"I have never met a member of Congress who isn't pro housing," says Jim Tobin, whom last month the NAHB named as its new senior vice president of government affairs.
For the past 13 years, Tobin represented the association's interests on Capitol Hill. He assumes control of a lobbying team that NAHB is beefing up with three federal lobbyists and one for NAHB's political action committee. Those hires will expand the association's government affairs' staff to 21. The association is also expected to keep its funding for lobbying level with previous years. (It spent $2.91 million and $2.5 million in 2010 and 2009, respectively.)
NAHB will need all the manpower and money it can muster at a time when some policy- and opinion-makers are questioning just how involved the government should be in the housing and real estate sectors. The financial mismanagement of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, bank failures caused by deficient mortgage lending practices, and severe depreciation in house values have tainted the entire sector, at least perceptually, with segments of the public, the media, and politicians.
Tobin, who spoke with Builder by phone on Wednesday, concedes that there's been a "shift in the ideological bent of some members of Congress" that could make his job tougher in the coming years. For example, a coalition of real estate interests that included NAHB was unable to convince Congress to extend conforming loan limits guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie beyond October 1, when those limits declined.
However, Tobin insists the housing lobby "is as strong as it's ever been." He also believes that voices calling for the elimination of the mortgage interest deduction-the preservation of which has become one of NAHB's missions-as part of a broader budget-slashing agenda are "anomalies."
That being said, Tobin recognizes that NAHB and other groups lobbying on behalf of real estate and housing interests face an uphill battle to convince certain elected officials that "there is a federal role that must be played here. And most in Congress agree because they see that [housing is] a huge engine driving the economy."
Tobin cited reducing overregulation as being a top priority for NAHB's lobbying team. "We are the most overregulated industry in the country," he asserts. That starts with the tightening of credit, which Tobin attributes to "regulators telling banks to stay out of the real estate sector entirely." He's been urging Congress to play a more aggressive role in freeing up credit for small businesses so that "healthy banks can lend to healthy projects."
Another area of major concern is job site regulations imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), some of which Tobin finds "particularly egregious" because "OSHA seems more interested in fining companies than in compliance." He points specifically to OSHA's fall-protection rules, which "are of a one-size-fits-all variety. We've tried to point out that residential construction is a different creature" than commercial.
Tobin notes that his department will also continue to spend a lot of time talking to state and local officials. "Housing is a local issue, and we use our relationships with mayors and governors and the like as sounding boards for our federal efforts," he explains. "Plus, we see our role as encouraging them to keep their eye on what's going on in Washington."
John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.