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Members of the Washington, DC-based National Low Income Housing Coalition clearly like being heard, and when you talk with president Sheila Crowley these days you can pick up on a sense of post-election empowerment. Virtually days after the election, the group held a press conference to both underscore the ongoing and increasingly critical state of affordable housing and unveil a series of measures jointly supported by the NLIHC and incoming House Financial Services Committee chair Barney Frank (D-MA). These included the creation of an affordable housing trust, the redirection of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac profits toward affordable housing and streamlining the tax-credit program. In an exclusive interview a day after the press conference, Crowley painted a picture of the affordable housing landscape in colors both bleak and bright.

GlobeSt.com: A key point brought out during the press conference was that affordable housing is no longer affordable. But that’s been true for quite a while. The difference now?

Crowley: It has been true for the past three decades or so, but it wasn’t always true, and there have been periods when we have had a sufficient supply of housing for everyone in the market. Now there’s an absolute shortage. There are 1.7 million more households, with incomes of 30% of mean income or less, than there are units they could afford. And many of the units they can afford are rented by higher-income people. So the overall shortage is about 4.5 million units.

GlobeSt.com: Isn’t much of this driven by properties going market rate?

Crowley: It’s significant but it’s certainly not the only problem. It’s not like the federal programs were ever enough. In theory, the people living in that housing still have assistance through vouchers. But vouchers are only as good as the market in which someone is shopping. If there is an insufficient supply at that level in the private market the voucher doesn’t do much good. If there were money to be made someone would have figured this out because there’s a huge pent-up demand. It’s classic Economics 101.

GlobeSt.com: Certainly it’s not all greedy developers and a stiff-necked Congress. There are acts of God. It was interesting that one of Frank’s first focuses would be the Gulf Coast.

Crowley: The crisis is epic.

GlobeSt.com: How many people are we talking about?

Crowley: Our initial estimates were about 300,000 units that were lost or severely damaged, and 71% of that was affordable. But much of the resources dedicated to bringing back housing is going to private homeowners, and it’s coming out very slowly.

GlobeSt.com: But how much can Frank’s proposal of rerouting Fannie and Freddie profits alleviate the problem?

Crowley: The estimate is that the funds would be between $500 million and $1 billion annually, depending on the calculations and the financial status of the government-sponsored enterprises when the calculation is done. The money that would come from the GSEs is a relatively small amount compared to everything else that’s going down there, but it would be dedicated to the lowest-income people–where the least amount of money has been dedicated at this point.

GlobeSt.com: In other matters, how does he propose to streamline the tax-credit program?

Crowley: There’s been a fair amount of reluctance to open up debate about the tax credit in this less-than-friendly political environment. Now that Mr. [Charles] Rangel is chairing the Ways and Means Committee–and he is considered the father of the tax credit–there’s some room for work on those things. Mr. Frank is talking about harmonizing it with the other federal housing programs so you could layer funding in a more efficient way and make it less expensive to build housing. We’d like to see the tax-credit program better assist the development of rental housing for a lower-income population. The credit now serves very well people in the 40%-to-60% band of median income, but it doesn’t serve well people below that. So we’re working on proposals to make the tax credits work better for that population.

GlobeSt.com: How much would that alleviate the lack of housing?

Crowley: It depends on how much it is and what the resources are. We need a program that is going to produce about 150,000 units a year over 10 years–1.5 million units of rental housing affordable to the lowest-income people. If we do that as well as continue the other programs and put more vouchers out there, this would turn the tide. But it has to be a concerted effort. Of course, the other problem is community will.

GlobeSt.com: Meaning . . . ?Crowley: People allowing rental housing for poor people into their communities.

GlobeSt.com: The other proposal was the trust fund. Where would it reside and where would funds come from?

Crowley: That proposal as currently configured would use money from the FHA, but the FHA program has diminished in recent years. So we’re looking at other sources, and the GSE-profit structure is one. It’s a logistical problem with great political ramifications. When you ask members of Congress to do something, the first question they ask is how much will come to their districts. So there are those parochial considerations that have to be taken into account. In pure policy terms, if I were queen for a day, I would set up an independent nonprofit called the National Housing Trust Fund chartered by Congress. It would have a board with the right people to oversee the program and allocate funding. They should monitor the money’s distribution and report back to Congress every year.

GlobeSt.com: Is that more viable with the new Congress?

Crowley: Getting a trust fund established and getting the funding is very viable.

GlobeSt.com: And the queen-for-a-day scenario?

Crowley: The distribution mechanisms are all about horse trading.

GlobeSt.com: How do you go about incentivizing market-rate developers?

Crowley: They have to make money at it, and we hope that’s what the trust fund would do. It would put the capital money in there.

GlobeSt.com: In all, it’s a better political environment you’re dealing with, correct?

Crowley: Absolutely. We no longer have to explain that there is a housing problem and you don’t have to convince people that there’s a role for government. I’m optimistic, but I also recognize that there are a couple of big problems.

GlobeSt.com: Like?

Crowley: We have no money. The government is in a deep financial hole, and it’s only going to get deeper because of the war. The ability of the new Congress to change policy and redirect funds to discretionary domestic programs is relatively limited in the current environment. In addition, we’re looking at a two-year period in which we have a divided government with a president that hasn’t made this much of an issue.

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