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WASHINGTON, DC-With a longstanding reputation for being difficult to work with, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has made a number of policy changes aimed at making its FHA program easier to navigate for affordable housing players. The move is an effort to streamline the way the agency processes multifamily mortgage insurance applications involving low-income housing tax credits and make its FHA program more competitive when it comes to financing affordable projects.

The policy, which HUD announced last week, contains four program changes that give hubs and program centers more discretion in processing; cuts costs during the application and transaction processes; and improves the coordination between the department, borrowers and tax credit allocation agencies. There are two major changes that “dramatically improve the way the tax credit program and the mortgage insurance program fit together,” relates Cathy Pharis, a director with Deutsche Bank Berkshire Mortgage in Bethesda, MD.

The first is aimed to make FHA more in line with traditional financing. Until now, HUD required that all of the tax credit equity for a project be funded at closing of the construction loan. Now, only 20% of the equity must be put up at initial endorsement, with the balance to be paid over the development period. This, says Pharis, can increase tax credit pricing because the investors don’t need to put up the money as early in the development process.

The second change is that, assuming an experienced development team, HUD will bestow its firm commitment based upon schematic plans and specifications, whereas previously a developer needed to provide final plans with the commitment application. According to Pharis, this “allows developers to get firm commitments from HUD earlier in the development cycle, which increases certainty of execution and makes the deal work better.” The commitment will still be contingent upon receipt of final plans and specs, reviewed by the lender, prior to closing, but the change is meant to better align the FHA process with the tax credit process, allowing borrowers to lock in rates and close loans sooner.

HUD is also, now, requiring each hub and program center to designate a LIHTC coordinator, which will oversee the program and work with the local housing credit allocation agency to synchronize tax credit funding cycles with the FHA application process. Additionally, a developer may obtain firm commitments from HUD before its HUD-2530 application is approved, with conditions.

The changes, effective immediately, were the result of a collaboration of the mortgage industry and HUD, says Pharis, who chaired the Mortgage Bankers Association task force that worked with HUD. “To HUD’s credit, they saw they had a very low market share in an industry–the tax credit industry–that they really should be a very heavy player in. They needed to do something to increase their market share and become a more viable financing option. The industry is very pleased with how far HUD has gone. We think it shows very good effort on their part.”

While there are certainly additional issues that were not addressed by the new policy, Pharis maintains that these changes alone show that the agency is willing to work better with the industry. “This is such a huge step for them, so we first need to see how this works and then tweak it, as needed, going forward,” she relates. “There is every indication that HUD is going to do right by the program and move this in the right direction.”

The response from industry players, meanwhile, has been overwhelmingly positive. Pharis says that her clients are “extremely excited” about the changes, for various reasons. For one, developers with projects already in the works will benefit from the deferred equity investment. New developments will benefit from the shorter timeframes resulting from the earlier commitment. “Equity prices have declined dramatically over the past six to eight months as the credit markets have deteriorated, so they’re trying to do everything they can to try to make the deals work better. This will help,” she explains.

As for those developers who are in the planning process for projects, the fact that they don’t have to have concrete specs in place is leading them to reconsider FHA as a financing option. “It’s actually getting some interest from some of our borrowers who have traditionally not been favorably inclined toward the HUD programs due to the timeframe and lack of certainty,” says Pharis.

Given the problems in the credit markets, HUD’s alleviating the challenges to its programs and willingness to become more aggressive in the marketplace will almost certainly increase the number of projects that are funded through the program. “With all of the credit markets in flux, we need one player who is going to remain stable,” says the executive. “That has traditionally been HUD, but until now it hasn’t been able to make its programs marry well with the tax credit program. I think there will be a lot of borrowers playing in the HUD arena that weren’t willing to do so before.”

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