Making Affordability A Priority: A Discussion with MBA’s Katelynn Harris Walker

There’s a great deal that policymakers and politicians can’t agree on these days. One fact that most stakeholders do agree on is that our country is experiencing a housing affordability crisis.

California is a great example of some of the challenges this creates for communities. The Mortgage Bankers Association is exploring solutions to improve the situation in the state. Industry advocacy efforts have included partnering with state associations, such as the California Mortgage Bankers Association, to challenge some efforts such as restrictive rent control laws that would make matters worse.

Katelynn Harris Walker

Against the backdrop of rising home prices and rents in many markets and numerous ideas swirling around inside the Beltway to address the lack of supply and affordability issues, MBA Newslink interviewed Katelynn Harris Walker, Associate Director of Affordable Housing Initiatives for the Mortgage Bankers Association, where she is dedicated full time to advocacy and engagement on affordability.

Harris Walker staffs and manages MBA’s Affordable Rental Housing Advisory Council and Affordable Homeownership Advisory Council. She works closely with local, state and national partners of MBA’s place-based initiative, CONVERGENCE, to advance minority homeownership through innovative solutions.

MBA NEWSLINK: MBA formed two councils in as many years to address affordability issues for both home ownership as well as rental housing. Could you describe these groups, their makeup and their purpose?

KATELYNN HARRIS WALKER: In 2019, MBA created two Affordable Housing Advisory Councils dedicated to support CONVERGENCE, the MBA Affordable Housing Initiative. The Advisory Council on Affordable Rental Housing and the Advisory Council on Affordable Homeownership provide important advice, feedback and ideas on where MBA should focus its time and resources to be impactful while serving its members.

These Councils are currently led by four senior executives: Sarah Garland (CBRE), Michael Staton (The Community Preservation Corporation), Anthony Weekly (Truist Bank) and David Battany (Guild Mortgage). The Affordable Rental Council has 21 members; the Affordable Homeownership Council comprises 25 members. Both Councils reflect a cross-section of business models, company sizes and ownership structures.

“These Councils guide our efforts in bringing together key stakeholders to work on solutions aimed at housing affordability,” said Steve O’Connor, MBA’s Senior Vice President for Affordable Housing Initiatives. “As economic, demographic and social issues continue to intersect, our members will work to help ensure a healthy and equitable housing market.”    

NEWSLINK: Your flagship effort to date is CONVERGENCE. Describe this event, its potential and the partnerships that helped it come to fruition.

HARRIS WALKER: MBA’s Affordable Homeownership Advisory Council helped inform the creation of two place-based initiatives, also called CONVERGENCE, to serve as laboratories for understanding the current affordable housing challenges, for testing potential affordable housing solutions, creating a model for community engagement and creating best practices and standardizations for certain affordable housing practices and programs.

In spring 2020, MBA launched its first place-based initiative, CONVERGENCE Memphis, led by MBA and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency to increase African American homeownership in Memphis, Tenn. We seek to move the needle on African American homeownership within several Memphis neighborhoods such as Frayser, Glenview and Whitehaven. In these communities, CONVERGENCE Memphis efforts are amplifying existing local resources and deploying additional national and state resources to complete several workstreams.

CONVERGENCE Columbus was launched this summer in partnership with the Ohio Housing Finance Agency and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University to increase homeownership among Black and other diverse households in Columbus, Ohio.

The place-based initiative seeks to increase homeownership and the wealth-building opportunities that come with it. The initiative seeks to address key homeownership challenges identified by MBA research, including the information and trust gaps between consumers and mortgage industry practitioners, the knowledge gap of the resources available and the market gap of existing affordable housing inventory.

NEWSLINK: What role do partnerships play in MBA’s efforts on affordability? Can you give an example?

HARRIS WALKER: Through collaboration with key stakeholders in the affordable housing ecosystem, there is an opportunity to create and expand market opportunities for renters, aspiring homeowners and current homeowners.

By working collaboratively and leveraging the strengths of varied partners, we believe that we can find new solutions to housing affordability and amend existing underlying affordable housing concerns. To that end, we will work on developing and advocating for a dynamic affordable housing policy agenda that supports rental and homeownership options. Fostering relationships and creating new partnerships are critical to the success of MBA’s affordable housing efforts in our place-based efforts and in the national housing industry. MBA can play a role as a coordinator and convener of industry participants.

NEWSLINK: The association just released an environmental scan. Can you describe any key takeaways that may be helpful to real estate finance market participants?

HARRIS WALKER: Yes, last month, MBA released the Environmental Scan, Affordable Rental Housing Challenges & Opportunities, a comprehensive outlook on affordable multifamily challenges that identifies innovative solutions to address the concerns. The environmental scan includes the advice and guidance of numerous affordable rental housing stakeholders, including MBA members, industry participants, advocates and other thought leaders on what our priorities should be and how MBA can play a unique leadership role in this space. The stakeholder responses highlight the industry strengths, market challenges, opportunities and threats to the nation’s multifamily housing.

The stakeholders observed that even before the COVID-19 pandemic there were hundreds of thousands of families struggling with severe rent burdens exceeding half of their incomes and over a million people experiencing homelessness on any given night. The production of new affordable housing supply was failing to keep up with the creation of new households. The existing affordable housing inventory was aging and either falling into obsolescence or being redeveloped into higher rent housing in gentrifying markets.

However, the stakeholders recognized that making progress will require increasing opportunity and incomes for low-income households, investing in innovations for multifamily production and supportive public policy interventions as well as careful analysis of the short- and long-term impacts of the recent waves of federal aid.

MBA has an opportunity to lead in several ways, leveraging the core strengths of our association and our members. The reality is there are no quick fixes and the challenges are beyond the capacities of any single organization. The key will be to identify strategic priorities and align our efforts with partners and other industry stakeholders. Together we can make a difference in ways that help renters and aspiring homebuyers.