Housing Politics 2004: The Two Presidential Campaigns Are Staking out Their Differences on Housing Policy. Not Surprisingly, You Have to Search Hard to Find Any Mention of Housing in the Official Party Platforms

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DENISE MUHA WAS A LITTLE CONFUSED. Here it was the middle of summer in an election year, and she was supposed to be helping form a housing agenda for one of the presidential candidates--but she was not sure exactly what kind of policy statement she should be considering. * Muha, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.--based National Leased Housing Association (NLHA), sits on Sen. John Kerry's (D-Massachusetts) housing policy committee, but she confessed, "They had one meeting scheduled. I didn't know about it until the end of the day, so I missed it. Now I'm not sure what the direction is." * So much for housing as a well-thought-out plank in campaign platforms. * "There are always others issues. Housing is not the top [priority]," notes Muha, whose organization was founded in 1972 to represent the interests of both public and private-sector groups involved in federally assisted rental housing programs. * In a year of war in Iraq, terrorist threats, war in Afghanistan, an uncertain economic recovery, concerns over the intelligence community, swelling budget deficits and rising interest rates, housing will probably once again be put on the back burner.

"Housing is one of those under-the-radar issues for our nation, and for the campaigns to a great extent," adds Saul Ramirez, executive director the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO), a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents more than 3,000 agencies and nearly 18,000 professionals working in housing and community development.

While housing doesn't seem to get much traction as a campaign issue, organizations like NLHA, NAHRO and industry groups like the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) carefully monitor the presidential candidates for insights into their various future agendas.

As for President George W. Bush, he has had four years to establish a housing direction, which to some extent he has. What has been the most powerful ally in setting the Bush administration record on housing has been a near-perfect interest rate environment. Coupled with strong demographic demand for homes, the combination has produced a new record homeownership rate.

On July 29, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonso Jackson had the pleasure of releasing this statement: "There are now 73.4 million homeowners in the United States, more than at any time in history. According to the Census Bureau second-quarter data released today, the new record homeownership rate is 69.2 percent, breaking the previous record of 68.6 percent. This new record is 783,000 more than in the first quarter of 2004 and almost 1.7 million more than in the second quarter of 2003."

That is the kind of housing policy that wins votes among the general public. But it is not always the kind that housing nonprofits, think tanks and policy wonks in Washington have in mind.

One would think that with record homeownership rates and rising rates among minorities, President Bush would find himself with a lot of support from organizations supporting housing, whether in the form of low-income, affordable or public, but that is not uniformly the case.

As a presidential candidate for the White House in 2000, Bush proposed the American Dream Downpayment Initiative and made it a centerpiece of his homeownership agenda once he took office. The American Dream Downpayment Act (down-payment assistance for low- and moderate-income households) was signed into law in December 2003.

"We worked with Congress for three years to enact it," said Secretary Jackson in a June speech to the National Press Club.

June, by the way, was also National Homeownership Month, as proclaimed by President Bush.

The momentum should have been with the Bush administration on the issue of housing, but earlier this year HUD slashed the Section 8 voucher program. This raised the ire of some in the low-income housing set, and suddenly gave Sen. …