The Housing Assistance Council is an independent, non-partisan and regularly responds to Congressional committees, Member offices, federal agencies, and policy advocacy coalitions with the research and information needed to make informed policy decisions. Our research work, Rural Data Portal, and Veterans Data Central all provide valuable, educational context to frame the rural policy conversation. If you want to know how a new program or policy could impact America’s small towns and rural places, please don’t hesitate to contact us at policy@ruralhome.org.

Policy News from the Administration

HAC Comments on OMB Guidance on Grants and Agreements – December 2023

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) put out a call for comments on their guidance for Grants and Agreements, with a lens toward making grants processes more equitable. HAC submitted comments in support of more proactive geographic equity in the federal grants process. In addition to recognizing capacity building and access to capital as two essential equity issues in rural places, HAC’s comments focused on the recommendations below.

  • Instituting a Rural Impact Analysis for New Regulations
  • Investing in Capacity Building and Rural Intermediaries
  • Eliminating, Reducing or Modifying Cost-sharing and Matching Requirements that Disparately Impact Rural Communities
  • Streamlining and Increasing Uniformity in Applications
  • Including or Increasing Administrative and Predevelopment Costs as Eligible Activities in Rural Places
  • Recognizing the Rural Challenges in Metrics and Data Reporting
HAC Comments on OMB Guidance on Grants and Agreements 12.04.23

The New CRA Rule: A Preliminary Look at Potential Implications for Bank Investment in Rural Community Development

On October 24, 2023, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) issued a final rule overhauling the regulations that implement the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which encourages federally insured banks to meet the credit needs of the communities in which they do business, especially low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities. This is the most significant joint effort in over three decades to modernize the way regulators evaluate bank performance under the CRA.

HAC is committed to helping our partners understand the potential impact of this new CRA rule. The rule, however, is nearly 1,500 pages in length, is highly complex, and will take effect over a nearly three-year period. Accordingly, this and forthcoming analyses must be considered preliminary.

The Evaluation Framework

Banks receive CRA ratings of “Outstanding,” “Satisfactory,” “Needs to Improve,” or “Substantial Non-Compliance.” The final rule continues the regulators’ longstanding approach of tailoring the CRA examination tests to bank size and type.[1] The final rule raises the current asset threshold for each of the bank size categories.

  • Large Banks (over $2 billion in assets) are subject to two tests of equal weight.
    • A Retail Lending Test evaluates a bank’s origination and purchase of loans, including home mortgage loans and multifamily loans if it offers them.
    • A Community Development (CD) Test consists of a CD Financing Subtest (40 percent of the total) and a CD Services Subtest (10 percent of the total).
    • A HAC analysis in 2016 found that 2.4 percent of banks headquartered in rural or small-town census tracts that consistently received “Outstanding” or “Satisfactory” ratings were subject to the large bank exam.
  • Intermediate Banks ($600 million-$2 billion in assets) are also subject to equally weighted Retail Lending and CD Tests.
    • The Retail Lending Test evaluates a bank’s origination and purchase of loans, including home mortgage loans and multifamily loans if it offers them.
    • Intermediate Banks may opt in or out of the new rule’s CD Test and CD Financing and CD Services Subtests.
    • Intermediate Banks that opt out are subject to the current CD Test, which has three subtests:
      • CD Lending
      • CD Investment
      • CD Services
    • HAC’s 2016 analysis found that 5.4 percent of banks headquartered in rural or small-town census tracts which consistently received “Outstanding” or “Satisfactory” ratings were subject to the intermediate bank exam (then known as the intermediate small bank exam).
  • Small Banks (less than $600 million in assets) may opt into the new rule’s Retail Lending Test – or may choose to continue to be evaluated under the current small bank test. They are not subject to a CD test.
    • HAC’s 2016 analysis found that 79.4 percent of banks headquartered in rural or small town census tracts that consistently received “Outstanding” or “Satisfactory” ratings were subject to the small bank exam.
  • Limited purpose banks—with just one primary product line such as credit cards (e.g., Amex Bank, Capital One)—are subject only to the CD Financing Subtest.
  • A Strategic Plan option allows banks of all sizes to choose to seek the regulators’ approval of a CRA strategic plan tailored to the bank’s lines of business and specific credit needs identified through a formal input process by the communities the bank serves.

Historically, bank examiners would conduct both quantitative and qualitative assessments of CRA performance under both the Retail Lending and CD Test and its subtests. Banks would be measured against benchmarks for lending and CD investment volume among other metrics relative to their size, business model, and comparable institutions. Quantitative ratings would be supplemented with qualitative assessments including taking account of the bank’s “performance context”—e.g., the economic conditions in the places it served—and determining whether a bank’s lending and CD investments were especially “responsive to a community’s credit and community development needs.” This qualitative element also allowed examiners to consider the terms and flexibility of bank CRA capital offered in particular LMI communities. Rural geographies benefitted especially from a qualitative component to CRA evaluation given their relatively greater capacity-constrained CD ecosystems and limited deal flow and transaction size.[2]

The final rule maintains the combined quantitative and qualitative CRA evaluation framework, but modifies and augments it in several important ways. The remainder of this analysis focuses on the rule’s approach to the new CD Test and Subtests and the potential ramifications for affordable housing and community development in rural America.

Opportunities for Rural Community Development Under the New CD Test

CRA-motivated bank investments, loans, and services have always played a role in rural community development.[3] But it has been challenging under the current CRA framework to increase bank commitments in rural communities, for a number of reasons—some of which are unique to rural areas and some of which are shared with urban and suburban communities.

First, as noted above, the large majority of banks headquartered in rural areas and small towns—and most likely to have branch and ATM networks there—are small banks not subject to a community development test at all. Intermediate-small and large banks were evaluated under the current rule primarily on their CD investments, lending, and services within their Assessment Areas (AAs), selected by the banks themselves and defined as the geographic areas that could reasonably be served by each of a bank’s locations, including its main office, any branches, and deposit-taking ATMs. Relatively few of their AAs encompassed rural geographies. As HAC’s research highlighted, large and intermediate bank support for rural communities faced an obstacle in their uncertainty about whether they would receive CRA credit for work outside their AAs.

The final rule makes major progress on addressing this challenge. While the new CD Test requires large banks and opting-in intermediate banks to meet the CD Financing and Services needs of their facility-based AAs, it also creates a “nationwide AA” to ensure that all CD Financing and Services activities contribute to an institution’s CRA rating.[4]

Second, the final rule highlights several factors that examiners will specifically take into account when conducting the qualitative “impact and responsiveness review” of a bank’s CD Financing and Services. These include whether the investment, loan, or service benefits or serves:

  • one or more Persistent Poverty Counties (PPCs);
  • residents of Native Land Areas; or
  • one or more geographic areas with low levels of community development financing.

Each of these factors will tend to reward bank CD Financing and Services in rural areas given their 1) demonstrable overrepresentation among PPCs, and Native Land Areas; and 2) likely overrepresentation among geographic areas with low levels of community development financing given consistent findings of underinvestment from other sources, such as philanthropy.[5]

Additional impact and responsiveness review factors specifically mentioned by the rule include bank financing that:

  • supports a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI);
  • takes the form of a grant or donation; or
  • invests in a Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) or New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) project.

Given the scarcity of other public and private sector community development resources in rural areas, coupled with often challenged local economies, rural communities especially need the patient, flexible capital provided by CDFIs. Similarly, they have a disproportionate demand for grant funding and equity investments in CD projects and organizations rather than loans. Accordingly, an evaluation framework that specifically recognizes the impact and responsiveness of these approaches has the potential to benefit rural America.

For rural places, these factors may also interact positively with the above-mentioned addition of a “nationwide AA.” For example, a bank that today might hesitate to invest in a LIHTC or NMTC project outside of its facility-based footprint may choose to do so under the final rule, leading to a more geographically equitable distribution of resources over the long term.[6]

Third, CRA-motivated investment in all communities—urban, suburban, rural and small town—suffered under the prior CD Test from a lack of clarity around what loans, investments, or services were eligible for CRA credit. Other than a few long-deemed eligible activities, such as LIHTC or NMTC investments, banks and their community partners were often uncertain about the CRA impact of a new, innovative, or complex CD or affordable housing activity—often the very kinds of financial products and services needed by the most distressed rural communities.

The final rule states that the regulators will jointly “maintain a publicly available, non-exhaustive illustrative list of examples of community development activities that qualify for CRA consideration, including examples of qualifying affordable housing activities. The list will be periodically updated.” Additionally, the rule sets forth a formal process by which a bank can seek advance confirmation that a community development will be considered CRA-eligible.

Conclusion

As previously noted, the new CRA rule is a massive and complex document, representing a major shift in the implementation of this landmark statute. HAC and others will continue to analyze the rule—as well as early feedback from our partners as the transition period begins—and provide periodic updates. In the meantime, we urge our partners to consider approaching current or potential CRA-motivated funders of your work to inquire whether the aspects of the final rule described here might provide incentives for them to begin, increase, or modify favorable their CD financing and services investments in rural communities.

Footnotes

[1] The current CRA examination process is described in Making CRA Work in Rural America: Finding “Outstanding” Financial Institutions, part of HAC’s three-part series of reports “CRA in Rural America” published in 2016.

[2] When in 2019-2020, then-Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting put forth a CRA modernization rule shifting CRA evaluation to an entirely metrics-based approach, HAC submitted comments (as did numerous other affordable housing groups) expressing concern about the negative impact removing the qualitative element would have on banks’ incentive to invest in the most distressed rural and urban LMI communities.

[3] Indeed, CRA-motivated investments are a major driver of affordable housing and community development investment in general. For example, CohnReznick estimates that approximately $24.5 billion of capital was committed to housing tax credit investments in 2022 and that the CRA-motivated capital was the source for approximately 82 percent of that amount.

[4] Large national banks play an outsized role in CRA-motivated affordable housing and community. National banks control about 70 percent of the banking systems total assets. Over 99 percent of investments in LIHTC in 2022 from national banks were made by banks with over $10 billion in assets.

[5] The regulators note that currently there is not sufficiently comprehensive local CD financing data to implement this review factor, but expect to be able to do so in the near future, aided in significant part by the more detailed and robust bank CD data reported under the final rule itself.

[6] It should be noted that HAC joined other commenters on the proposed rule expressing concern that collapsing the prior CD Investment and Lending Subtests into a single CD Financing test might incentivize banks to make loans rather than equity investments in LIHTC and NMTC. The final rule’s inclusion of the equity review factor was designed to address this concern. It remains to be seen if banks do in fact maintain their investments in the LIHTC and NMTC markets.

HAC in the News

Groups Urge HUD and USDA to Finalize Efficiency Requirements for U.S.-Backed Homes

ACEEE, HAC, and Sierra Club logos

A federal proposal to ensure new homes supported by U.S.-backed mortgages and federal housing programs meet updated energy efficiency criteria garnered widespread support from stakeholders today. Groups advocating for affordable housingenergy efficiency, and climate mitigation united in urging the administration to finalize the action promptly.

The groups were joined by more than 6,000 individuals across the country who supported the proposal in public comments gathered by Sierra Club and submitted to regulators today.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed updating their efficiency requirements in May by issuing a preliminary determination. If the action is finalized, future residents of the homes at issue compared to homes under the current criteria will save an estimated $14,500 for single-family homes and $6,000 per multifamily unit overall, net of costs, over the lifetime of the homes thanks to lower energy bills, HUD and USDA calculated. It would avert 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for each year of new homes, the agencies said.

Jonathan Harwitz, director of public policy at the Housing Assistance Council, said: “Keeping housing affordable includes making utility costs affordable. We encourage HUD and USDA to move forward with this determination, and also to find ways to help cover upfront costs and to educate those who finance and build affordable housing.”

Lowell Ungar, federal policy director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said: “The longer we build brand-new inefficient homes, the more needless energy costs and climate pollution we’ll see for decades ahead. Just by meeting their legal mandate, the agencies will help ensure tens of thousands of new homes have lower energy bills and less risk of spiking costs. The analysis is clear; now they need to act promptly to get the job done.”

Jessica Tritsch, building electrification campaign director at the Sierra Club, said: “Too often renters and folks in low-income housing are left behind from programs that offer energy efficient housing and lower utility bills. This move by HUD will help ensure better access to climate-friendly appliances and healthier, more affordable homes. Adopting these new energy efficiency building codes is long overdue. We are committed to holding HUD, and other federal and state agencies, accountable to help low-income homeowners and renters access clean, safe, energy efficient housing.”

Background:

In bipartisan laws in 1992 and 2007, Congress directed HUD and USDA to periodically strengthen efficiency criteria for new homes purchased with federally backed loans such as Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and USDA mortgages, along with new homes with funding from other HUD programs, like the HOME Investment Partnerships grants for affordable housing. These homes—about 200,000 new ones each year—are primarily for low- and moderate-income homeowners and renters.

These criteria follow a model building energy code known as the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for single family houses and smaller multifamily buildings, and ASHRAE Standard 90.1 for high-rise multifamily buildings. The law requires HUD and USDA to update the criteria when the codes are updated every three years as long as the agencies determine that doing so would not negatively affect the availability or affordability of covered housing. But the regulators have not updated the criteria since 2015.

The agencies finally issued a preliminary determination for public comment in May for the 2021 IECC and Standard 90.1-2019 (the current requirements are the 2009 IECC and 90.1-2007). A provision in the omnibus spending bill enacted at the end of 2022 also requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to update its loan requirements based on the HUD-USDA criteria.

Houses and multifamily buildings meeting these criteria generally have more insulation in the walls and roofs, better air sealing and windows, and more energy-efficient systems, including better-sealed ducts. The homes waste less heat and allow more efficient heating and cooling with smaller HVAC systems.

Today is the final day for stakeholders to comment on the preliminary determination. When the agencies issue a final determination, they will implement the updated efficiency criteria in each covered program over a few months.

Media contacts:

ACEEE – Ben Somberg, 202-658-8129, bsomberg@aceee.org

HAC – Dan Stern, 202-516-6882, dan@ruralhome.org

Sierra Club – Shannon Van Hoesen, 202-604-2464, shannon.vanhoesen@sierraclub.org

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a nonprofit research organization, develops policies to reduce energy waste and combat climate change. Its independent analysis advances investments, programs, and behaviors that use energy more effectively and help build an equitable clean energy future.

The Housing Assistance Council (HAC) is a national nonprofit that supports affordable housing efforts throughout rural America. Since 1971, HAC has provided below-market financing for affordable housing and community development, technical assistance and training, research and information, and policy formulation to enable solutions for rural communities.

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person’s right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action.

Policy News from the Administration

HAC’s Comments on Rental Assistance Decoupling – August 2023

The Fiscal Year 2023 President’s Budget included a request to decouple USDA Section 521 Rental Assistance from Section 515 Multifamily Loans to facilitate the rehabilitation and preservation of the multifamily portfolio. To explore the potential impacts, Congress directed USDA to conduct a series of stakeholder meetings and provide a report on how decoupling would be implemented. HAC submitted comments in support of decoupling, with a focus on the topics below.

  • Making Long Term Affordability Parameters the Top Priority
  • Considering A Pilot Concept When Implementing Decoupling
  • Clarifying the Annual Rent Increase Process for Decoupled RA Units
  • Establishing A Plan for Units Without Rental Assistance in Decoupled Properties
  • Maintaining Support for the Entire Suite of Preservation Programs, Even If Decoupling Becomes an Option
  • Establishing A Plan for Prepayments, Since the Bulk of Units Are Lost to Prepayments
  • Improving Data Transparency At RHS

Read HAC’s full comments.

HAC Decoupling Comments 2023
Policy News town

HAC’s Comments on Duty to Serve – July 2023

The FHFA requested comments on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s Duty to Serve plans as part of their annual Duty to Serve Listening Sessions. Jonathan Harwitz, HAC’s Director of Public Policy, provided oral comments, accompanied by longer written comments, on behalf of HAC. If implemented robustly, Duty to Serve has the potential to improve the lives of people living in the most underserved communities. HAC’s comments focused on:

  • Maintaining USDA Section 515 preservation as a core goal of the rural Duty to Serve Plans;
  • Permitting targeted equity investments in CDFIs;
  • Using, and further refining, the new Colonias Census Tract definition; and
  • Meeting rural LIHTC equity investment goals.

Read HAC’s full comments.

HAC DTS Rural Listening Session Comments
Policy News field

HAC’s network supports improvements to USDA’s Rural Housing Service in letter to Congress

With the help of our network of organizations working across the country in rural areas, more than 100 organizations signed on to support bipartisan, cross-Committee collaboration to consider improvements to USDA’s Rural Housing Service (RHS) programs as part of the larger Farm Bill. Historically, the RHS programs have not been included in the Rural Development Title of the Farm Bill because they fall within the jurisdiction of the Banking Committee. But in recent months there has been increased cross-Committee momentum to include some bipartisan RHS modernizations in the Farm Bill, and we want to encourage that momentum to keep building. Check out the letter below to learn more. Thanks to all the organizations who signed on in support!

HAC Rural Housing Farm Bill Sign-on 2023 FINAL

Debt ceiling compromise limits spending, rescinds some HUD and USDA housing funds

The Fiscal Responsibility Act – the recently enacted compromise that suspends the debt ceiling until January 1, 2025 – makes fewer cuts than the Limit, Save, Grow Act passed by the House in April, but it almost certainly will limit federal spending on housing aid for the next two fiscal years. In addition to the well-publicized work requirements for SNAP and TANF recipients, reallocation of IRS funding, and revised environmental reviews, the measure includes a variety of other provisions, several of which impact rural housing.

  • It rescinds any unspent funds from the $39 million for Section 502 direct loans and 504 loans that was provided in the American Rescue Plan Act. (The June 8, 2023 HAC News reported incorrectly that $2 million in rental preservation technical assistance funds were also rescinded. The compromise did not rescind any preservation TA monies.)
  • It rescinds unspent monies appropriated by pandemic relief laws for the Emergency Rental Assistance and Homeowner Assistance Fund programs, and funds that were appropriated in the CARES Act but have not yet been spent by HUD for Tenant-Based Rental Assistance, Project-Based Rental Assistance, Native American housing, Section 811, and Section 202.
  • It caps overall FY24 funding for discretionary programs at around FY23 levels. Despite this limit on total spending, specific programs may receive amounts that are higher or lower than their FY23 levels. As it does every year, the appropriations process in Congress will make key decisions for individual programs.
  • Overall discretionary spending can increase only 1% from FY24 to FY25. The annual appropriations bills will set amounts for individual programs.
  • If appropriations do exceed the limits in FY24 or FY25, a sequester would make across-the-board cuts to discretionary programs.
  • Discretionary spending increases are also capped at 1% for fiscal years 2026-2029, but Congress can waive these caps if it chooses. It has no such option for FY24 and FY25.
  • If Congress uses a continuing resolution to fund any part of the government beyond January 1 of FY24 or FY25, funding for that year would be reduced. If a CR were still in effect on April 30, the funding cut would be applied to the entire year.
Policy News town

HAC’s Comments on Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund

HAC has submitted its second comment letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the the new $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) created by the Inflation Reduction Act. In late April, EPA released an implementation framework explaining that it plans to divide the program into three competitions. The $14 billion National Clean Investment Fund will fund two or three national nonprofits to partner with private capital providers to deliver financing at scale to businesses, communities, community lenders, and others. The $6 billion Clean Communities Investment Accelerator competition will fund two to seven hub nonprofits to build the capacity of lenders such as CDFIs and housing finance agencies to finance clean technology projects. The $7 billion Solar for All competition will make grants to states, Tribal governments, municipalities, and nonprofits to prepare low-income and disadvantaged communities for residential and community solar. EPA expects to issue Notices of Funding Opportunity as early as June.

HAC first commented in December after EPA asked for general feedback. In its second letter, HAC repeats some of the suggestions made in December and makes some additional points about the implementation framework, asking EPA to:

  • Address the unique needs of rural and persistent poverty communities.
  • Ensure that nonprofit CDFIs and their nonprofit housing development partners are explicitly eligible for GGRF resources.
  • Increase clarity and reduce administrative burden on recipients.
  • Exempt housing from Build America, Buy America requirements.

Read HAC’s full comments here.

HAC GGRF Comment Letter
HAC President & CEO, David Lipsetz, testifies in front of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development

HAC’s CEO Testifies to Senate Banking Subcommittee on Rural Housing Reforms

HAC was honored to be invited to testify on May 2, 2023 before the Housing, Transportation, and Community Development Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to discuss commonsense, bipartisan reforms to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service (RHS) programs. HAC’s President & CEO, David Lipsetz, was one of five witnesses on the hearing panel.

The hearing was held to discuss the bipartisan Rural Housing Service Reform Act of 2023, which has been introduced by Subcommittee Chairwoman Tina Smith (D-MN) and Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD). The RHS Reform Act includes a slate of provisions to improve the multifamily, single-family, and capacity building programs at RHS. Senators Smith and Rounds engaged deeply with stakeholders on the creation of the bill, including offering a call for policy recommendations in the summer of 2022. HAC’s response to that comment opportunity can be seen here. We were thrilled to see many of our recommendations included in the bill, and applaud Senators Smith and Rounds on their thoughtful engagement with stakeholders and their commitment to improving the RHS programs.

Highlights from the RHS Reform Act include:

  • Multifamily

    • Authorizing the Multifamily Preservation and Revitalization (MPR) program and Multifamily Preservation Technical Assistance Program
    • Allowing for the decoupling of a Section 515 mortgage and Section 521 Rental Assistance
    • Allowing Section 542 rural vouchers to be adjusted based on changes in tenant income
    • Streamlining the process for Section 515 nonprofit transfers and increasing the Section 515 nonprofit set aside
  • Single Family

    • Establishing the Native CDFI Section 502 relending program
    • Increasing the threshold for the mortgage requirement on a Section 504 home rehab loan from $7,500 to $15,000
    • Extending the loan term for a Section 502 loan up to 40 years
  • Capacity Building

    • Authorizing the Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) and waiving the matching funds requirement for groups working in areas of persistent poverty
    • Requiring RHS to publish more data on their housing programs
    • Authorizing funding for much needed technology upgrades at RHS
Watch the Recording Read David’s Testimony HAC’s 2023 Policy Priorities
Policy News town

HAC’s Comments on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing

In February 2023, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requested public comments on a proposed regulation that is intended to ensure that HUD and entities receiving funding from HUD will “Affirmatively Further Fair Housing” (AFFH). This rule would implement the Fair Housing Act’s requirement for HUD and its awardees to proactively take meaningful actions to overcome patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, eliminate disparities in housing-related opportunities, and foster inclusive communities that are free from discrimination. The 2023 proposed rule is based on a 2015 rule that was never fully implemented.

HAC supports many aspects of HUD’s proposal. HAC also supports suggestions for improvements made in comment letters prepared by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and National Housing Law Project, and HAC — along with many other organizations — signed those letters. In addition, to emphasize some points that are particularly relevant to AFFH efforts in rural America, HAC submitted its own comment letter.

In its letter, HAC makes three primary points regarding state and local governments’ development of AFFH Equity Plans:

  • Community engagement must be offered in many different ways.
  • Analyses must be conducted in smaller geographic areas.
  • Data on USDA-supported housing must be specifically included.

Read HAC’s full comments here.

HUD AFFH 2023 Comment Letter