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As Housing Crisis Gains National Attention, Real Estate Lobbies Look To D.C.

A deepening housing crisis has lifted issues relating to housing regulation and development to the federal government's attention in a way not seen for decades. From little-known policy moves to nationally televised speeches, housing is top-of-mind for politicians all over Capitol Hill. 

Lobbying groups representing both sides of the housing issue, property owners and tenants, have scaled up their efforts, ramped up their budgets and honed in on policy changes coming as the nation reorients following the pandemic.

“The Biden administration, and then Congress, during Covid took a much more hands-on approach to thinking about the rental market and the challenges faced by low-income homeowners,” said Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project. “I imagine that there are parts of the real estate industry paying attention to that kind of involvement from the administrative state and Congress and thinking about these issues, so it's not surprising that they might decide to weigh in a little bit more heavily.” 

A renewed focus on housing has lead the real estate industry to focus more resources on D.C.

While the industry’s focus on the federal level used to be around strictly tax issues, housing policy now spans many more parts of the federal bureaucracy. The Biden administration’s Renter’s Bill of Rights proposal from January 2023 included more than 24 commitments from eight different agencies. 

As the housing crisis demands more government action, the industry seeks to steer potential policy changes and solutions toward increasing supply and deregulating local zoning barriers, and away from what they argue would be counterproductive policies, such as rent control. 

The amounts being spent on political donations remain relatively low compared to many other industries, but lobbying has increased substantially during the Biden administration. Over the last five years, spending by major real estate associations and trade groups has risen, in some cases more than doubling in the last five years, according to data from OpenSecrets

The National Apartment Association saw its lobbying spending jump from roughly $1.5M in 2019 to $2.2M in 2023, while the National Rental Home Council saw its spending increase from $20K to $310K during that same period. Both hired a number of additional lobbyists. 

The National Multifamily Housing Council also saw a leap in spending, from $4.8M to $8.1M. Others, such as the NAIOP, have seen more moderate increases in recent years. Industry coalitions have weighed in with support for bills to deregulate housing and get rid of local barriers to more construction, such as the YIMBY Act.

Some of these groups also helped establish the new Bipartisan Housing Caucus, focused on affordable housing and boosting development.

joint letter from 20-plus national real estate associations, who favor federal action to overrule local zoning rules, expressed concern over the Bill of Rights and its application of federal power, arguing that it “will create potentially duplicative and confusing federal regulations that interfere with state and local laws meant to govern the housing provider and resident relationship.” Similar pushback from many industry groups was heard when the Obama administration proposed the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing concept.

The industry has expected an increase in federal regulation since the pandemic, in part due to divided government and the inability to pass major legislation, said National Apartment Association Assistant Vice president of Housing Policy and Regulatory Affairs Nicole Upano. 

Upano wouldn’t comment about NAA lobbying activities, but she did confirm the organization has hired more staff due to the need to “increase capacity” to work with different agencies and “make sure that we're addressing the industry's needs and making sure the industry is fully represented.”

The NAA has been supportive of recent actions like reforming the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a broadly bipartisan push to make the widely used affordable housing program more effective, as well as the introduction of the Workforce Housing Tax Credit Act, a complement to the LIHTC.

Lobbyist David Gasson has spent decades working on housing issues in Washington, D.C. As executive director of the Housing Advisory Group, which lobbies on behalf of housing programs and policies, he’s never seen housing as front-and-center as it is today. 

“You cannot go into an office on the Hill, I don't care who the member is, that will not admit to you and their staff that they have a housing crisis in their district,” he said. “It is everywhere.”

He is seeing a lot more industry focus on insurance policies and programs, which have clobbered real estate, as well as a number of efforts to shape some of the administration’s Inflation Reduction Act-related housing programs. 

“A lot of what you're seeing is time, energy and lobbying going into those specific two areas, fixing programs that the administration has rolled out, and then addressing the insurance problem,” he said.

Property owners also feel a need to push back against the tenant-first policies of the pandemic, Gasson added, and make sure that policymakers understand their perspectives.

“There was a lot of effort in educating the administration when they talk about a Renter’s Bill of Rights, that they also have to consider an owner's Bill of Rights, or owners allowances,” Gasson said. “It’s only worth the renter staying in the property if the lights are still on, the water still works and the roof is not falling off, right?”

The real estate industry has always played a large role in political debates and campaign funding, especially at the municipal and state levels. But the increase in complaints about rising rents and increasingly out-of-reach homeownership, along with housing actions taken by President Joe Biden and his administration, have seen industry groups become more engaged in trying to shape the opinions of legislators, federal regulators and bureaucrats.

These same forces have also led tenants’ rights groups to become more active at the federal level, including advocating for a 10% cap on rental rate increases for LIHTC-financing properties in April.

Federal housing policy is being advanced in numerous agencies, not just HUD.

Even apart from new legislation making its way through Congress, both federal actions and the appropriations process, where policy gets “shoved through,” gets more attention, said Roller.

In some cases, it’s not necessarily that housing groups stand opposed to administration policy. Rather, they want to see money for housing spent as widely and quickly as possible, Gasson said. It is a desire to streamline programs to make them work better.

For instance, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, under the Department of Transportation, encourages transit-oriented development. But the way it was initially written required large upfront payments, similar to the way road construction works, but not the way housing finance tends to operate, Gasson said.  

There have been policy shifts the industry opposes. Upano mentioned the recent HUD building code requirements. She argues the shift, which supersedes traditional state and local regulation by amending energy codes and building standards to a level mandated by only 10 states and D.C., is “extremely problematic and really hurts affordability.”  

There’s also a sense of wanting to shape the consensus solution around the affordability challenges. Roller called this increased focus on housing both an opportunity for the industry and a “major threat,” because the housing industry has historically been “champions of regressive tax policies,” he said.

The NAA advocates “responsible and sustainable housing policies,” Upano said. Those include building more housing, focusing federal investments and mechanisms into reducing barriers to building and making greater investments in the housing voucher program.  

The association is “deeply concerned” about what it calls “one-size-fits-all policies” in areas that affect property management and operations and which they maintain will impact housing affordability for renters, such as rent control and the FTC’s blanket junk fee rule, which would impact how rental housing fees are disclosed.  

Historically, the real estate industry has been very bipartisan in its approach on D.C., which has proven successful in this era of polarization. Gasson worked on the campaign to reform LIHTC, an update that had an unprecedented 228 bipartisan cosponsors in the House and Senate. 

“The industry has become very organized, both on a policy perspective and on a political perspective, to maintain those members in the House and the Senate that support housing,” Gasson said. “We are party blind. We will support anybody that supports housing.”

He believes there will be efforts by the industry in coming months to try and reform as many Biden-era policies as possible, so they can be utilized before a potential incoming Trump administration that many fear would do away with these policies. But it appears the playbook will stay the same regardless of who wins in November.

“I don't think just the election specifically makes a difference,” Upano said. “As part of our overall plan, we just want to make sure we can maintain continuity and make sure that we're serving the industry, administration to administration.”