Frustrated by the glacial pace of housing finance reform, the conservator overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac proposed his own path to winding down the two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).
On Tuesday, Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), sent Congress a strategic plan for the future of the GSEs. And while the proposal is mainly aimed at the single-family market, it notes some key differences between the for-sale and rental sides of the GSEs.
Unlike the single-family business divisions, the GSEs’ multifamily businesses have weathered the housing crisis well and generated positive cash flow, DeMarco writes. “Given these conditions, generating potential value for taxpayers and contracting the enterprises’ multifamily market footprint should be approached differently from single-family, and may be accomplished using a much different and more direct method,” the report reads.
The National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), which has spent the past few years trying to highlight these differences, cheered the report.
“This is the first time a written housing finance proposal has explicitly called for a separate multifamily solution,” said Cindy Chetti, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.–based NMHC, in a joint statement with the National Apartment Association. “The multifamily solution should be expedited and not held back while solutions to the far more complex single-family problems are sought.”
The FHFA calls for the GSEs to conduct an analysis of what their multifamily operations would look like in a fully private market. The analysis will look at whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s multifamily business models can operate effectively on a stand-alone basis—basically measuring the degree to which private capital can be attracted and retained without the safety net of a government guarantee.
That study may be the first step toward a privatization of the GSEs’ multifamily divisions, a plan that both Fannie and Freddie have proposed to the FHFA in the past.
While a positive step, the proposal was born out of frustration, as DeMarco noted that even after three years, there’s “no near-term resolution in sight.” The common wisdom in the nation's capital is that nothing will be done on GSE reform this year, and that even once the debate begins in earnest, overhauling our country’s housing finance system is still a multiyear process.
For GSE staff, which has operated in limbo since September 2008, the challenge is in staying focused on the task at hand.
“Everybody recognizes that there are going to be some parties that have ultimate say over what happens with Fannie Mae,” says Jeff Hayward, executive vice president of multifamily at Washington, D.C.–based Fannie. “As it relates to our future, there’s a key recognition among everybody here that they don’t really control it. But what we can control is running our business well and doing what we’re supposed to do—bring stability and liquidity to the market and try to help affordability.”
Meanwhile, the FHFA has added a new and friendly face to its Office of Housing and Regulatory Policy. Chris Tawa, a longtime GSE originator who has spent the past few years as a senior adviser in the multifamily division of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will soon join the agency to supervise the team that oversees Fannie and Freddie’s multifamily programs and policies.