Promoting Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

graphic by USGAO

Enteprise has released a report, Promoting Opportunity through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD): Navigating Federal Transportation Policy. It opens,

Transportation, housing and land use decisions that form the foundation of our development patterns are made at every level of government. While the local regulatory environment significantly impacts the amount and type of development that occurs, the federal government plays a major role in local development in both overt and hidden ways. Federal funding is the most obvious source of influence. However, this funding comes with a catch, as the incentives and regulations that govern funding programs can have a significant impact – both positive and negative – on the type of housing and transportation infrastructure that is built and how it is maintained over time.

The federal ability to influence development patterns gives it both direct and indirect influence on a community’s strength and composition. Individual families, the local economy, municipal governments and the environment all benefit when well-located housing, jobs and other necessary resources are connected by efficient transportation and infrastructure networks. Equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD, see sidebar for definition) is an important approach to facilitating these connections. eTOD supports the achievement of multiple cross-sector goals, including regional economic growth, enhanced mobility and access, efficient municipal and transportation network operations, improved public health and decreased cost of living. For a full discussion of the benefits of eTOD, read Promoting Opportunity through eTOD: Making the Case.

In recent years, the federal government has taken several actions that are more conducive to fostering eTOD. Notable examples include the adoption of incentives for creating and preserving affordable housing near transit, the provision of planning and technical assistance resources to support eTOD, and the reduction of barriers to producing affordable housing on federally-funded property. However, a wide range of policies and incentives that do not explicitly address eTOD can also support or detract from the conditions that make such development possible.

Navigating Federal Transportation Policy is the third report in our Promoting Opportunity through eTOD research series. This report seeks to assist stakeholders involved in achieving eTOD, such as public entities, developers and practitioners, as they work to navigate the federal policy landscape, with a focus onFederal Transit Administration (FTA) policies and programs. These policies and programs generally offer several funding and technical assistance opportunities that can address eTOD (among a range of other uses), but housing practitioners may be less familiar with these resources and how to access them. (2, footnote omitted)

While the report explicitly acknowledges the changed environment since President Trump’s election, it does not seem to fully integrate those changes into its recommendations. While there are a lot of good ideas in the report, I am afraid that it will take a few years, or longer, for them to find a sympathetic ear in the Executive Branch.

Planning for a Wetter Future

 

picture by Charly W. Karl

Enterprise has issued Safer and Stronger Cities: Strategies for Advocating for Federal Resilience Policy. The report

offers a menu of federal recommendations organized into five chapters focusing on infrastructure, housing, economic development and public safety. Each chapter includes a set of strategies, background on the issue, explanations of the role of the Federal Government, listing of potential allies in advocating for the recommendations, and relevant examples of current or previous local, state, and federal actions.

To better support city resilience, these recommendations include high level proposals for cities to coordinate with federal government for both legislative and agency actions, which cities can drive forward. Policy and program changes will increase or leverage investment from the private sector are highlighted. (2)

The report recommends, among other things, that the federal government should

  1. Create a National Infrastructure Bank that supports private-public investments in resilient infrastructure, including retrofits.
  2. Align cost-benefit analyses across federal agencies and require agencies to consider the full life cycle costs and benefits of infrastructure over the asset’s design life and in consideration of future conditions.
  3. Cultivate partnerships between cities and the Defense Department to promote resilience of city assets that are critical to national security and military installations.
  4. Implement a system that scores infrastructure based on its resilience to better prioritize scarce federal funds.
  5. Coordinate Federal Government grant-making and permitting related to hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. (10)

These are good proposals, no question about it. I am not too optimistic that the current leadership in Washington will heed any of them. Local partnerships with the Defense Department might have some legs in today’s environment though, particularly given recent news reports about foreign hacking into the electrical grid.

Even those who discount the global risks arising from climate change should acknowledge the need to bolster the resiliency of our coastal cities. Let’s hope we start planning for a wetter future sooner rather than later.

Taking Apart The CFPB, Bit by Bit

graphic by Matt Shirk

Mick Mulvaney’s Message in the CFPB’s latest Semi-Annual Report is crystal clear regarding his plans for the Bureau:

As has been evident since the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, the Bureau is far too powerful, and with precious little oversight of its activities. Per the statute, in the normal course the Bureau’s Director simultaneously serves in three roles: as a one-man legislature empowered to write rules to bind parties in new ways; as an executive officer subject to limited control by the President; and as an appellate judge presiding over the Bureau’s in-house court-like adjudications. In Federalist No. 47, James Madison famously wrote that “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Constitutional separation of powers and related checks and balances protect us from government overreach. And while Congress may not have transgressed any constraints established by the Supreme Court, the structure and powers of this agency are not something the Founders and Framers would recognize. By structuring the Bureau the way it has, Congress established an agency primed to ignore due process and abandon the rule of law in favor of bureaucratic fiat and administrative absolutism.

The best that any Bureau Director can do on his own is to fulfill his responsibilities with humility and prudence, and to temper his decisions with the knowledge that the power he wields could all too easily be used to harm consumers, destroy businesses, or arbitrarily remake American financial markets. But all human beings are imperfect, and history shows that the temptation of power is strong. Our laws should be written to restrain that human weakness, not empower it.

I have no doubt that many Members of Congress disagree with my actions as the Acting Director of the Bureau, just as many Members disagreed with the actions of my predecessor. Such continued frustration with the Bureau’s lack of accountability to any representative branch of government should be a warning sign that a lapse in democratic structure and republican principles has occurred. This cycle will repeat ad infinitum unless Congress acts to make it accountable to the American people.

Accordingly, I request that Congress make four changes to the law to establish meaningful accountability for the Bureau :

1. Fund the Bureau through Congressional appropriations;

2. Require legislative approval of major Bureau rules;

3. Ensure that the Director answers to the President in the exercise of executive authority; and

4. Create an independent Inspector General for the Bureau. (2-3)

Mulvaney gets points for speaking clearly, but a lot of what he says is wrong and at odds with how the federal government has operated for nearly one hundred years. He is wrong in stating that the CFPB Director acts without judicial oversight. The Director’s decisions are appealable and his predecessor’s have, in fact, been overturned. And his call to a return to the federal government of the type recognizable to the Framers has a hollow ring since at least 1935 when the Supreme Court decided Humphrey’s Executor v. United States.

I would think that it should go without saying that the federal government has grown exponentially since its founding in the 18th century. The Supreme Court has acknowledged as much in Humphrey’s Executor which held that Congress could create independent agencies.  Independent agencies are now fundamental to the operation of the federal government.

Mulvaney and others are seeking to chip away at the legitimacy of the modern administrative state. That is certainly their prerogative. But they should not ignore the history of the last hundred years and skip all the way back to 18th century if they want their arguments to sound like anything more than a bit of sophistry.

The Budgetary Impact on Housing Finance

slide by MIT Golub

The MIT Golub Center for Finance and Policy has posted some interesting infographics on The President’s 2019 Budget: Proposals Affecting Credit, Insurance and Financial Regulators:

The White House released the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 on February 12, just days after President Trump signed a bill extending spending caps for military and domestic spending and suspending the debt ceiling. While the new law has already established government-wide tax and spending levels for the coming fiscal year, the specific proposals contained in the budget request reflect Administration priorities and may still be considered by the Congress. Here, we consider how such proposals may affect the Federal Government in its role as a lender, insurer, and financial regulator.

Between its lending and insurance balances, it is apparent that the U.S. Government has more assets and insured obligations than the five largest bank holding companies combined.

Through various agencies, the US government is deeply involved in the extension of credit and the provision of insurance. It also plays an active regulatory and oversight role in the financial marketplace. While individual credit and insurance programs serve different target populations, they collectively reach into the lives of most Americans, from homeowners to small business owners to bank account holders and students. Note that this graphic does not reflect social insurance, such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

I was particularly interested, of course, in the slides that focused on housing finance, but I found this one slide about all federal loans outstanding to be eye-opening:

The overall amount is huge, $4.34 trillion, and housing finance’s share is also huge, well over half of that amount.

As we slowly proceed down the path to housing finance reform, we should try to determine a principled way to evaluate just how big of a role the federal government needs to have in the housing finance market in order to serve the broad swath of American households. Personally, I think there is a lot of room for private investors to take on more credit risk so long as underserved markets are addressed and consumers are protected.

Zoning and Housing Affordability

Vanessa Brown Calder has posted Zoning, Land-Use Planning, and Housing Affordability to SSRN. It opens,

Local zoning and land-use regulations have increased substantially over the decades. These constraints on land development within cities and suburbs aim to achieve various safety, environmental, and aesthetic goals. But the regulations have also tended to reduce the supply of housing, including multifamily and low-income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability problems.

This study uses regression analysis to examine the link between housing prices and zoning and land-use controls. State and local governments across the country impose substantially different amounts of regulation on land development. The study uses a data set of court decisions on land use and zoning that captures the growth in regulation over time and the large variability between the states.

The statistical results show that rising land-use regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 44 states and that rising zoning regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 36 states. In general, the states that have increased the amount of rules and restrictions on land use the most have higher housing prices.

The federal government spent almost $200 billion to subsidize renting and buying homes in 2015. These subsidies treat a symptom of the underlying problem. But the results of this study indicate that state and local governments can tackle housing affordability problems directly by overhauling their development rules. For example, housing is much more expensive in the Northeast than in the Southeast, and that difference is partly explained by more regulation in the former region.

Interestingly, the data show that relatively more federal housing aid flows to states with more restrictive zoning and land-use rules, perhaps because those states have higher housing costs. Federal aid thus creates a disincentive for the states to solve their own housing affordability problems by reducing regulation. (1)

This paper provides additional evidence for an argument that Edward Glaeser and others have been making for some time now.

Local governments won’t make these changes on their own. Nonetheless, local land-use decisions have a large negative impact on many households and businesses who are not currently located within the borders of the local jurisdictions (as well as some who are). As a result, the federal government could and should take restrictive land use regulation into account when it allocates federal aid for affordable housing.

The Obama Administration found that restrictive local land-use regulations stifled GDP growth in the aggregate. Perhaps reforming land-use regulation is something that could garner bipartisan support as it is a market-driven approach to the housing crisis, a cause dear to the hearts of many Democrats (and not a few Republicans).

Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform?

Law360 published my op ed, Are The Stars Aligning For Fannie And Freddie Reform? It reads,

There has been a lot of talk of the closed-door discussions in the Senate about a reform plan for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mammoth housing finance government-sponsored enterprises. There has long been a bipartisan push to get the two entities out of their conservatorships with some kind of permanent reform plan in place, but the stars never aligned properly. There was resistance on the right because of a concern about the increasing nationalization of the mortgage market and there was resistance on the left because of a concern that housing affordability would be unsupported in a new system. It looks like the leader of that right wing, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has indicated that he is willing to compromise in order to create a “sustainable housing finance system.” The question now is whether those on the left are also willing to compromise in order to put that system on a firm footing for the 21st century.

In a speech at the National Association of Realtors, Hensarling set forth a set of principles that he would be guided by:

  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must be wound down and their charters repealed;
  • Securitizers need strong bank-like capital and community financial institutions must be able to compete on a level playing field;
  • Any new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, be results-based and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep;
  • The Federal Housing Administration must return to its traditional role of serving the first-time homebuyer and low- and moderate-income individuals.

I am not yet sure that all of the stars are now aligned for Congress to pass a GSE reform bill. But Hensarling’s change of heart is a welcome development for those of us who worry about some kind of slow-moving train wreck in our housing finance system. That system has been in limbo for nearly a decade since Fannie and Freddie were placed in conservatorship, with no end in sight for so long. Ten years is an awfully long time for employees, regulators and other stakeholders to play it by ear in a mortgage market measured in the trillions of dollars.

Even with a broad consensus on the need for (or even just the practical reality of) a federal role in housing finance, there are a lot of details that still need to be worked out. Should Fannie and Freddie be replaced with many mortgage-backed securities issuers whose securities are guaranteed by some arm of the federal government? Or should Fannie and Freddie become lender-owned mutual insurance entities with a government guarantee of the two companies? These are just two of the many options that have been proposed over the last 10 years.

Two housing finance reform leaders, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., appear to favor some version of the former while Hensarling seems to favor the latter. And Hensarling stated his unequivocal opposition to some form of a “recap and release” plan, whereas Corker and Warner appear to be considering a plan that recapitalizes Fannie and Freddie and releases them back into private ownership, to the benefit of at least some of the companies’ shareholders. The bottom line is that there are still major differences among all of these important players, not to mention the competing concerns of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other progressives. Warren and her allies will seek to ensure that the federal housing system continues to support meaningful affordable housing initiatives for both homeowners and renters.

Hensarling made it clear that he does not favor a return to the status quo — he said that the hybrid GSE model “cannot be saved, it cannot be salvaged, it must not be resurrected, and needs to be scrapped.” But Hensarling also made it clear that he will negotiate and compromise. This represents a true opening for a bipartisan bill. For everyone on the left and the right who are hoping to create a sustainable housing finance system for the 21st century, let’s hope that his willingness to compromise is widely shared in 2018.

I am now cautiously optimistic that Congress can find some common ground. With Hensarling on board, there is now broad support for a government role in the housing sector. There is also broad support for a housing finance infrastructure that does not favor large financial institutions over small ones. Spreading the risk of default to private investors — as Fannie and Freddie have been doing for some time now under the direction of their regulator — is also a positive development, one with many supporters. Risk sharing reduces the likelihood of a taxpayer bailout in all but the most extreme scenarios.

There are still some big sticking points. What should happen with the private investors in Fannie and Freddie? Will they own part of the new housing finance infrastructure? While the investors have allies in Congress, there does not seem to be a groundswell of support for them on the right or the left.

How much of a commitment should there be to affordable housing? Hensarling acknowledges that the Federal Housing Administration should serve first-time homebuyers and low- and moderate-income individuals, but he is silent as to how big a commitment that should be. Democrats are invested in generating significant resources for affordable housing construction and preservation through the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Hensarling appears to accept this in principle, while cautioning that any “new government affordable housing program needs to at least be on budget, results based, and target actual homebuyers for the purpose of buying a home they can actually afford to keep.” Democrats can work with Hensarling’s principles, although the extent of the ultimate federal funding commitment will certainly be hotly contested between the parties.

My cautious optimism feels a whole lot better than the fatalism I have felt for many years about the fate of our housing finance system. Let’s hope that soon departing Congressman Hensarling and Sen. Corker can help focus their colleagues on creating a housing finance system for the 21st century, one with broad enough support to survive the political winds that are buffeting so many other important policy areas today.

Delaying Trump’s Wall

photo by Jimmysalv

USA Today cited me in No, Cards Against Humanity Can’t Delay Trump’s Border Wall. It opens,

By now you’ve played a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity or at least heard the game makers want to buy land to block the construction of President Trump’s proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

The raunchy game, where people fill in the blank or complete sentences with terrible — but funny — things, pulls a holiday marketing stunt every year. Last year, Cards Against Humanity raised money to dig a hole. Before that, they mailed people boxes filled with actual bulls–t.

This year, they asked for $15 from customers to buy a large plot of land along the U.S./Mexico border for their “Cards Against Humanity Saves America” campaign. The promotion already sold out.

A marketing video implies they would separate acres of land into tiny pieces for each participant, in order to hold the government up in court for years. They want to make the push to build a wall time-consuming and expensive by hiring lawyers to keep the land tied up in court, according to the website.

The only problem is, that’s not how eminent domain works.

“This is a way for them to utilize their popularity with an audience most people assume are either indifferent toward political issues or at the very least unsophisticated about how things get done,” said Steve Silva, an eminent domain and land use attorney for Fennemore Craig law group in Reno. Silva has literally used eminent domain to build a wall.

“It’s got a lot of people literally buying into this issue of significant public importance,” he said.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the Federal Government to take property from people for “just compensation.” The amendment favors the government’s ability to take while also protecting an owner’s right to make money. Meaning, property owners must be paid fair-market value for the land.

Determining value is what usually ends up taking years in court, Silva said. TheCongre actual taking of the property takes very little time.

“It’s a two-step process: First thing is that the government has to prove it has the right to take the property,” he said. “Once it establishes that, it can take it immediately.”

The federal government need only establish the land will be used for the public, such as for a large wall owned by the government. Then it can basically take that acreage and start building the wall while fighting out the value in court.

“Congress can also just pass a special bill to take land,” Silva said. “They’ve done that for national parks before. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has noted that the U.S. can just seize land summarily by occupying it and ousting the former owner.

“I suspect this sort of move would be really unpopular,” he added.

So, Cards Against Humanity may end up fighting the government for years after the wall is finished.

Even if Cards Against Humanity spreads the ownership of the land out to lots of people — say, thousands of them — the Federal Government can still take the land all at once. But now those individual owners will need to fight each other, Cards Against Humanity and the government for their just compensation.

Since people paid $15 for land, it’s likely they would establish land value and get that $15 back unless Cards Against Humanity somehow improves the land or plans to build a museum, monument or even a parking lot on that space.

But again, that would only increase its value, not slow down the wall’s construction.

In an interview on Mashable.com, law professors David Reiss and Richard Epstein argued the court would reject Cards Against Humanity’ claim over the land because they’re using it for political purposes. But attorneys Silva and Lynn Blais disagree. The game makers are using land as a protest, which should be respected by the court, so their protest shouldn’t matter in eminent domain proceedings.