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J. Ronald Terwilliger: Momentum for housing policy change is growing

The right to housing is universal and this is why

November 14, 2016

J. Ronald Terwilliger is the retired Chief Executive Officer of Trammell Crow Residential. Terwilliger's philanthropic focus is largely on housing; the need to provide decent affordable housing. In 2014, he established the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America's Families to address the nation's critical affordable housing challenges.

Later this week, the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America's Families will host the Housing America’s Families Forum at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. For more information on the forum, click here.

HousingWire, as a media partner with the foundation since its inception, sat down with Terwilliger in the run-up to the event. Here is an excerpt of that conversation.

HousingWire: Are you getting excited about the event later this week?

J.Ronald Terwilliger:  Looking at the agenda, there will be a lot of influential people there. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee) is going to come and speak at lunch, the author of Evicted (Matthew Desmond) will provide a keynote. We will have a wide range of people including our advisory board there. There will be hopefully something that gets a lot of press as we're calling attention to this housing crisis and talking about it at all levels. Have you seen the agenda?

HousingWire: What is the purpose of this prestigious event?

JRT: We’re basically going for what we think needs to be done to address this housing crisis. We currently have homeownership rates that are below other countries without the same kind of props to the market. A good example is the low interest rates currently available. You compare that to Canada, for example, where you don’t have similar interest rates and yet enjoy high homeownership rates and leads you to question why some wish to maintain the status quo.

So we need to figure out how to address, then ultimately solve, the housing crisis in America. My presumption always has been that Congress is not going to spend more money because of the deficit. So I started out with the premise that rebalancing federal housing policy would be the most likely way. I know it’s probably a long shot but you got to try.

I’ve been all over the world as a Habitat for Humanity ambassador and housing is a fundamental, I think it’s a fundamental human right. It certainly is a fundamental human need and I just wish that Congress would assume additional responsibility for helping people have a simple decent home.

HW: You’ve been responsible for the construction of more apartments and living spaces then any one else.

JRT: Probably close to 300,000.

HW: Well, in the federal government, what’s wrong with the current rental infrastructure that is not rising up to meet the immense demand and what is leading to a stifling rental cost across the nation? I guess more simply what’s so wrong with housing right now and why can’t it right itself?

JRT: Now, that is why housing is really interesting. If you go into the great recession, data from 2008 shows house prices were really high, homeownership was really high — unsustainably high — and then you get a great recession where virtually nothing in the multifamily space of consequence is built because its really hard for homebuilders to get financing.

So when housing comea back multifamilies come back in spades; young people want to rent. A lot of them have big incomes. People that are well-educated and in high-paying jobs. They have big income so you’ve gotten a lot of product in the higher end market rate. Yet for multifamily, there is no increase in affordable rentals because it's just the one program. Single-family has been really slow to come back partly because there’s been very little financing for lots of home builders partly because some people just got turned off with the idea that the way to the American Dream is to own your own home.

So there are upwards of 75% of households who want a home but they aren’t going to have the income, the credit score, the down payment. We’re going to have more people living multi-generationally in this housing crisis, because affordability is festering now in many American cities.

HW: How confident are you that we’ll start moving towards a solution soon?

JRT: I do see momentum building. We’ve been kind of raising a hand and saying "somebody pay attention; there’s a crisis going on here. It's really adversely affecting the economy and its getting worse all the time." So I think we’ll get the attention and start some solutions rolling. Housing has been my career, I’m a houser, so I’m going pursue it and we’re going to pursue it for what needs to be done.

For Habitat, I gave out keys to Muslim fishermen, Indonesian families in rural America and everything; any family that you help…. It’s a life-changing thing. Yet, it seems intuitive that food and clothing are bare necessities, but why do you have to explain to people how important it is for somebody to have a piece of their house?

We have an opportunity to try to articulate that on behalf of all families to get a decent education, to get the health care, to get the jobs to get the food and to get shelter. It doesn’t have to be a big house. I grew up in 800 feet. You don’t need 2,500 square feet.

So we need to find a way to make it work with smaller houses and less expensive houses. If you think about it we still have guys out there pounding nails, still framing houses just like they must have been doing 50 years ago. Technology has done so much in so many years but not in housing. We are just starting the conversation on how to fix it, it’s something we need to do.

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