#MBASPRING21 MBA Chair Susan Stewart: MBA, Industry Ready to ‘Move Forward’

(MBA Chair Susan Stewart addresses MBA Spring Conference & Expo.)

In her keynote address Tuesday at the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Spring Conference & Expo, MBA Chair Susan Stewart tapped into the collective frustration and hope of the entire real estate finance industry—and the nation—with a simple sentence.

“I look forward to the day, coming very soon, when we can meet in person – and move past the pandemic. That’s what I’m going to talk about today – moving forward,” Stewart said.

In a year in which “business as usual” has been shoved aside, the real estate finance industry has done remarkably well, riding the crest of a home refinance/purchase wave that has produced near-record mortgage origination volume.  

“We all know it’s been a tough year,” Stewart said. “You’ve faced some major hurdles, and with MBA’s help, you’ve overcome them. Without your hard work, many in our country would be in a much worse spot right now. America is moving into the future with a stronger foundation than anyone thought possible this time last year…thanks to you. In 2020, you proved again that our industry is a heavy hitter. We can take on the biggest problems and find solutions. Now, as the pandemic winds down, it’s time to start asking ourselves: What challenge will we tackle next?”

For Stewart, the answer was simple; when she was elected MBA Chair in October, she made a single issue her priority—minority homeownership.

“When I chose this topic, I broke with tradition,” Stewart said. “Previous Chairs typically chose three focus areas, not one. But these aren’t normal times, and this isn’t a normal cause. For the mortgage industry, I believe minority homeownership is the issue of our time.”

Stewart noted the past year has shined a spotlight on systemic problems in America.” I believe that tackling this issue is the single best way for our industry to help solve those problems,” she said. “Minority homeownership is essential to our progress as a society. The more we do on this front, the more we’ll build up America. One thing’s for sure: We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Stewart noted nationally, the homeownership rate is 65%, but Black homeownership rates are only 44%, near a 50-year low; for Hispanics, the homeownership rate 49%, and for Asians, it’s 59%.

“The situation is getting worse with changing demographics,” Stewart said. “Behind these numbers are millions of families who are missing out on the American Dream. They deserve better – and we can help them do better. It’s not just an opportunity for us, it’s an obligation.”

Stewart praised the work of MBA’s Affordable Housing team led by MBA Senior Vice President Steve O’Connor. MBA has created two advisory councils, on affordable homeownership and affordable rental housing. “We’ve been hard at work during the pandemic,” she said. “One important thing we’ve done is help people learn about their options in the face of forbearance and other difficulties. Minority families have been especially hard-hit, so we’ve made an extra effort to help them afford their mortgage and rent payments. We’re fighting to stop people from falling behind in the short-run, so that in the long-run, we can help them get ahead.”

Most recently, MBA was instrumental in getting financial assistance from Congress through the recent stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan. “We worked with a broad coalition of industry, consumer, civil rights and affordable housing advocates to help secure $40 billion in rental and mortgage assistance,” Stewart said. “This is real money, helping real people, making a real difference in minority communities in particular.”

One of MBA’s most exciting projects is a place-based minority homeownership program called CONVERGENCE, bringing together stakeholders from across the industry and communities to find real solutions to housing problems. A pilot project started a year ago in Memphis, Tenn., has included a virtual career fair and a virtual homebuyer fair. MBA plans to expand CONVERGENCE later this year to Columbus, Ohio.

“I envision a day when the CONVERGENCE model is available in communities across the country, helping close racial homeownership gaps on a national scale,” Stewart said. “With your support, we can make that vision a reality.”

Additionally, MBA recently launched a six-part webinar series on the “physics of affordable housing.” Nearly 300 industry leaders joined the first event in January, which focused on closing the racial wealth gap through homeownership. The second webinar in March focused on solutions to the lack of affordable housing supply; a third session in May will be about strategies for helping more women become homeowners.   

One of MBA’s most important efforts is a Minority Homeownership Joint Taskforce. “We set this up shortly after I became MBA chair, with a mandate to help solve the root causes of the problem, not just treat the symptoms,” Stewart said. “The task force includes members from RESBOG and our Affordable Homeownership Advisory Council. For the past four months, they’ve been hard at work drafting a comprehensive report with actionable policy recommendations.”

Stewart said those recommendations will provide the basis for an MBA policy and advocacy campaign on minority homeownership called Building Minority Wealth Through Homeownership, focused on two main areas: reducing barriers to minority first-time homeownership and preserving wealth; and addressing the trust gap and supporting financial education for homebuyers and homeowners.

“Both issues are crucial to strengthening minority homeownership, and in both areas, we’ll offer concrete policy ideas,” Stewart said. “I can’t tell you how excited I am for these recommendations. It will be a huge part of MBA’s minority homeownership game plan. We’ll take it to the White House. We’ll take it to Congress. We’ll take it to the alphabet soup of federal agencies. And we’ll take it to state capitols. At every level, we’ll talk to the leaders who can turn these recommendations into the law of the land. And not only will we play the long game, we will fight to win.”

Stewart said MBA is building the infrastructure to make a difference for decades to come. “We’re talking with the most important policymakers, including in the new administration and Congress,” she said. “There’s real momentum right now, and we’re prepared to make the most of it. But we also know this will take time. It took decades to create the crisis we’re in. It will take many years to fix everything that’s broken.”