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Political divisions may again derail legislative housing reform efforts

As the Trump administration plows ahead with its administrative housing finance reform plan, political divisions may again thwart congressional efforts to overhaul the system.

Approaches to reforming mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae splintered at a key House Financial Services Committee hearing between Democrats on the committee and three top federal housing officials.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mark Calabria appeared before the committee on Oct. 22 to respond to questions based on their recently released plans to administratively change the status quo.

The trio of regulators appeared before the Senate Banking Committee in September.

At the start of the House hearing, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. and chair of the committee, said their proposals were "disastrous for our housing system" and that they would "create turmoil in the housing market, prevent many Americans from obtaining 30-year fixed-rate mortgages and block families across the country from attaining the American dream of homeownership."

Waters conveyed a broad set of priorities that she would support in any housing finance reform plan. Those priorities included access to 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, ensuring sufficient private capital at the government-sponsored enterprises, requiring transparency and standardization to level the playing field for all financial institutions, and access to affordable rental housing.

But Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. and ranking member of the committee, praised the administration's plan as a "positive first step on a multi-year path" to recreating the housing finance system.

"And, while by no means perfect, it sketches a path forward and away from the status quo that puts taxpayers at risk and prevents competition within the market," McHenry said.

Both the Treasury Department and HUD released plans in September that laid out a roadmap to recapitalize the GSEs and eventually release them from government control. Weeks later, the FHFA proposed a rule that would allow the mortgage buyers to retain up to $45 billion in capital between the two companies.

At the hearing, the FHFA's Calabria said the agency would continue pursuing its first step of approving the final rule. However, Calabria said a portion of the rule may have to be re-proposed as a separate rule if public commenters or other stakeholders reveal serious issues in the rule that would need to be addressed.

Still, Mnuchin, Carson and Calabria expressed a preference that Congress pursue a comprehensive GSE reform plan.

"I believe, in the amount of time it would take us to build sufficient capital to get out [of conservatorship], that this body would have significant time to be able to legislate a different path forward if you so choose," Calabria said.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has expressed his intention to make housing finance reform a priority and has held multiple hearings on the issue but has not yet introduced legislation.