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Lawmakers say major changes needed to expand access to affordable housing

Leaders of the Congressional Public Housing Caucus (CPHC) said Tuesday major changes are needed to expand housing availability and accessibility, particularly for minorities.

Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the co-chairs of the caucus, discussed housing affordability at an event hosted by The Hill and Wells Fargo on National Homeownership Month.

"We're at a maximum in terms of the money being spent on public housing because we can't create any more housing and Congress wouldn't fund any more money to do it -- we'd have to change the policy," said Cleaver.

"We've got some serious problems and some of them are almost intractable unless Congress does something revolutionary," he added.

Stivers told The Hill editor-at-large Steve Clemons that minorities face disadvantages in trying to purchase homes because of an "ecosystem" of bias.

"I think it is an ecosystem but I think we can lead, and we can use our bully pulpit and other things," said Stivers.

"One of the big problems in affordable housing is the finance system and the people who have not had access to credit, don't have credit, and will not get credit because the way the credit scoring system works. And there are some new innovations that get the people scores based on what they already have, like utility bills and cellphones and whether they pay those on time, to start to build a credit score," Stivers said.

Homeownership has long been a key component in wealth building for American families, regardless of their background.

But data shows that obstacles, both economic and social, have left minorities lagging behind in homeownership.

A recent report by the Urban Institute, for example, shows that black homeownership has declined 5 percent since 2011, compared to a 1 percent decline for white families. 

The same report showed an increase in Hispanic homeownership during that period, though it came at a time when Hispanic families were digging out after being particularly affected by the Great Recession, with Latino households losing 66 percent of their overall wealth from 2005-2009, according to the Pew Research Center.

Cleaver and Stivers both agreed that a solution to the housing crisis will require a multi-pronged approach, as lack of access to housing is not caused by any single factor.

And the federal government can't solve the issue alone, said Cleaver.

"This problem is not going to be resolved without multiple jurisdictional cooperation," said Cleaver. "We've gotta have the federal government involved, we've gotta have the state government involved, and we've gotta have the local government."

In an interview with The Hill's Bob Cusack screened at the event, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson advocated deregulation to allow for the construction of more affordable housing units to bring down prices.

"You know, the reason people are segregated in housing is not because George Wallace is standing at the door, it's because they can't afford to move to other areas," said Carson.

"What I decided we should do instead is focus on how do we break that problem up. And the way that we obviously do that is to make it possible to build more affordable housing," he added.

Carson also advocated for public private partnerships for capital expenditures and direct contact with landlords to expand the number of rental units that accept housing vouchers as payment.

"Maybe it comes from my medical background, but I like to go to the source of the problem rather than treating the symptoms," said Carson.

Still, beyond accounting for the economic obstacles facing many first-time home buyers, making the jump into homeownership can be a daunting proposition.

"If you come from a community where the perception is that if you sit in front of a white loan officer they're going to assume that you're not ready, that process can be very intimidating, it can be overwhelming, so we've got to do more to educate people," said Antoine Thompson, the executive director of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, the largest organization of African-American real estate professionals.

And housing, apart from being a path to building wealth, is also a primary necessity. 

"What is clear is we need affordable homes, period. The idea that homes are going to be a wealth builder, that is going away some in particular areas," said Andre Perry, a researcher on race and inequality at the Brookings Institution. "We need to figure out new ways to have affordable homes, particularly in cities where there's intense racial diversity. We need to figure out ways to include economic diversity."

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