Senate Banking leaders say housing finance reform is a top priority

Senate Banking Committee leaders said Wednesday that legislation overhauling the housing finance system remains a top priority. 

Panel Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and ranking member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said in a statement that they are working on producing the "strongest bipartisan bill possible."

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“With the hearing and information-gathering stage behind us, our hard work continues as we dive deep into the drafting and negotiating phase of housing finance reform," they said.

The committee held a series of hearings throughout the fall with the aim of producing a bill that would revamp mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and rebalance the government's dominant role in the finance market and tip it back toward the private sector.

"Members of the Banking Committee continue to provide momentum for reform by expressing interest in advancing bipartisan legislation, and we recognize that we must build a broad bipartisan consensus for an agreement to have a chance at becoming law," they wrote.

Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) crafted legislation that is being used as a blueprint for moving forward.

"As we advance this bipartisan effort we are working to include smart, thoughtful ideas from all committee members, the administration, and others who have participated in our process," they said. 

The House Financial Services Committee approved a Republican generated measure last summer that has yet to gain any traction in the House, especially among Democrats who say the legislation nixes the 30-year mortgage and the government guarantee. 

Housing industry experts have continued to prod Congress to keep moving forward more than five years since the financial crisis. 

"This momentum to craft a bipartisan, sustainable solution must be maintained, or growth in the housing market will remain slow and uneven," wrote David Stevens, head of the Mortgage Bankers Association, in an opinion piece in The Hill this week. 

The continued push comes amid the housing market's gradual recovery. 

Expectations are high for the sector's gains to accelerate this year.

"My single-family forecast for 2014 is pretty aggressive, 822,000 starts which is likely 200,000 more than 2013," said David Crowe, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders at an event in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

"There are five key points to the turnaround. Consumers are back, pent-up demand is emerging, there is a growing need for new construction, distressed sales are diminishing and builders see it."

However, Crowe warned that builders still face several headwinds, including rising building material prices, persistently tight mortgage credit conditions, difficulties in obtaining accurate appraisals and limited availability in labor and developed lots.

Plus, continued uncertainty in Washington threatens to harm consumer confidence and future housing demand.

NAHB is forecasting 1.15 million total housing starts in 2014, up 24.5 percent from last year's total of 928,000 units.

Single-family production is projected to rise 32 percent to 822,000 units and surge an additional 41 percent to 1.16 million units in 2015.