Nicolas P. Retsinas, Director of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies

Article excerpt

Nicolas P. Retsinas is an academic. But don't worry; to the director of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS), "academic" is neither a four-letter word nor an especially fulsome description of his professional life.

For nearly a decade since his 1998 appointment as JCHS director, Retsinas has stood above the fray of the daily trench warfare of housing policy-making and politics, but definitely not out of the game.

Prior to his Harvard appointment, he served as assistant secretary for housing-federal housing commissioner at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and as director of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Retsinas also served on the boards of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Federal Housing Finance Board (FHFB) and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (NRC).

He was executive director of the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation from 1987 to 1993, and received his master's degree in city planning from Harvard University and his bachelor of arts degree in economics from New York University, New York.

In Cambridge, the JCHS's proverbial ivory tower would perhaps be better characterized as a watchtower on an ancient sailing ship. From this vantage point, Retsinas and the Joint Center's researchers man the "crow's nest" to look far beyond the horizon line in search of calmer seas or the proverbial iceberg dead ahead.

Each year, the center releases the results of its "lookout" observations in the form of its annual State of the Nation's Housing report. The 2007 State of the Nation's Housing report was released in June (see related story in Briefing Book).

Retsinas has lectured and written extensively on housing, community development and banking issues. His most recent book--Our Communities, Our Homes: Pathways to Housing and Homeownership in America's Cities and States--is a collaboration among Retsinas and his co-authors, fellow JCHS scholar Kent W. Colton and former HUD Secretaries Henry Cisneros and Jack Kemp.

Retsinas recently spoke with Mortgage Banking in a telephone interview about the new JCHS annual report, his book and the future of the housing market in the United States over the next decade.

Q: The upshot of the Joint Center's report seems to be that the long-term outlook for the housing market is favorable, but for the here and now, the current painful correction is likely to get worse before it gets better. Is that an accurate synopsis, and how would you describe the annual report's main take-away point?

A: Clearly, the headline of the report is a codification of what is now obvious to all--which is that we're in the midst of a very substantial correction. As we look back, it is clear that in part, that relates from a phenomenon of builders overbuilding and lenders overlending.

So it's not an unfamiliar scenario, and in the report we try to quantify exactly what that is and how long this slump and this correction will be. At the same time, we try to put it in perspective.

You are right to observe that over the long run, we have found that the best predictor of the housing market is the rate of household formation. Looking at those demographics, it would appear that ... we are likely to form more households over the next decade than we did over the past decade.

We try to again put that in context. You were right to note that we are in for a prolonged slump and, probably as significantly, even when we start to turn we're unlikely to turn back up to mirror the period we just went through.

Q: The report specifically cites housing affordability as a continuing challenge due to myriad factors, including the nature of the U.S. labor market and regulatory restrictions on development, in addition to regular housing market forces. Could you give a brief overview of the "housing affordability problem," and what you see as the prospects for relief or easing? …