The American Dream is dying. Or at least that’s how it may feel to millions of Americans priced out of the housing market. Since the 2008 financial crash that led to the Great Recession, middle and low-income individuals have seen the U.S. economy recover but have had little encouragement to buy a new home or to upgrade their rental property.
For the last nine years, the Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been in conservatorship. This federal takeover was only meant to help keep the housing market afloat during the financial crisis. It was never intended to last this long. So, while our country continues to rebuild its financial strength, these mortgage giants are stuck in limbo, leaving taxpayers on the hook in case there is another crisis.
This is short-sighted and dangerous. Many low-to-moderate income individuals and families are struggling to find affordable housing. It’s up to Congress to reform our housing finance system; and when determining a solution to the current mess, policymakers would be wise to focus on placing more private capital at risk, maintaining the stability of the primary and secondary mortgage markets, and creating real opportunities to strengthen affordable housing for Americans who need it most — especially minorities and millennials.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, only 35.2 percent of adults under the age of 35 and 41.7 percent of low-income households own homes. These are some of the lowest numbers we’ve seen among these groups in decades and it’s not because they don’t want to buy a home — it’s because they can’t. Unfortunately, it’s our own system that’s putting homeownership out of reach —and Congress can do something about that.
As Lieutenant Governor, I saw how important homeownership was to communities and families across Maryland. I knew homeownership was good for the economy, valuable for family stability, and, importantly, beneficial for civic involvement across communities.
I was fortunate to work with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to launch the American Dream Downpayment Initiative (ADDI) that provided $2.8 million in funding to low-income and first-time homebuyers in Maryland. This program, coupled with the critical 30-year fixed mortgage rate, encouraged many of these individuals to pursue their American Dream.
And that is exactly what our system should do.
Under a reformed housing system, we must have more competition that promotes ample amounts of credit. More credit would increase liquidity, encourage more construction, and drive down the extremely high cost of homes and rental units.
Additionally, Congress must find a way to promote affordable housing while preserving the 30-year fixed mortgage rate. In fact, they could start by looking at the “More House For Less” program we implemented in Maryland which provides downpayment assistance and interest rate reductions for homebuyers. Within the first year of the program we placed over 4,000 families in their first home.
Such initiatives using already available funds to provide reduced interest rates, closing costs and downpayment assistance can be the cornerstone of aiding more millennials and low-income individuals in overcoming the financial obstacles to homeownership.
It may seem sometimes like our congressional leaders spend most of their time blaming members of the opposing party for our country’s problems. Politics aside, we will all be left to blame if, and when, another financial disaster strikes. Our lawmakers must unite around a competitive housing market — and one that ensures affordable housing.
Thankfully, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, as well as key Trump administration officials, are taking action to address the current state of our housing finance system. If Congress can pull together and pass meaningful legislation, I am confident President Trump would sign the bill into law.
This is not an issue meant for scoring political points; it’s an issue that affects millions of Americans. The time has come to restore hope in homeownership — and, by extension, the American Dream itself.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, former Lt. Governor of Maryland, and a political analyst at MSNBC.