A Q&A with Richard Oram of the Oram Foundation

The Oram Foundation helped to fund the creation of "The Unintended Consequences of Housing Finance," the RPA report we've been exploring this week. Chuck Marohn interviewed Richard Oram, Chairman of the Foundation, to learn about how he got interested in housing finance and what he hopes the report will accomplish.

What is the Oram Foundation and what are the foundation's goals?

The Oram Foundation was created in 2006. We've supported a lot of groups in modest ways. We focus on cities and things that could impact the environment in a leveraged fashion. By that I mean small things that might get changed that could lead to a whole lot more. That's what we look for. We look for groups that can take a little bit of support and turn it into something important. Small groups that need to be larger groups.

Why have you chosen to focus on this narrow set of housing regulations?  Why are those important to you?

When the fund was created, I would go to a variety of conferences while continuing my own transportation work. One of the important ones was the Congress for New Urbanism. 

Through the network that CNU presented to me, I started to speak to developers. I can communicate with developers, business people, and finance people. They're aligned with my own experiences. In speaking with them, I came to ask the question, "Why isn't there more new urban type development?" Well, the simple answer is that there isn't financing for it.

So much of development has been approached in a simple fashion, or if you will, single use zoning. Like, "Let's fund housing here. Let's fund office parks there. Let's fund industrial there." We all know that was a planning mistake, to create the rigid zoning that we have. So many worthy projects can't participate in the federal housing programs, Fannie, Freddie, or various HUD programs. Those regulations kind of fly in the face of the mixed use, mixed zoning idea we see in the most successful cities.

Why should this matter to the average American?

The failure to be able to fund mixed use is so ingrained in our landscape and our land use in ways that average people don't understand.

The older cities, the sort of places that people like to go to now, the sort of places that are being developed just aren’t part of the landscape that we have financed.

The older cities, the sort of places that people like to go to now, just aren't part of the landscape that we have financed. Specifically the older, denser, Main Streets in midsize or small towns; they're not conforming with the regulations. In the 1950s, there was a substantial housing shortage, and the focus of policy was to de-densify. In fact funding wasn't available for older parts of cities.

Some people would call them slums. I don't think they should've been disregarded or discarded, but in effect that's what happened, and the people who live there have been neglected. There are serious equity problems that can be discussed as a result of these policies.

At the end of the day, what do you hope to accomplish with this effort?

I hope to bring more groups into this conversation. I'd like to raise awareness. What we need to do is to allow funding to be used to maintain these older neighborhoods. To renovate and restore them.

Sadly, the federal programs, those oriented towards assisting low income people, they tend to create a concentrated poverty effect. That isn't what this country should be supporting through it's federal housing policy. It doesn't serve the needs that those programs were motivated to solve. These are the unintended consequences.

In the broadest sense, what we'd like to do is to start the ball rolling on getting more funding towards the right type of development. More balanced, if you will. I hope more people appreciate how some very minor tweaks in federal regulations could put us on the course to delivering what these programs and the policies of the federal agencies involved -- whether it's HUD, FHA, or the quasi agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- have been trying to do.

They have goals that are aligned with good results, but the programs don't always play out that way. 

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