Rethinking The Federal Home Loan Bank System

photo by Tony Webster

Law360 published my column, Time To Rethink The Federal Home Loan Bank System. It opens,

The Federal Housing Finance Agency is commencing a comprehensive review of an esoteric but important part of our financial infrastructure this month. The review is called “Federal Home Loan Bank System at 100: Focusing on the Future.”

It is a bit of misnomer, as the system is only 90 years old. Congress brought it into existence in 1932 as one of the first major legislative responses to the Great Depression. But the name of the review also signals that the next 10 years should be a period of reflection regarding the proper role of the system in our broader financial infrastructure.

Just as the name of the review process is a bit misleading, so is the name of the Federal Home Loan Bank system itself. While it was originally designed to support homeownership, it has morphed into a provider of liquidity for large financial institutions.

Banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citibank NA and Wells Fargo & Co. are among its biggest beneficiaries and homeownership is only incidentally supported by their involvement with it.

As part of the comprehensive review of the system, we should give thought to at least changing the name of the system so that it cannot trade on its history as a supporter of affordable homeownership. But we should go even farther and give some thought to spinning off its functions into other parts of the federal financial infrastructure as its functions are redundant with theirs. 

Tuesday’s Regulatory & Legislative Round-Up

Thursday’s Advocacy & Think Tank Round-Up

Housing Subsidies For Those Who Need Them

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted Aligning Federal Low Income Housing Programs with Housing Need. The Executive Summary goes right to the heart of the matter:

The number of renters in the United States has steadily increased since 2006 and will continue to rise as new households form in the post-recession economy. In 2012, one out of four renter households had incomes at or below 30% of the area median income (AMI) for a total of 10.3 million households categorized as extremely low income (ELI). In the same year there were just 3.2 million units affordable and available to ELI households, creating a shortage of 7.1 million rental units affordable to these households.

Despite this evidence of a substantial need for deeply affordable rental housing, the low income housing resources that are provided by the federal government are only able to reach 23% of the eligible population. (iii)
This study looks at the extent to which the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), the HOME program and the Federal Home Loan Banks’ Affordable Housing Program (AHP) serve ELI households. It finds that in general, “these three programs do not serve ELI households on their own. Their ability to serve ELI households depends on the addition of one or more forms of subsidy, usually housing choice vouchers (HCV).” (iii)
The study identifies common themes from its research on this topic:
  • Developers layer multiple funding sources while adapting to rapidly changing political and fiscal environments. Many also rely on non-traditional resources, such as private donations, to fill funding gaps.
  • Reducing or eliminating mortgage debt is critical to be able to serve ELI households.
  • Cultivating strong local partnerships is a key factor affecting developers’ ability to serve ELI households. Often, local jurisdictions that have prioritized affordable housing are willing to donate land or property at a low cost.
  • Cross-subsidization is an important strategy used by many developers committed to inclusive properties that serve ELI households. This strategy incorporates units affordable to ELI households into projects containing other units occupied by households with a broader mix of incomes. The rents paid by higher income households supplement the overall operating expenses of the project, compensating for the lower rents that ELI households can afford.
  • While the case studies highlighted some very effective strategies for serving ELI households without the use of vouchers, there is not one model that can be easily replicated. (iii-iv)

None of this is particularly earth shattering, but it is useful to to look into this topic in a systematic way. The Coalition hopes that this report “will contribute to the broader conversation about simplifying the process of financing affordable housing developments, refining existing programs so that they incentivize developers to serve ELI households, and finding ways to fund the ongoing operating costs of units that do serve ELI renters.” (iv)

As an off-the-cuff response, I wonder if the nation’s affordable housing agenda is benefited from such a complex funding environment for housing for extremely low income households. Can it just be funded more comprehensively, acknowledging the reality that it requires deep subsidies from the get-go? What is the opportunity cost of requiring developers to devote so much time to creating such complicated deal structures? In the current political environment, I doubt that affordable housing advocates have the stomach to raise these questions, lest Congress decides to cut back affordable housing subsidies even further. But in the long term, these are questions worth asking.