Legislators Support Housing Programs, Brace for Looming Budget Battle


BALTIMORE—A panel of state and federal legislators vowed to support tax credits and funding for housing programs Tuesday at the governor's annual housing conference. They said they would push for a balanced budget to prevent scheduled across-the-board federal budget cuts that could come early next year.

"(These budget cuts) are like taking an axe to the budget rather than a scalpel," said Rep. Donna Edwards, a Democrat who represents parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Previous budget cuts have already had a trickle-down effect on state agencies' funding.

The governor's housing conference brings together government officials, housing experts and advocates to discuss possible solutions to the field's most pressing issues. This year's theme was the revitalization of communities.

The meeting was led by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel, while Gov. Martin O'Malley helped open the year's CyberMaryland Conference at the nearby Baltimore Convention Center.

Raymond Skinner, secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said the agency has already seen devastating cuts to "bread and butter" block grant programs which expand affordable housing, rehabilitate blighted properties and provide financing assistance to homeowners and home buyers.

Sequestration, or more than $100 billion in automatic budget cuts which take effect in January if Congress can't agree on a budget, could mean an additional 8.4 percent in cuts to the housing department by next year, Skinner said.

Edwards said she would "lay down on the mat" to prevent loss of funding to more housing programs like low-income housing assistance and the mortgage interest tax deduction.

State Delegate Stephen Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, championed a bill sponsored by Senate Democrats Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., which would expand the Home Affordable Refinance Program. The program allows borrowers to refinance their Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac-backed loans even if they're deep underwater on their mortgage.

"So many people could benefit from refinancing these days, but it's a challenge because so many people are facing a drop in home values (in this market). We need to find some different strategies," Lafferty said.

We want to strengthen federal tools to match up homeowners with mortgage holders to prevent foreclosure, he said.

Edwards agreed, saying that there are so many homes underwater in Prince George's County that dealing with the aftermath of the housing collapse will require more creative solutions. The Menendez bill would allow homeowners to refinance loans with any lender, and therefore, shop around for competitive rates.

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