- Possible options for modifying the enterprises’ structures (1)
As I have stated previously, Congress and the Obama Administration have allowed the FHFA to reform Fannie and Freddie on its own, with very little oversight. Indeed, the only example of oversight one could really point to would be the replacement of Acting Director DeMarco with Director Watt, a former Democratic member of Congress. It is notable that Watt has continued many of the policies started by DeMarco, a Republican favorite. That being said, Shelby is right to point out that Watt has begun taking some modest steps that Democrats have favored, such as funding the housing trust fund and implementing a small principal-forgiveness program.
Housing finance reform is the one component of the post-financial crisis reform agenda that Congress and the Executive have utterly failed to address. It is unlikely that it will be addressed in the near future. But perhaps the FHFA’s independent steps to create a federal housing finance infrastructure for the 21st century will galvanize the political branches to finally act and implement their own vision, instead of ceding all of their power to the unelected leaders of an administrative agency.
A bevy of housing finance big shots have issued a white paper, A More Promising Road to GSE Reform. The main objective of the proposal
is to migrate those components of today’s system that work well into a system that is no longer impaired by the components that do not, with as little disruption as possible. To do this, our proposal would merge Fannie and Freddie to form a single government corporation, which would handle all of the operations that those two institutions perform today, providing an explicit federal guarantee on mortgage-backed securities while syndicating all noncatastrophic credit risk into the private market. This would facilitate a deep, broad and competitive primary and secondary mortgage market; limit the taxpayer’s risk to where it is absolutely necessary; ensure broad access to the system for borrowers in all communities; and ensure a level playing field for lenders of all sizes.
The government corporation, which here we will call the National Mortgage Reinsurance Corporation, or NMRC, would perform the same functions as do Fannie and Freddie today. The NMRC would purchase conforming single-family and multifamily mortgage loans from originating lenders or aggregators, and issue securities backed by these loans through a single issuing platform that the NMRC owns and operates. It would guarantee the timely payment of principal and interest on the securities and perform master servicing responsibilities on the underlying loans, including setting and enforcing servicing and loan modification policies and practices. It would ensure access to credit in historically underserved communities through compliance with existing affordable-housing goals and duty-to-serve requirements. And it would provide equal footing to all lenders, large and small, by maintaining a “cash window” for mortgage purchases.
The NMRC would differ from Fannie and Freddie, however, in several important respects. It would be required to transfer all noncatastrophic credit risk on the securities that it issues to a broad range of private entities. Its mortgage-backed securities would be backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, for which it would charge an explicit guarantee fee, or g-fee, sufficient to cover any risk that the government takes. And while the NMRC would maintain a modest portfolio with which to manage distressed loans and aggregate single- and multifamily loans for securitization, it cannot use that portfolio for investment purposes. Most importantly, as a government corporation, the NMRC would be motivated neither by profit nor market share, but by a mandate to balance broad access to credit with the safety and soundness of the mortgage market. (2-3, footnotes omitted)
The authors of the white paper are
- Jim Parrott, former Obama Administration housing policy guru
- Lewis Ranieri, a Wall Street godfather of the securitized mortgage market
- Gene Sperling, Obama Administration National Economic Advisor
- Mark Zandi, Moody’s Analytics chief economist
- Barry Zigas, Director of Housing Policy at Consumer Federation of America
While I think the proposal has a lot going for it, I think that the lack of former Republican government officials as co-authors is telling. Members of Congress, such as Chair of the House Financial Services Committee Jeb Hensaerling (R-TX), have taken extreme positions that leave little room for the level of government involvement contemplated in this white paper. So, I would say that the proposal has a low likelihood of success in the current political environment.
That being said, the proposal is worth considering because we’ll have to take Fannie and Freddie out of their current state of limbo at some point in the future. The proposal builds on on current developments that have been led by Fannie and Freddie’s regulator and conservator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The FHFA has required Fannie and Freddie to develop a Common Securitization Platform that is a step in the direction of a merger of the two entities. Moreover, the FHFA’s mandate that Fannie and Freddie’s experiment with risk-sharing is a step in the direction of the proposal’s syndication of “all noncatastrophic credit risk.” Finally, the fact that the two companies have remained in conservatorship for so long can be taken as a sign of their ultimate nationalization.
In some ways, I read this white paper not as a proposal to spur legislative action, but rather as a prediction of where we will end up if Congress does not act and leaves the important decisions in the hands of the FHFA. And it would not be a bad result — better than what existed before the financial crisis and better than what we have now.