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Economy & Business

National housing forum to focus on St. Louis innovations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 31, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Ever since the housing bubble popped four years ago, politicians and policy experts have been scrambling to find effective models – including private-public partnerships – to help low- and moderate-income Americans afford good housing.

Next week, a regional public forum in St. Louis – sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Jack Kemp Foundation – will show off some innovative local housing projects and engage housing experts, political leaders and economists in discussions of how to restore the health of the nation’s housing.

The forum will feature former Missouri governor and U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, a Republican who is co-chair of the BPC’s housing commission, which is preparing a major report on possible solutions to the nation’s housing problems.

Others speaking at the June 5 forum will include Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard; U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan, both D-St. Louis; and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat. Among the expert speakers will be Michael Bodaken, executive director of the National Housing Trust.

“We've got so many people who can show off what we've done in St. Louis” on housing, Bond told the Beacon earlier this year. He and other BPC commissioners plan to tour the Murphy Park, Renaissance Place and 6 North housing developments with their expert guide Richard Baron, who chairs the firm McCormack Baron Salazar.

According to a BPC fact sheet, that tour “will explain how the developments provide affordable housing and services that address a full range of needs for seniors and families.” For example, Murphy Park includes a community-based elementary school.

The St. Louis session is one of four regional forums, with the others held in San Antonio, Tex.; Orlando, Fla.; and Bangor, Me. The other co-chairs of the BPC housing commission, named in December, are former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros, both Democrats, as well as former HUD secretary and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican.

At the St. Louis forum, the BPC plans to release a new report that gives an overview of the nationwide challenges to affordable housing and community development, as well as the status of government programs relating to those issues. Among the issues to be discussed are public-private partnerships for housing as well as efforts to link housing to comprehensive resident services, homebuyer education programs and rental housing preservation.

The meeting at the Westin St. Louis hotel also will include a public forum on housing moderated by Jimmy Kemp, president of the Jack Kemp Foundation, which describes itself as a “charitable organization committed to advancing the universal values of the American idea of growth, freedom, democracy and hope.”

The younger Jimmy Kemp is the son of the late Jack Kemp, a former NFL quarterback, congressman and HUD secretary who promoted tenant ownership of public housing and private-public partnerships to address housing problems. 

In an interview in January, Bond said the commission wants to help find ways to bolster the nation's struggling housing industry. “I hope we can agree on some significant issues," Bond said.

The former four-term senator said he feels the U.S. housing finance system “was set up to push homes on people who could not afford them” – and he blamed its collapse in 2008 on “all the geniuses on Wall Street who sliced and diced this 'toxic paper' while the ratings agencies were asleep at the wheel.”

At its regional forum last month in Florida, the BPC released a new housing study by the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. The report examined other countries’ housing finance systems and regulatory structures, finding that small interventions early on helped keep some housing markets from reaching crisis levels.

The study found that the U.S. housing finance system stands out for having a mortgage interest tax deduction, no fees for prepaying mortgages, and a relatively high proportion of long-term fixed rate loans. While two-thirds of American households own their homes, the U.S. government’s role in housing production is relatively small.

One of the report’s authors, Ashok Bardhan, said in a statement that “policymakers will have to weigh these pros and cons and determine whether it is possible to strike an optimal balance in housing policy that would retain its dynamic features and encourage mobility, while still protecting homeowners and borrowers from foreclosure and significant financial losses and lenders from heightened risk.”

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