This story was originally published in Builder.
Government regulations account for nearly 25% of the cost of building a typical new single-family home—almost $85,000—according to NAHB statistics, pricing 14 million Americans out of homeownership. By placing a freeze on all regulations passed during the final months of the Obama administration and issuing executive orders directing federal agencies to identify regulations that could be eliminated or revised, the Trump administration has done “a lot of good work trying to lessen the regulatory burden on the American economy,” says NAHB chief lobbyist Jim Tobin.
Despite this loosening of regulations, there are still many legislative challenges that could slow the pace of home building in coming months. Here is a rundown of the top political issues impacting the housing industry this election cycle and how the NAHB is addressing them. (Click here for an inside look at the NAHB's lobbying process.)
THE ISSUE: Since President Donald Trump slapped import duties averaging 21% on timber from Canada, the cost of 1,000 board feet of western Canadian lumber rose nearly 80% this year. It’s a big problem for home builders because nearly one-third of the 47.6 million board feet of softwood lumber used in the U.S. last year was imported, and 93% of those imports were from Canada, according to NAHB statistics. That means builders are paying $1,350 more per home, according to Bloomberg, and they may not be able to pass along that cost to buyers as the interest rate rises.
THE RESPONSE: In June, NAHB chairman Randy Noel was among a delegation that urged Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to return to the negotiating table with Canada. NAHB also persuaded 171 House members to sign a letter to the administration urging the U.S. to resume negotiations, boost domestic production, reduce exports, and seek out new markets to reduce the nation’s reliance on Canadian lumber. NAHB also is working to clear regulatory hurdles that constrain domestic lumber production.
LABOR & IMMIGRATION
THE ISSUE: As unemployment hovers around 4% and the Labor Department reports there are nearly 6 million unfilled jobs in the United States, the Associated General Contractors of America says that 86% of construction companies can’t find qualified workers.
THE RESPONSE: NAHB's government affairs team is extremely concerned about how Trump's immigration policies are affecting the labor pool. Immigrants make up about 17% of the U.S. labor force and about 25% of construction workers. NAHB is working with several associations to push for an employee verification system, robust protections for employers, and a visa system specifically for the construction industry.
In addition, about one-quarter of immigrant workers are undocumented, and the question of whether and/or how to provide a pathway to legal status for them is a political minefield, Tobin says. “The business community is all on the same page when it comes to immigration reform, but it’s the subtleties that tend to drive the debate and cause some of the stalemates in Washington,” he says.
THE ISSUE: Whether consumers are getting mortgage loans or builders are funding projects, bank loans have been very difficult to get since the Great Recession due to regulations on institutions across the board from Wells Fargo to community credit unions. In May, Trump signed a regulatory relief bill designed to ease rules on all but the largest banks with the goal of boosting economic growth.
THE RESPONSE: Tobin and his team are fighting regulations imposed by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, passed in an effort to prevent another global financial crisis. Tobin says he would also like to see Congress act on reforms at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-sponsored enterprises that the U.S. Treasury placed in conservatorship in 2008.
In addition, the term of Federal Housing Finance Agency director Mel Watt is up next year, and Trump is not expected to reappoint him. Tobin and his team are busy “making sure he picks the right candidate,” he says. “The next director is critical for us.”
THE ISSUE: In 2015, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers significantly expanded the definition of the “waters of the United States” rule (WOTUS) as well as their own regulatory authority over those waters. The rule grants the government control over any and all waters, even those that temporarily hold water, and it has been continuously challenged in the courts. In February, Trump issued an executive order for the EPA to re-examine WOTUS and consider whether to repeal or revise it. In June, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed permanently repealing the rule and bringing back the pre-2015 regulations until they come up with a new definition of WOTUS.
THE RESPONSE: The NAHB has fought hard against the 2015 version of the WOTUS rule and is monitoring the situation closely. Among its allies on this matter is Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Republican from Pennsylvania who was recently named an NAHB Defender of Housing. “These regulations need to be right-sized to make common sense,” Rothfus says.
THE ISSUE: Upon taking office in January 2017, Trump pushed U.S. tax reform as a way to reduce government waste and grow jobs and wages, especially for middle-class Americans. After months of wrangling in Congress, he signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law in December.
THE RESPONSE: The NAHB initially rejected the House’s version of the tax bill, which would have watered down homeowners’ mortgage interest deduction. The NAHB worked closely with Congress and the White House to help craft the final bill, which retains the mortgage interest deduction and capital gains exclusions and allows taxpayers to deduct up to $10,000 of state and local taxes. In a statement, the association predicted the legislation will “address the housing market’s severe inventory shortage with its reformed rule for businesses, allowing for greater investment and growth.”
So far, so good, Tobin says, but “we’re still waiting to see, once it gets going, if there will be things we need to fix down the road.”
This story was originally published in Builder.