With Christmas only days away, it’s time to fire off my “housing wish list” to the North Pole. I know from good sources that Santa and the elves are exceptionally fast workers, so it’s never too late, even when making requests on a subject as complex as our nation’s housing system. 

Santa, I’m a believer, so here goes:

Wish #1

Encourage Our Nation’s Leaders to Respond Promptly to the Affordability Crisis in Rental Housing.

Harvard’s most recent assessment tells us that rising rents are not merely a problem in a few isolated high-cost cities but a full-blown crisis that is national in scope. In 2014, the number of renters with housing cost burdens reached a new high: 21.3 million. Of that number, some 11.4 million renters, also a new record, paid in excess of 50 percent of their income just on housing.

Lagging incomes are a big part of this story. But so, too, is the enormous spike in demand for rental housing over the past 10 years and the woefully inadequate supply of affordable rental homes to meet it. The families suffering the most are those with the fewest financial resources.

Fortunately, ideas have surfaced that can make a real difference and should garner bipartisan support in Congress. A major expansion of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program is one such proposal.  At the local level, more communities must have the wisdom to adopt permissive zoning and land-use policies that encourage the construction of a far greater number of affordable rental homes.

Because of our nation’s changing demographics, the rental affordability situation is likely to get worse in the absence of policy action. So it is time to get cracking on solutions.      

Wish #2

Remind Those Working in the Homeownership and Rental Sectors of the Housing Industry that They Are on the Same Team.

The share of first-time homebuyers in the housing market is approaching a 30-year low, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors. Because of rising rents, millions of families are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to save for a mortgage down payment. Other factors, including tighter underwriting standards and high levels of student loan debt, have contributed to a national homeownership rate that has plummeted more than five percentage points since 2004.     

In responding to these challenges, there is strength in numbers.  As former New York Congressman Rick Lazio wrote in a recent op-ed, “it is time for those on the rental and homeownership sides of the industry to combine forces to develop a comprehensive strategy that directly responds to the rental-affordability and homeownership-access problems. At the core of this strategy must be an understanding that renting and homeownership are inextricably linked.” 

Amen. Improving the affordability of rental housing is an essential element of any strategy to expand access to sustainable homeownership, and ensuring a strong single-family housing market is critical to our economy.

Wish #3

Give Our Nation the Foresight to Prepare for and Meet the Housing Needs of a Rapidly Aging Population. 

Over the next fifteen years, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is poised to nearly double, reaching 73 million by 2030.  Some seniors will face housing affordability challenges. Others, while seeking to age in place, will realize their homes lack the structural features to enable safe and independent living.  Compounding these problems is the fact that many seniors will eventually require help with activities like bathing, dressing, and medication management, often referred to as “long-term services and supports.”

Fortunately, groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force are working hard to develop policy solutions. Let’s wish them well in this effort.

With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 each day, meeting the housing needs of our nation’s seniors, both present and future, is an issue we can no longer ignore.  Better integrating health care and other supportive services with housing will be a necessary step.

Santa, I know I am asking for a lot here, but I have one last request:  When making the rounds this Christmas Eve, please put a reminder in everyone’s stocking that it’s been more than seven years (that’s right, seven years) since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed under government control. It’s hard to say the current system is working well: access to affordable mortgage credit remains unacceptably tight, while the taxpayers are bearing most of the risk.

So that’s my wish list, Santa.  

Thanks for adding this to the elves’ workload and let me know if you need me to brainstorm North Pole housing market issues.