CREF21: MBA Chair Susan Stewart on ‘3 Values that Unite the Industry’

Mortgage Bankers Association Chair Susan Stewart said regardless of industry focus—residential or commercial—real estate finance comes down to three values that unite the industry.

“We’re all in the business of building vibrant communities; we all work hard to empower people to achieve their dreams; and we are all leaders who want to do the right thing,” Stewart said yesterday at MBA CREF21. “It’s something with huge implications for residential, commercial and multifamily and it’s my main initiative for 2021.”

When Stewart, CEO of SWBC Mortgage, San Antonio, Texas, became MBA Chair this past October, she vowed to make expanding minority homeownership and affordable rental opportunities her top priority. Four months later, her passion is unwavering.

“Here’s why I chose this issue—the past year has shined a spotlight on injustice in America,” Stewart said. “I believe that promoting minority homeownership is the single best way for our industry to combat that injustice. Minority homeownership is the essential ingredient for the vibrant communities we all want. Certainly, minority homeownership is important to residential lenders like me. But minority homeownership is just as important to both commercial and multifamily.”

Helping minority buyers find homes isn’t a one-and-done thing, Stewart noted. “It’s a process with many steps along the way, and rental housing is significant stepping-stone for some and a permanent solution for others,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t quite ready to buy a home, but if we want to help homeowners find the right home later, we have to help them find affordable rental housing now. And even if they don’t want a house, they still deserve the best apartment possible. The American Dream takes many forms.”

Stewart emphasized minority homeownership matters a whole lot to commercial lenders. “The home is the foundation of family wealth creation, which is the key to flourishing local economies,” she said. “More people with affordable homes means more local commerce – from restaurants to retail and to local office space. Homes let families lead better lives, which leads to better and more vibrant communities in every respect.”

Stewart noted nationally, the homeownership rate is around 65%. For whites, the rate is even higher, at around 73%. But Black homeownership rates are only 44%, a nearly 50-year low. For Hispanics, the homeownership rate is hardly better, at 49%, and for Asians, it’s 59%. “And the situation is only going to get worse as the country’s demographics continue to change,” she said. “Behind these numbers are millions of families who’ve been pushed to the sidelines of the American Dream. They deserve better – and we must do better. MBA must lead the way toward stronger and more vibrant communities where everyone can thrive, whether they live in a house or an apartment.”

MBA is making progress, Stewart said. “MBA has built a highly effective team, led by Steve O’Connor, that’s completely focused on affordable housing,” she said. “We’ve also created two advisory councils to help chart a path forward. The first is focused on affordable homeownership. The second is focused on affordable rental housing. Both bring together residential, multifamily, and commercial voices.”

On the rental side, the MBA focus has been on two fronts. The Councils has been an invaluable source of ideas and feedback on different COVID relief efforts. It has also enhanced MBA’s voice in policy discussions. “In fact, it helped us obtain $25 billion in rental assistance in the last stimulus bill,” Stewart said.

Second, the Council is developing a new rental housing production program that addresses the need for more workforce housing. It will release a concrete proposal this year. “As Congress and the new administration develop their housing agendas, we will continue to shape the conversation and offer a path forward,” Stewart said.

Beyond the Councils, MBA launched a new program called “Convergence” to help preserve and improve minority homeownership. “It brings together stakeholders from across the industry and communities to find real solutions to housing problems,” Stewart said. “The program started in Memphis, Tennessee, and this year, we’ll bring it to Columbus, Ohio. We believe that the work by Convergence in those communities can be become a model for how our industry can help promote minority homeownership.”

During the year, MBA worked hard to stop bad policies in their tracks. In California, MBA helped beat back a dangerous rent control ballot measure that would have led to less affordable rental housing. And MBA helped defeat a California ballot measure on the commercial property tax. “It just goes to show that our united approach as an industry helps build vibrant communities on every front,” Stewart said.

“We think this year can be a watershed for better policies, at the state and federal levels,” Stewart said. “We’re especially focused on breaking down regulatory barriers to affordable rental housing. We continue to aggressively advocate for changes to how the Davis-Bacon Wage Rate requirements are applied to FHA-assisted multifamily projects. We’re also pushing for major modifications to HUD multifamily program requirements and the modernization of FHA’s technology and infrastructure. And we’re striving to reduce costs associated with affordable programs in opportunity zones, with a focus on examination fees and broadening the definition of affordable for workforce housing.”

“I’m confident we’ll make progress on minority homeownership, affordable rental housing and every other issue this year,” Stewart added. “As we do, we’ll help create the vibrant communities that we care so much about. And we’ll even strengthen America itself.”