Housing experts call for help for needy

WASHINGTON — In a break from harsh, election-year economic rhetoric, a bipartisan group of housing experts is issuing a joint call for tax cuts, expanded funding and other strategies to help millions of Americans stranded in substandard housing or homelessness, despite record homeownership levels.

In a book being released Thursday, Opportunity and Progress, four prominent Democrats and Republicans set out recommendations that include: a federal law barring predatory lending, incentives for employers to assist worker housing, a National Housing Trust Fund, a federal tax credit for low-income buyers and expanded housing for the chronically homeless. “It’s a continuum that begins with housing for the most underprivileged … through tax credits for homeowners,” says Henry Cisneros, former Democratic secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “It’s a bipartisan call to treat housing as a serious domestic issue.”

Cisneros is one of a group that includes Jack Kemp, a former Republican HUD secretary; Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies; and Kent Colton, former CEO of the National Association of Home Builders.

The proposals embrace the conservative standard of tax incentives and the federal spending that has been favored by liberals. Among them:

• A federal law prohibiting predatory lending, a term describing practices such as loans to individuals who do not have the income to repay, and “flipping,” in which loans are repeatedly refinanced with no benefit to borrowers. The group also suggests clear standards for high-cost loans.

• Tax and other incentives for employer-assisted affordable housing. Given that housing costs have outstripped wages, the government should help employer efforts to provide worker housing, such as down-payment assistance, the four say. Possibilities include tax incentives, federal funding and encouraging mortgage investors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to tailor products for employer-aided housing. They also suggest steps by Fannie and Freddie to expand the availability of affordable mortgages.

• A National Housing Trust Fund to support building, preserving and rehabilitating of 1.5 million affordable housing units in the next decade.

• A homeownership tax credit to help low-income borrowers and community development efforts.