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Housing Summit Series: Sharon Wilson Géno

Sharon Wilson Geno Our second speaker spotlight is shining on Sharon Wilson Geno, a partner at the law firm Ballard Spahr LLP. She will take part in a lively discussion of the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 16. Here is a sneak peak at where Sharon sees the RAD program headed and who she would love to see headline the 2014 Housing Summit.

The Housing Summit will attract attendees from all segments of the housing industry. In a sentence or two, please describe what you do.

I am partner at the law firm of Ballard Spahr, LLP in Washington, D.C. specializing in affordable housing and community development law. There are over 70 lawyers in our housing practice who represent interests over the entire housing spectrum – from high end resorts to public and subsidized housing and everything in between. My work is primarily on behalf of public and private entities that are involved in transactions and regulatory matters that utilize subsidized housing, low income housing tax credits, HOME/CDBG and other forms of government assistance.

When did you become interested in housing, and why?

I grew up in St. Louis, a city that has struggled for many years with poverty and disinvestment. Even as a child, I was interested in a career that would allow me the chance to try to better the community where I lived. After law school in Washington, D.C., I returned to St. Louis to work as a general practice lawyer, but felt uninspired. I began doing pro bono legal work for the local Habitat for Humanity chapter where I learned enormous amounts about need for and the development of affordable housing. In just over a year, I quit my job, returned to school to pursue a Master’s Degree in Urban Policy and later, began a career in affordable housing and community development law. There has not been a day in twenty (20) plus years that I have regretted that decision.

What is the most critical housing issue that we should be paying attention to today?

Funding, funding, funding! As our country has rebounded somewhat from the financial crisis in 2008, the need for affordable housing just continues to grow for a variety of reasons which were articulated so well in the BPC Housing Commission Report – population growth, loss of low wage jobs, rising urbanization and others. Projected population growth alone tells us that we are going to continue to lose ground in providing a sufficient supply of affordable homes, unless or until government at all levels, directs more resources to affordable housing investment, at least for a period of time.

RAD, and other HUD programs, have shown that the private sector is willing participate in public-private partnerships that provide some of the needed capital and share some of the risk. On the other hand, history teaches us that market forces cannot do it alone. “Housers” should not cede ground in the battle for domestic discretionary appropriations for housing programs simply because the private sector has proven that it is willing to provide some support. So much more is needed.

I realize that government spending has gone out of fashion in many corners, but we have already seen that our government’s decision to disinvest in housing over the last decade or so has been pennywise and pound foolish. Study after study demonstrates the significant government cost savings in other programs, such as health care, social security, criminal justice system, foster care, and education, when low income households have a stable roof over their heads. Even a relatively modest investment in affordable housing is an effective way to reduce the Federal government’s ever growing cost on entitlement and other programs.

Your session is on the Rental Assistance Demonstration program. What, in particular, do you hope to see addressed in the discussion or during the Q&A period?

RAD can be a great tool for certain properties to leverage private investment for much needed, long overdue repairs so those properties can be available for needy households for years to come. However, as I have seen in my practice, it does not raise enough capital to work for every property. As we continue to close deals, we have all learned a lot about how the private market is evaluating the risks and benefits in these type of transactions. I am sure HUD will continue to tweak the program, so that it can be as effective as possible, but without additional resources, there is only so much that can be accomplished through RAD. I hope we have an opportunity to discuss whether there are other strategies that could be used to address the properties where RAD as currently configured is not an effective tool.

If you were planning a housing summit, who would be your dream keynote speaker? Why?

This is a really difficult question, as there are so many great choices. I think I’d have to say President Obama. While the president has spoken often about housing following the crash in 2008 and reforms in the housing finance, it would be great for him to interact with participants at a housing conference that involves the broad spectrum of corporate, non-profit and public players. Housing is a place where public-private partnerships truly work and the investment has a huge pay-off for the government. It is not a “red” or a “blue” issue. It would be great to have the president spotlight the positive impact that housing has both on the economy, as well as on the lives of individuals who benefit from housing assistance.

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