WASHINGTON — As the race for the White House heats up, a bipartisan group of housing experts is seeking to inject more discussion about the mortgage market into presidential campaigns.
The J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America's Families launched this summer as a nonprofit to address the country's housing problems, such as rising rental costs and decreasing homeownership rates. Leaders hope to influence the presidential debate through a number of efforts — meeting with candidates, hosting events and attending forums.
"The effort is to make it clear that housing is important to this economy," said David Stevens, president and chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association, who sits on the new group's national advisory board.
Other prominent members of the foundation include Carol Galante, who previously served as head of the Federal Housing Administration, former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Henry Cisneros, President Bill Clinton's secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ron Terwilliger, a top real estate developer, serves as founder and chairman.
The group will hold an Oct. 16 housing summit in New Hampshire, with GOP candidates Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie slated to attend so far, along with a number of housing experts and former officials.
"We're using this event in New Hampshire as an example of going to the core initial state where the candidates are obviously going to be the most active and using this to spearhead an effort to make sure the candidates think about housing," said Stevens.
He added that members of the foundation have held private discussions with a number of Democratic and Republican candidates on a host of issues, from what to do with the government-sponsored enterprises to how the country can build more affordable housing options for renters and buyers.
"One thing that's been clear in my conversations with the candidates — when they go around the country they aren't saying, what are you going to do with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? It's esoteric," said Stevens. "But the question to ask is, do you feel confident in your ability to afford and maintain a safe home for your family? That's the question we need political leadership talking about."
Stevens described the effort as a "dripping faucet strategy."
"It's being where they are, wherever they speak, asking their views about rental housing, affordable housing, the future of the GSEs," he said. "As they hear it everywhere they go, more and more places, they'll realize this is an issue and hopefully start talking about it more."
Still, analysts cautioned that the effort and others like it face an uphill battle in an era when everybody is chasing the quick sound bite.
"I think it's admirable that they are pushing to inject housing policy into the broader presidential conversation, but it's a difficult task," said Isaac Boltansky, a policy analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading. "Housing issues will be discussed in the abstract during this presidential election but our sense is that the candidates will not dig too deep."
Brian Gardner, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, added that the approach is a familiar one for interest groups that aren't at the center of the national debate in a presidential race.
"This is kind of common for everybody that's wrapped up in a specific industry and on a set of issues that don't necessarily dominate a presidential election," he said.
As such, groups that fall outside of the hot-button issues — the economy, foreign policy and immigration, energy and the environment, health care and education — are likely to be "fighting for scraps," Gardner said.