Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Rural Gets a Welcome Spotlight in National Housing Policy Report

By David R. Dangler, director, NeighborWorks Rural Initiative

The Bipartisan Center’s Housing Commission recently released Housing America’s Future:  New Directions for National Policy.  From the introduction we learn that the report is, “the culmination of a 16-month examination of some of the key issues in housing, provides a blueprint for an entirely new system of housing finance for both the ownership and rental markets.” 

The first wave of reactions to the report have naturally focused on the recommendations to wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while re-affirming the importance of sustainable homeownership as integral to the American dream, to engage the private sector more broadly in housing finance, and to remember and include the lowest income renters when allocating increasingly scarce resources. For those working in rural housing, however, what jumped out for many of us was chapter five, “The Importance of Rural Housing."

The rural recommendations give a welcome affirmation to USDA Rural Development’s “primary responsibility” for housing rural Americans, noting “higher poverty rates and lower incomes” which add to rural housing’s affordability burdens. With all the public policy focus on consolidating federal housing programs, the commission’s clear language around keeping rural housing programs at USDA is especially welcome to many.

The report includes four rural policy recommendations: 

1.    Support and strengthen USDA’s role in rural housing.
2.    Extend the current definition of rural areas through the year 2020.
3.    Increase budget allocations to serve more households.
4.    Dedicate resources for capacity-building and technology to strengthen USDA providers

If implemented, these recommendations would dovetail neatly with NeighborWorks America’s own efforts in concert with other national intermediaries—HAC, Rural LISC and Habitat for Humanity—to strengthen the rural nonprofit service delivery system.

Starting well before the Great Recession, NeighborWorks America has consistently prioritized a national partnership between credentialed nonprofits and USDA Rural Development (RD). The thinking has been that there would be a variety of ways for an increasingly professional nonprofit infrastructure to fill in key customer service gaps that would open as RD decreased its field offices and personnel. For example, the packaging of 502 Direct loan applications for RD area offices is about to transition from a handful of pilots to a mainstreamed model for others to follow.

Given the unique interdependence of rural-serving nonprofits and USDA Rural Development, chapter five brings a welcome focus to the issue of rural housing, but as with so many blue ribbon reports, the real value will be in the degree to which the report's recommendations become policy.