Ron Terwilliger: U.S. housing policy in need of reform to help lower-income renters

By Maria Saporta

Part-time Atlantan Ron Terwilliger has become one of the leading voices for federal housing policy reform in the country.

Terwilliger, retired chairman and CEO of Trammel Crow Residential, is now spending much of his time working on philanthropic causes primarily focused on providing housing for the working poor.

Ron Terwilliger Henry Cisneros

Sitting in his Buckhead condo, developer-philanthropist Ron Terwilliger chats with former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and U.S. housing policy (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families was established in 2014 with a mission to spotlight the need for affordable housing. The Foundation and its Advisory board met in Atlanta on April 14 at the Carter Center, where there also was a housing roundtable discussion that was co-sponsored by the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership (ANDP).

Terwilliger, who hosted a dinner meeting in his Buckhead condo on the evening of April 13, said his first major venture into the nonprofit world was when he was on ANDP’s board more than 20 years ago – serving as its board chairman until 1999, when he became the national chairman of the Urban Land Institute.

He also has served as chairman of Habitat for Humanity International, and he has announced a $100 million gift to the global housing nonprofit. He remains the global campaign chair for Habitat.

Terwilliger also is chairman of the Enterprise Community Partners, which seeks to find solutions to what he calls the housing crisis in our country.

“It’s tragic. We are a first world country that doesn’t act like a first world country when it comes to housing,” Terwilliger said. “The population can’t afford the rental housing that we are creating.

“Our hope is to find some way to solve this,” he added. “It’s getting worse by the day. The rents are going up. And virtually all the products going up are on the high end. We are growing backwards.”

Scott Brown

Former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown listens to conversation as others look on (Photo by Maria Saporta)

In an interview in his condo, Terwilliger talked about the challenges along with his colleague, Henry Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

He described housing policy reform as a nonpartisan issue that should receive bipartisan support.

And then he starts to list several facts to make his case.

Today, there are 11 million renter families that spend more than 50 percent of their household income on housing.

“We spend $200 billion a year on subsidizing housing. Three quarters of that goes to subsidizing home ownership,” Terwilliger said. “Only $50 billion goes to renters.”

So only one in four renters who need financial assistance actually receive it because of a funding gap.

To work on the problem, Terwilliger decided to create a bipartisan advisory board to work on the issue and make recommendations to change U.S. housing policy.

Cisneros, who serves on Terwilliger’s board, said the residential developer is “arguably the most knowledgeable” business leader on affordable housing issues in the country having developed 300,000 housing units – mostly apartments – in his time at Trammell Crow.

“It’s hard to quantify how many lives he’s touched,” Cisneros, a Democrat, said of his friend, Terwilliger, a Republican. “It’s just an extraordinary reach bring people together in the housing arena – tailoring programs to support people in real need. His legacy will be very broad in the United States and globally.”

Renee Glover Ron Terwilliger

Former Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renee Glover talks about the turnaround of public housing in Atlanta (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Home ownership in the United States currently is at a 22-year low with 63 percent of households now owning their homes. It was as high as 69.2 percent in 2004. And the trend is moving more towards rentals than home ownership.

“Two-thirds of all households formed in this decade are going to be renters,” Terwilliger said. “We are in a tsunami of rental demand.”

Later Terwilliger said: “People at the upper end, people like me, are doing really well… But 40 percent of our population are poor renters. But three-quarters of the subsidy goes to rich homeowners. Then only one in four renters who qualify actually receive a subsidy. We have to reallocate our resources from ownership to rental.”

Terwilliger is willing to venture into the treacherous discussion of changing the mortgage interest deduction on federal taxes. Only 30 percent of homeowners actually itemize their tax returns, and those tend to be those at the highest income levels.

During the roundtable discussion at the Carter Center, the topic of eliminating or reducing the homeowner mortgage interest deduction barely came up. The room included national leaders for Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, the Mortgage Bankers Association, the American Bankers Association as well as numerous political and business leaders who have been involved in the housing space.

Ron Terwilliger

Ron Terwilliger sitting in his Buckhead condo while in town for a meeting of his foundation (Photo by Maria Saporta)

They included former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts), former Congressman Rick Lazio (R-New York), former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin as well as numerous others. Many of the participants serve on Terwilliger’s board or advisory board or had served on the Bipartisan Policy Center Housing Commission.

The hope is that the Terwilliger Foundation will make recommendations to the next President of the United States as well as Congress so that substantive change can happen.

Terwilliger openly questioned why there wasn’t more of an outcry about what he believes in bad U.S. housing policy.

“You are subsidizing people who don’t need help,” Terwilliger said. “And you aren’t subsidizing people who really do the help. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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