Two new leaders for housing stepped forward in December, one after a long search and the other after an unexpected resignation. The resignation came from HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, who announced he was leaving the Cabinet to run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Florida. Three days later, President Bush said he would nominate Alphonso Jackson, HUD's deputy secretary for the past three years, for the open post. It was unpredictably fast. "They don't usually move this quickly," says Dave Ledford, staff vice president for housing finance and housing policy at the NAHB, who says the upcoming presidential election and the current importance of housing in the economy may have prompted a quicker process than usual.
Jackson must still be confirmed by the Senate, but the news won praise from the NAHB. "Alphonso is a practical, down-to-earth guy," says NAHB president Kent Conine, a Dallas builder and developer who knows the proposed HUD secretary from his days in Texas, where Jackson turned around a troubled housing agency. "If something's broke, he's going to try to fix it."
That attitude may be put to work sooner rather than later. Martinez had been pressing to reform the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) into something more consumer friendly, with more guaranteed cost options for mortgages and fewer surprises at the closing table. His resignation leaves the controversial initiative without its main champion, although Jackson has said he will continue to simplify the home financing process.
The second housing leader to emerge is Richard F. Syron, the new CEO of Freddie Mac. Syron, a former president of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, is expected to bring management expertise to Freddie Mac, which stumbled repeatedly in 2003. Freddie recently agreed to pay a $125 million fine to its federal regulator to settle an accounting inquiry.
NAHB leaders are hope that Syron will help Freddie rebuild its credibility and become a more effective advocate for housing finance and government-sponsored enterprises in what has become an increasingly politically charged arena in the past year. "Anyone familiar with the political situation knows that Freddie Mac needs a strong manager immediately to come in and change the culture," says Jerry Howard, executive vice president and CEO of the NAHB. "On paper, Syron looks like he has the ability to do that ... . In a fairly diverse spectrum of situations, he has been able to create successful teams, and I am optimistic he will do the same thing at Freddie Mac."