Biden White House to unveil steps aimed at easing housing supply shortage

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The Biden administration is poised to unveil a series of steps aimed at addressing the U.S. shortage of entry-level homes and rental properties, according to people familiar with the matter, moves designed to boost their financing and construction over the coming years.

The changes would draw upon the administrative authority of government regulators such as the Federal Housing Finance Agency as Congress weighs broader policy changes tied to the debate over revamping U.S. infrastructure, according to a draft plan reviewed Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal. Details could change before the White House releases its final version. FHFA oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants that back about half of the $11 trillion mortgage market.

Individually, each regulatory move is technical and modest. Collectively, though, "they should have a meaningful impact, particularly because they are all focused on the lower end of the market, where there is the most need," said Jim Parrott, a former Obama administration housing adviser, commenting on the draft.

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The White House was expected to announce the moves as early as Wednesday, one of the people said.

One change would allow Fannie and Freddie to invest more of their resources into rental housing by boosting an existing regulatory cap on their investments in apartment projects supported by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. A second would expand an existing competitive grant program for Community Development Financial Institutions, to encourage affordable housing production. Yet another would increase the financing available for manufactured homes, which are built in factories rather than on a lot. They typically cost much less than homes built on sites and are often occupied by lower-income residents.

Additional changes would give first-time home buyers and philanthropies a chance to buy distressed properties insured by the Federal Housing Administration, aiming to give them a leg up against investors that have snapped up many such properties in recent years.

The administration can make the changes without congressional action.

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Limited supply has been a recent driver of rising housing prices for renters and home buyers, alongside robust demand. The median existing-home price in July was $359,900, the National Association of Realtors said earlier this month, up 18% from a year earlier. That was just slightly below the record $362,800 median price reported the prior month.

Construction of new housing in the past 20 years fell 5.5 million units short of long-term historical levels, according to a June report by the NAR.

This year’s housing boom has been unusually widespread, with house prices soaring in big cities, suburbs, and small towns. The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped where and how Americans want to live, as many households sought more space to work from home and remote workers could live farther from their offices.

The proposals come as Congress debates a series of additional moves backed by the Biden administration to boost the supply of affordable housing, including a grant program of at least $5 billion to ease so-called exclusionary zoning laws, such as minimum lot sizes or prohibitions on multifamily housing. The administration says such rules have inflated housing and construction costs and locked families out of areas with jobs and other economic opportunities.

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Some economists and urbanists say easing such zoning rules would help expand the supply of dwellings available for rent or sale, which is the tightest in 30 years. Local regulations on environmental protection and road, school, and sewer capacity often have strong support among residents, who generally want to keep property values high.

As part of the expected administration moves, the FHFA is expected to announce that it will study the degree to which Fannie and Freddie’s activities are concentrated in jurisdictions with exclusionary zoning.

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