Photo © Susana Raab
Photo © Susana Raab

Conrad Egan has spent most of his adult life searching for answers to still-nettlesome questions about affordable housing and its availability. He’s been involved in the housing industry since 1965, including stops at HUD, NHP Inc. (once among the nation’s largest multifamily property owners and managers), the Millennial Housing Commission, and the National Housing Conference, where Egan spent a dozen years and was CEO from January 2003 through February 2010. Currently, he’s co-chairman of the Fairfax County (Va.) Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and serves on the Governing Board of the County’s program to prevent and eliminate homelessness. In July, Egan became senior advisor with the Affordable Housing Institute, a nonprofit that helps other nations give impoverished citizens access to better housing.

Q: Home prices are way down from peak, so is affordable housing still in short supply?

A: There’s an unfortunate myth that just because housing prices fall, we don’t have an affordable housing problem. That’s not true. If you can’t move and can’t sell your house and can’t get credit, what good does it do you knowing that your neighbor is selling at a deep discount? But we’ve learned some lessons from past events—that we need a more balanced housing policy emphasizing both for-sale and rental housing. In the long run, we also need planning and zoning that lays the platform for affordable homes.

Q: Given the federal deficit, how much housing can the government afford to support?

A: The nation can afford as much housing as it is willing to have. But all levels of government must focus on productivity, so the voting public knows it’s supporting efficient affordable housing. I particularly like what [HUD] Secretary Donovan is doing in trying to make the housing subsidy work better and converting public housing to more of an asset-based system.

Q: The latest poverty estimates brought to the fore the crisis of shelter that confronts more people every day.

A: The compounding factor is loss of mobility, which traps people in their financial circumstances. I’m particularly concerned about this ongoing mismatch between skills and the jobs of the future. So maybe owners of affordable properties could work [to retrain] agencies to help narrow that skills gap by providing those services to their residents.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC.