Cutting Back on Community Reinvestment

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Banks Look to Narrow Exams Under Community Reinvestment Act. It opens,

Banks see an opening to limit the types of violations that could lead to a Community Reinvestment Act downgrade as federal regulators begin rewriting rules under the 1977 law.

Banks say regulators have improperly used consumer fair lending and other violations involving credit cards or other financial products to evaluate compliance with the law meant to increase lending and investment to lower-income communities.

“When a bank violates a consumer protection law, there is no shortage of enforcement agencies and legal regimes available to seek redress and punishment. Adding the CRA to that long list thus has little marginal benefit, and risks diluting and undermining the CRA’s core purpose of promoting community reinvestment,” the Bank Policy Institute, a leading bank lobbying group, said in a Nov. 19 comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC set the stage for a CRA rewrite in August by releasing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. The Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have signaled a desire to sign on to a joint proposal.

With that momentum building, banks are taking their shot to limit the types of enforcement actions included in CRA reviews. They want CRA reviews to focus on mortgages, small business and other community development investments.

The question of how non-CRA-related violations apply to banks’ community lending reviews is not merely a theoretical exercise.

Wells Fargo & Co. saw its CRA grade downgraded two levels to “needs to improve”in March 2017 following the revelation of the fake accounts it generated for consumers. Several states and municipalities cut off business with the bank in response.

CRA exam cycles run three years for large national banks and can run longer for smaller banks that perform well. Banks receive one of four grades—outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance—and a poor grade can restrict their merger and branch expansion plans.

OCC, Treasury Leading Push

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, has been pushing for the latest CRA revision.

Both of those officials ran into CRA trouble when they tried to sell OneWest Bank to CIT Group Inc. Mnuchin was OneWest’s chairman and Otting its chief executive.

The Treasury Department released a report on “modernizing the CRA” in April. Included in that report is a call to not allow fair lending enforcement investigations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators to slow down CRA reviews.

Otting went farther, issuing a bulletin on Aug. 15 highlighting that his agency’s examiners will no longer take into account non-CRA lending violations when assessing a bank’s CRA compliance.

The FDIC and the Fed have not yet followed suit. But banks want the three agencies to set a common policy on dealing with non-CRA related enforcement actions in their community lending reviews.

“Regulators should develop consistent policies clarifying that CRA will not be used as a general enforcement tool,” the American Bankers Association said in a Nov. 15 comment letter.

There is some merit to the idea, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

“It’s delinking fair lending concerns, which are regulated elsewhere, from CRA concerns. From an industry perspective that may make a lot of sense,” he said in a Nov. 30 phone interview.

The proposal, taken in a vacuum, may be reasonable. But in the context of broader attempts to weaken the CRA, it should be viewed more skeptically.

Cracked Foundation for American Households

photo by shaireproductions.com

President Trump’s budget claims to lay A New Foundation for American Greatness. Whatever else it does, when it comes to housing it leads down a path to ruin for many an American family.

Here is just some of what he proposes: cutting housing choice vouchers by almost $1 billion; cutting support for public housing by nearly $2 billion; and getting rid of the entire $3 billion budget for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). These are all abstract numbers, so it is worth breaking them down to a more human scale.

Vouchers.  Housing choice vouchers help low-income families afford a home. Republicans and Democrats have long supported these vouchers because they help tenants afford apartments that are rented by private landlords, not by public housing agencies. Vouchers are effectively an income subsidy for the poor that must be used for housing alone. The landlord is paid the subsidy and the tenant pays the difference between the subsidy and the rent. These vouchers are administered by local public housing agencies.

Nearly half of vouchers go to families with children, nearly a quarter go to the elderly and another fifth go to disabled adults. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that voucher dramatically reduce homelessness. It also found that voucher holders were likely to be in the workforce unless they were elderly or disabled. While vouchers are a very effective subsidy, the federal budget has only provided enough funds for about a quarter of eligible households. Trump’s proposed cuts would cut funding for more than 100,000 families. That’s 100,000 families that may end up homeless as a result.

Public Housing. Public housing has been starved of resources for nearly forty years. While some believe that public housing has been a failure overall, it remains a vital source of housing for the very poor. Trump’s proposed cuts to public housing operating and capital expenses means that these tenants will see their already poorly maintained homes descend deeper into decrepitude. Unaddressed leaks lead to mold; deferred maintenance on boilers leads to no heat in the winter – every building needs some capital repairs to maintain a baseline of habitability.

We must ask ourselves how bad will we allow this housing stock to get before we are overcome by a sense of collective shame. If a private landlord provided housing that was as poorly maintained as much of the public housing stock, it would be on a worst landlords list in local newspapers. The fact that the landlord is the government does not redeem the sin.

CDBG. The Community Development Block Grant funds affordable housing and anti-poverty programs along with community development activities engaged in by local governments. CDBG has broad support from Republicans and Democrats because it provides funds that allow local governments to respond more nimbly to local conditions. Local governments use these funds for basic infrastructure like water and sewer lines, affordable housing and the soft costs involved in planning for their future.

While these expenditures are somewhat abstract, recent press stories have highlighted that CDBG also funds Meals on Wheels for the elderly. While this is not a big portion of the CDBG budget, it does make concrete how those $3 billion are being allocated each year by local communities seeking to help their neediest residents.

*     *     *

Trump’s budget proposal is honest in that it admits to making “substantial changes to the policies and spending priorities of the previous administration . . .” Members of Congress from both parties will now have to weigh in on those substantial changes. Are they prepared to make Trump’s cuts to these housing and community development programs that provide direct aid to their neighbors and local governments? Are they prepared for the increase in homeless that will follow? In the increase in deficits for state and local governments? If not, they should reject President Trump’s spending priorities and focus on budget priorities that support human dignity and compassion as well as a commitment to local responses to address local problems.

Trump, Homelessness and the General Welfare

photo by Jay Black

The Hill published my column, Trump’s Budget Proposal Is Bad News for Housing Across the Nation. It opens,

The White House unveiled its much anticipated budget proposal today. It shows deep cuts to important agencies, including a more than $6 billion decrease in funding to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than 75 percent of the agency’s budget goes to helping families pay their rent. Thus, these cuts would have a negative impact on thousands upon thousands of poor and working class households.

Many years ago, Congress enshrined the “goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” within its Declaration of National Housing Policy. This goal was not just justified by the basic needs of those with inadequate housing, but also because “the general welfare and security of the nation” required it. As our nation’s leading cities grapple with rapidly growing homeless populations, this additional justification takes on added weight today.

Click here to read the rest of it.

Bold New Housing Plan?

photo by Cybershot800i

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

Enterprise Community Partners has released An Investment in Opportunity: A Bold New Vision for Housing Policy in the U.S. I thought it would be useful to highlight its specific proposals to make rental housing affordable for low-income households:

I. ENSURE BROAD ACCESS TO HIGH-OPPORTUNITY NEIGHBORHOODS

  1. Improve the Section 8 program and expand regional mobility programs to help more families with rental assistance vouchers access high-opportunity neighborhoods 
  2. Establish state and local laws banning “source of income” discrimination by landlords and property owners 
  3. Balance the allocation of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and other federal subsidies to both high-opportunity neighborhoods and low-income communities, while creating more opportunities for mixed-income developments 
  4. Establish inclusionary zoning rules at the state and local levels 
  5. Establish state and local regulations that encourage innovation and promote the cost-effective development of multifamily housing 
  6. Incorporate affordable housing considerations into local and regional transportation planning through equitable transit-oriented development

II. PROMOTE COMPREHENSIVE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE INVESTMENTS IN LOW-INCOME NEIGHBORHOODS

  1. Make the public and private investments necessary to preserve existing affordable housing while creating mixed-income communities 
  2. Build capacity of public, private and philanthropic organizations at the local level to pursue cross-sector solutions to the problems facing low-income communities 
  3. Create state and local land banks and other entities to return vacant and abandoned properties to productive use 
  4. Make permanent and significantly expand the New Markets Tax Credit 
  5. Create a new federal tax credit for private investments in community development financial institutions and other community development entities 
  6. Establish federal regulations that encourage “impact investments” in low-income communities by individual and institutional investors

III. RECALIBRATE OUR PRIORITIES IN HOUSING POLICY TO TARGET SCARCE SUBSIDY DOLLARS WHERE THEY’RE NEEDED MOST

  1.  Reform the Mortgage Interest Deduction and other federal homeownership subsidies to ensure that scarce resources are targeted to the families who are most in need of assistance 
  2. Gradually double annual allocations of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and provide additional gap financing to support the expansion 
  3. Significantly expand funding to Section 8 vouchers to ensure that the most vulnerable households in the U.S. have access to some form of rental assistance 
  4. Expand funding to the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund as part of any effort to reform America’s mortgage finance system 
  5. Break down funding silos to encourage public investments in healthy and affordable housing for recipients of Medicaid 
  6. Create permanent funding sources at the state and local level to support affordable housing

IV. IMPROVE THE OVERALL FINANCIAL STABILITY OF LOW-INCOME HOUSEHOLDS

  1. Establish minimum wages at the federal, state and local levels that reflect the reasonable cost of living for each community 
  2. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and other essential income supports to America’s low-wage workers 
  3. Create a new federal fund to help test and scale innovative financial products that encourage low-income households to save, with a primary focus on unrestricted emergency savings 
  4. Help more low-income families build strong credit histories 
  5. Establish strong protections against predatory financial products

Not sure if I could really categorize this as “bold.” “Unrealistic” seems more apt in today’s political environment. Indeed, it reads like a wishlist drafted by a committee.

That being said, I think that Enterprise’s vision is helpful in a variety of ways. First, it offers a pretty comprehensive list of policies and programs that that can be used to  make housing more affordable. Second, it recognizes income inequality is a big part of the problem for low-income households. Third, it acknowledges that current federal housing policy favors wealthy households (cf. mortgage interest deduction) over the poor. Finally, it acknowledges that restrictive local land use policies inflate the cost of housing.

I wonder if a bolder plan would be just to fully fund Section 8 so that all low-income households were able to afford a safe and well-maintained home. Probably just as unrealistic as Enterprise’s vision, but it has the virtue of being simple to understand and execute.

Race, Poverty and Housing Policy

Signing of the Housing and Urban Development Act

Signing of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965

Ingrid Gould Ellen and Jessica Yager of NYU’s Furman Center contributed a chapter on Race, Poverty, and Federal Rental Housing Policy to the HUD at 50 volume I have been blogging about. It opens,

For the last 50 years, HUD has been tasked with the complex, at times contradictory, goals of creating and preserving high-quality affordable rental housing, spurring community development, facilitating access to opportunity, combating racial discrimination, and furthering integration through federal housing and urban development policy. This chapter shows that, over HUD’s first 5 decades, statutes and rules related to rental housing (for example, rules governing which tenants get priority to live in assisted housing and where assisted housing should be developed) have vacillated, reflecting shifting views about the relative benefits of these sometimes-competing objectives and the best approach to addressing racial and economic disparities. Also, HUD’s mixed success in fair housing enforcement—another core part of its mission—likely reflects a range of challenges including the limits of the legal tools available to the agency, resource limitations, and the difficulty of balancing the agency’s multiple roles in the housing market. This exploration of HUD’s history in these areas uncovers five key tensions that run through HUD’s work.

The first tension emerges from the fact that housing markets are local in nature. HUD has to balance this variation, and the need for local jurisdictions to tailor programs and policies to address their particular market conditions, with the need to establish and enforce consistent rules with respect to fair housing and the use of federal subsidy dollars.

The second tension is between serving the neediest households and achieving economic integration. In the case of place-based housing, if local housing authorities choose to serve the very poorest households in their developments, then those developments risk becoming islands of concentrated poverty. Further, by serving only the poorest households, HUD likely narrows political support for its programs.

The third tension is between serving as many households as possible and supporting housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods. Unfortunately, in many metropolitan areas, land—and consequently housing construction—is significantly more expensive in the higher-income neighborhoods that typically offer safer streets, more extensive job networks and opportunities, and higher-performing schools. As a result, a given level of resources can typically house fewer families in higher-income areas than in lower-income ones.

The fourth tension is between revitalizing communities and facilitating access to high-opportunity neighborhoods. Research shows that, in some circumstances, investments in subsidized housing can help revitalize distressed communities and attract private investment. Yet, in other circumstances, such investments do not trigger broader revitalization and instead may simply constrain families and children in subsidized housing to live in areas that offer limited opportunities.

The final apparent tension is between facilitating integration and combating racial discrimination. Despite the Fair Housing Act’s (FHA’s) integration goal, legal decisions, which are discussed further in this chapter, have determined that the act’s prohibition on discrimination limits the use of some race-conscious approaches to maintaining integrated neighborhoods.

To be sure, these tensions are not always insurmountable. But addressing all of them at once requires a careful balancing act. The bulk of this chapter reviews how HUD programs and policies have struck this balance in the area of rental housing during the agency’s first 50 years. The chapter ends with a look to the challenges HUD is likely to face in its next 50 years. (103-104, citation omitted)

The chapter does a great job of outlining the tensions inherent in HUD’s broad mandate. It made me wonder, though, whether HUD would benefit from narrowing its mission for the next 50 years. If it focused on assisting more low-income households with their housing expenses (for example, by dramatically expanding the Section 8 housing voucher program and scaling back other programs), it might do that one thing well rather than doing many things less well.

The Founding & Evolution of HUD

Omer Wazir

I had previously blogged about HUD at 50, a hefty tome filled with a lot of interesting chapters. Today, I focus on Chapter 1, written byJill Khadduri, The Founding and Evolution of HUD: 50 Years, 1965-2015 (starting at page 5). The abstract for the chapter reads,

This is an institutional history of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), focused on the development of HUD’s major policies and programs over the 50 years from its founding in 1965 to 2015. The chapter emphasizes how the successive secretaries of HUD and the political administrations they operated within shaped the agency and its programmatic responses to housing and urban issues. It attempts to place the evolution of HUD within the contexts of the housing, housing finance, and community development industries; other governmental institutions, including the U.S. Congress and other levels of government; and the most urgent housing and urban problems perceived during each secretary’s tenure. This chapter benefits from hindsight on which policies and programs appear to have had lasting importance. However, it does not focus on the outcomes of HUD policies and is not an assessment of HUD’s effectiveness in dealing with the issues of poverty, urban distress, housing quality and affordability, and fair housing over the past 50 years. (5)

There will be a lot that is familiar to housing nerds in this chapter, but its real value lies in putting all of the pieces together in a coherent narrative, charting the big changes in federal housing policy. How was federal housing policy related to urban policy? How was housing policy related to housing finance policy?  Where do Community Development Block Grants fit in?  How about housing vouchers? Fair housing policy? Enterprise Zones and Empowerment Zones? How important was homeownership vis-à-vis rental housing policy? When did special needs populations and the homeless get more resources? How did large-scale disaster relief fit into HUD’s mission? These issues, and more, are addressed and placed in broader context. Bottom line for housing nerds and aspiring housing nerds: read it, or at least skim it.

Reiss on EB-5 Green Card Reform

USA-NYC-Ellis_Island_crop

Ellis Island

GlobeSt.com quoted me in Congress Moves to Revamp EB-5. It reads in part,

Last week Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Senator Patrick Leahy introduced bipartisan legislation to reauthorize and reform the EB-5 Regional Center program.

This did not come as a surprise to the commercial real estate industry, which has been watching the approaching Sept. 30, 2015 deadline with a mixture of dread and anticipation.

Simply put, the program has become an increasingly popular funding source for projects, David Cohen, a shareholder at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in Washington DC, tells GlobeSt.com.

“As the popularity of the EB-5 program has grown in the last few years, so too has the scope of the deals its being used to fund,” he says. “There is far more money at stake than there was even a few years ago.”

The changes proposed in the bill — officially called the American Job Creation and Investment Promotion Reform Act — touched upon some of the more controversial parts of the program. It proposes strengthening oversight by Department of Homeland Security and Securities and Exchange Commission oversight and putting in place measures that would discourage fraud. Overall, national security would have a greater focus this time around.

*     *     *

The EB-5 program “has a very interesting mix of policy goals, including immigration, community development and employment ones,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE).

It also has a great deal of flexibility – and many say too much flexibility, he continues. “For instance, companies have been able to characterize hot locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan as areas of high unemployment by defining the targeted employment area expansively,” he tells GlobeSt.com.

“For instance, the biggest real estate project in Brooklyn, Pacific Park — formerly known as Atlantic Yards –used nearby neighborhoods with high unemployment for an EB-5 investment located in a relatively low unemployment area,” he says.

In short, “there is a lot of talk of reform of the program that comes from all different directions – raise the minimum investment amount! – ensure that the targeted employment area is more narrowly drawn! – establish national standards!” Reiss says.

“But it is too early to tell which reforms might stick.”