Help That Hits Home (Washington Post)

By David S. Broder

The House of Representatives, which has a penchant for spending time on issues such as the Armenian genocide of 1915, actually did something useful last week. It passed a bill to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a measure that, if it becomes law, will add 1.5 million badly needed units in the next decade.

The bill has been sought by advocates for housing and the homeless; local governments; and their allies for the better part of a decade. It was endorsed by the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders. Its champions in the House included Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the Democratic Financial Services Committee chairman, and Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who heads the housing subcommittee.

The measure, which passed the House last Wednesday, would create a separate Treasury account, similar to the Highway Trust Fund, that could be used only to build, repair or rehabilitate affordable rental units and assist firsttime home buyers with their down payments. The funds from the trust would be distributed to states and local communities, which would allocate money to people on the basis of need. The first priority would be those who are struggling hardest to find decent shelter for their families.

Sadly, their numbers have been increasing. The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard reported that in 2005, the latest year for which records are available, 2.3 million more households faced housing costs that consumed at least 30 percent of their incomes — bringing the total of such burdened households to 37.3 million. More than 8.9 million renters and 8 million homeowners had "severe" housing burdens, meaning more than half their incomes went for that purpose.

In addition, on any given night, about 750,000 people were homeless.

If it is created, the new fund is expected to have between $800 million and $1 billion a year to distribute. The money would come from a 1.2 percent charge on the value of mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-chartered, privately owned financial agencies, and a similar contribution from the reserves of the Federal Housing Administration.

Some Republicans argued that this is a backdoor way of taxing some home buyers to benefit others, but Frank insisted that no one's mortgage payments would rise as a result of the bill.

The other Republican objection was bureaucratic — an argument that this fund should be made part of another, smaller program already running at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the other program depends on annual appropriations, while this one would have an assured source of money not subject to the vagaries of the congressional budget process.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who spoke in favor of the bill, noted that her state, like several others, has a housing trust fund of its own and said she welcomed the aid that the federal fund could provide — with great flexibility on its use.

The bad news is that prospects for Senate action are uncertain, in part because Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Frank's counterpart on the Senate's banking and housing committee, is preoccupied with his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

And the Bush administration has warned that the measure could face a presidential veto if it gets that far in anything like its present form. An Oct. 9 memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget, which said it would recommend a veto, argued that the trust fund proposal would "disrupt the appropriations process" and might even lead the FHA to "ration credit."

The spending issue is the same one that has caused the president to strike down the proposed expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

The bill creating the Housing Trust Fund passed 264 to 148 — 26 votes short of the maximum two-thirds majority needed to override a veto but with 23 members absent and uncounted.

Housing is not a sexy issue for presidents or presidential candidates. The House action drew almost no newspaper coverage. But housing is as important to people as food and drink — and life itself. Will the Senate act? Will the president recant? I will keep reporting this story.