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There was major action on the Home Opportunity front in 2013, the result of persistent activism by advocates, joined by millions of everyday Americans.  The gains set the stage for much-needed relief to homeowners, more equal opportunity for diverse communities, a boost to our economy, and a reinvigoration of the American Dream.  But those outcomes are far from guaranteed, and we could easily screw it up.  Let’s not.

Two major milestones from 2013 help tell the tale of the year’s progress and peril (a report by The Opportunity Agenda due early next year will cover in detail 2013’s Home Opportunity successes and setbacks).

First, fair housing.  There’s broad and unprecedented agreement in our nation that what you look like, where you come from, what accent you may have or whether your family includes children should not be an impediment to your housing opportunities.  That’s a big, positive change from most of the 20th century.  But, despite that progress, major obstacles to fair housing persist, requiring fresh attention and innovative approaches.  Just last month, for example, the City of Los Angeles sued Wells Fargo and Citigroup for mortgage discrimination that the City says caused a wave of unnecessary foreclosures and a tremendous loss of wealth in predominantly Latino and African-American communities. 

The good news on the fair housing front arrived earlier in 2013, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released new fair housing protections.  Final regulations issued by HUD concretized the commonsense understanding that practices which unnecessarily exclude people from housing based on race, gender, or other covered characteristics—for example, through exclusionary zoning or the concentration of affordable housing only in minority neighborhoods—violate the Fair Housing Act, whether or not they’re motivated by intentional bigotry or bias. 

Proposed regulations released by HUD several months later seek to uphold the Department’s longstanding statutory duty to “affirmatively further” fair housing across its programs and activities—including when a city or town seeks HUD funding to implement housing and community development initiatives.  The proposed regulations adopted many of the recommendations made by The Opportunity Agenda and other fair housing experts for fostering more diverse, equitable, and prosperous communities across our nation.

Together, these regulations can help close the gap between our national values of equal housing opportunity and the reality in too many communities across the nation.  But there’s more to be done.

The second milestone came in December, when the Senate confirmed Congressman Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the body that oversees mortgage backers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Watt’s confirmation ends the disastrous reign of former FHFA acting-head Edward DeMarco, a Bush Administration holdover who resisted basic efforts to stem foreclosures or to address the harm caused by lending industry abuses, contrary to recommendations by economists and experts. 

In addition to the persistent urgency of adjusting loan principal to fair market value for underwater victims of predatory lending and other abuses, the FHFA has an important role to play regarding the availability of affordable rental housing and the accessibility of successful homeownership into the future.  As a leader with a longstanding commitment to consumer protection and economic growth, Congressman (now Director) Watt may be the hero that homeowners and our economy have been waiting for.  Even before his first day (January 6), he announced that he would suspend for further study several DeMarco decisions that would make homeownership more expensive and less sustainable.

These and other 2013 milestones represent hard-fought victories by advocates, organizers, and everyday folk, who have pushed hard for change even as many of them lost their own homes and economic security.  The campaign to #DumpDeMarco and Hire a Hero gained momentum, power, and ultimately success, over many months.  It overcame Beltway skepticism and recalcitrance, and helped drive the change in Senate filibuster rules. 

But we’re a long way from the finish line.  FHFA Director Watt must hit the ground running with major administrative reforms designed to get homeownership, affordable housing, and the larger economy back on track.  HUD must release final regulations on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing and rigorously enforce its new rules while helping communities to comply.  Congress and the President must craft a new, long-term vision for the evolution of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that advances successful homeownership, equal opportunity, responsible lending, and affordable housing across our nation.  The Compact for Home Opportunity, released at the start of 2013 by The Opportunity Agenda and its allies, includes additional recommendations for governments, banks, civic groups, and communities.

None of these things will happen on their own.  They require continued advocacy, leadership, and innovation.  But the activism and progress of 2013 make clear that we can accomplish great things in the year to come.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/USDAgov (CC BY 2.0)


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