The National Association of Realtors is psyched.
Arguably the country's most powerful housing lobby, the 1.2 million-member trade group sees the new Democrat-controlled Congress as a golden opportunity to pass legislation it and other industry organizations have long-favored, even with a Republican president in the White House for at least two more years.
Housing has been presented with "an opportunity to move major legislation that we haven't had for years," Jerry Giovaniello, senior vice president of NAR's government affairs group, said at the association's annual convention in New Orleans earlier this month.
"We haven't had a major housing bill since 1992. A lot of people have been left out of the 70 percent ownership rate."
Not only that, but the trade group, whose membership cuts across almost all real estate disciplines, has the muscle to make things happen. It's political action committee -- RPAC -- is the country's largest, and it spends its money freely.
Interestingly, a majority of RPAC's contributions -- 53 percent -- went to Republicans in the last cycle. And the Realtor-supported candidate won in "only" 92 percent of the races, which is a little lower than normal for NAR "but still pretty good," according to Giovaniello. "People who support us cut across party lines."
Regardless of who is going to Washington, there's a good chance NAR knows him or her pretty well already, thanks to its million-plus-member grass roots system that starts with local elections and moves up the political ladder from there. "We know these people," the group's chief lobbyist said at the convention. "We make out friends before we need them."
NAR has its nose in numerous issues, all of which Giovaniello claims "have always been bipartisan." Chief among them is its long-running effort to keep banks out of the real estate brokerage and management business.
For six years, the group has been able to convince Congress to block a joint Federal Reserve Board-Treasury Department rule that would allow banks to move onto NAR members' turf. But it has had to do so on a year-by-year basis.
Now, though, it hopes to have the guns necessary to make the ban permanent, if not in the lame duck session which is scheduled to go through Christmas, then certainly when the 110th Congress convenes in January. After all, 230 congressman and 24 senators who have already signed on to the NAR-favored Community Choice in Real Estate Act will be back in 2007.
Also next year, NAR expects the probable new chairman of the House Banking Committee, Rep. Barney Frank, to focus more on affordable housing and less on predatory lending. Describing the Massachusetts Democrat as "reasonable" and "pragmatic," staff lobbyist Lynn King told a convention briefing that Rep. Frank "is no fan or regulators who attempt to legislate by regulation."
Another "top priority" Realtor issue is flood insurance, which Mark Washko, another staff lobbyist -- NAR has dozens -- expects to be brought up early in the new year. NAR supports map modernization and higher premiums for repetitive-loss properties when their owners refuse government offers of mitigation. But it wants Uncle Sam to continue subsidizing second homes, vacation homes and rental properties that are in harm's way.
Hand-in-hand with that issue is the creation of a national disaster policy. The intensity of natural disasters in recent years has made it difficult for home owners to obtain coverage and, if they can find it, to pay the premiums. Since obtaining a mortgage is contingent on securing coverage in disaster-prone areas, NAR supports a federally-backed catastrophic insurance program.
Insurance is "the No. 1 problem in some places," David Lereah, the group's chief economist, told a press briefing. "Costs have increased ten-fold in some areas of Florida."
The trade group is holding out hope that lawmakers will add language that will update the Federal Housing Administration to one of the 11 appropriations measures that will be considered during the lame-duck session.
"Anything can happen," said Gary Weaver, managing director in NAR's public policy office. "But it's a very narrow window. So if (FHA reform) doesn't happen this year, it will be one of our big goals in 2007."
Moreover, with Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., expected to head their respective housing subcommittees, Mr. Weaver expects affordable housing -- and therefore the FHA -- to have a "high profile" next year. "Both legislators are outspoken advocates for affordable housing," he said.
Specifically, the NAR as well as other housing finance interests want to eliminate the FHA's 3 percent downpayment requirement, increase its loan limits, raise the cap on loan terms to 40 years, allow the agency to switch to risk-based pricing, move the condominium loan program to the single-family loan fund, and strike the limit on reverse mortgages.
NAR also is a strong proponent of legislation to reform the government-sponsored housing enterprises. "We've got to get the FHA and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac back on track and working in every state," Giovaniello said.
Lereah called the big Democratic congressional win a "positive turn."
"From a regulatory perspective, I think it's great," the economist said. "The Bush White House, a White House that has been pro-banking, not pro-real estate, has been declawed."
As he sees it, the GSEs have "had their hands tied behind their backs" while the administration and Congress battle over which agency will regulate the agencies and how to control the growth of their retained portfolios. But not for much longer.
"Now I see something different," Lereah said. "They will get a tough regulator, but they will be able to participate in a robust way once again. That's very good for all of us."
The NAR senior vice president also called on the group to take a leadership roll with regard to housing policy.
"We are the biggest association in America and I think the most powerful," he said. "We should develop our own housing agenda and lead rather than follow."