Last Thursday, June 18, 2015, the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families announced the launch of their multi-year effort to elevate America’s silent affordable housing crisis to the national political agenda. The Foundation was created last year by Ron Terwilliger, the former CEO of Trammel Crow Residential, who has been responsible for the development of hundreds of thousands of Multifamily apartments. Ron has a passion for the goal of assuring every American a safe and decent affordable home. The announcement was made at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. and was attended by Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, who spoke to the standing room only audience. Jones Walker’s Rick Lazio served as the emcee of the event and moderated a panel with included Henry Cisneros, former HUD Secretary, Dave Stevens, former FHA Commissioner and the current head of the Mortgage Bankers Association and former United States Senator Scott Brown.
The focus was on how the Foundation might leverage the presidential primary process to highlight the affordable housing issues. Senator Brown shared his personal story of moving 17 times as a child and the disruption, chaos and insecurity that it caused. A short film was introduced that will be aired in New Hampshire, the first in the nation primary state. The film featured a New Hampshire grandfather paying more than he can afford in rent to keep his grandchildren together, a local young woman struggling to make her housing payments while saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of student debt and an elderly woman in despair over rising costs that outstrip her ability to pay for the ground lease on her mobile home. These stories are common in New Hampshire, Brown said.
Lazio noted that some presidential candidates thought that these issues were just impacting high cost areas like New York City or San Francisco. But in fact, the percentage of Americans who are rent burdened has doubled over the past 50 years and those that are extremely rent burdened (by paying more than half of their income in rent) has increased by a third since 2000, to over a quarter of all renters. Every state in the union is experiencing this stress. And it’s not just renters; homeowners are struggling too. Over 8 million homeowners are paying more than half of their income on housing costs. The crisis is silent in part because for many the struggle is embarrassing and they prefer to suffer in private. We don’t see the visible signs of living on the street. But behind closed doors many Americans are being forced to make toxic tradeoffs, like putting off getting medical attention for their children, skipping meals and giving up opportunities to build work skills. The panel said that millions of Americans today are stuck between a rental market they can no longer afford and a homeownership market for which they do not qualify. The burdens are national in scope, effecting families in urban, suburban and rural areas. Cisneros talked about the relationships between poor housing choices and bad health and educational outcomes.
A previous panel discussed how demographics will shape the housing industry, with demand for affordable housing rising rapidly in the years ahead. Minorities will overwhelmingly drive demand for new housing over the next two decades. Millennials will also be a force. And aging Baby Boomers will need new appropriate choices as they retire.
The Foundation will be active in the early presidential primary states and will call upon the presidential candidates of both parties to lay out their vision for affordable housing. It was pointed out that the timing for this effort is right: the national elections will take place next year, the housing crisis is impacting our economy and the statistics are compelling. Silence is no longer an option. Lazio pointed out that the last President to mention affordable housing in a State of the Union speech was President Jimmy Carter in 1981, as he was leaving office. This time must be different. This time voices for a meaningful state and national housing policy must stand together. This time our leaders need to acknowledge the affordability crisis that has been growing and provide leadership to reshape our housing agenda to help those in need.
The Terwilliger Foundation simultaneously released a White Paper titled “The Silent Housing Crisis: a Snapshot of Current and Future Conditions.” Our blog team recommends that those who are interested visit the website www.jrthousing.org to learn more. Please join us in raising awareness with a call to action.