HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan wants mortgage incentives for energy-efficient homes

Picture this: You’re shopping for a larger home, dropping by open houses on a weekend. Each house you visit has an easy-to-understand disclosure about something that’s typically unknown today -- its energy-guzzling costs per year.

The Obama administration’s top housing official -- Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development -- thinks consumers deserve more information on the energy efficiency of the houses they buy, both resale and newly built. And he thinks mortgages should come with lower rates or better terms to encourage purchases and retrofits that save energy.

“When you buy a car,” he said, “you know very clearly what the energy efficiency of that is because there’s a number on the window. It says: Here’s the gas mileage. We don’t know that for housing.”

A Harvard-trained architect who ran New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development for four years before coming to HUD, Donovan said his agency was in the early stages of discussions with federal energy officials to develop “a relatively simple scoring system for housing that would allow you to understand what you’re buying and at the same time allow lenders to factor that into their mortgage. Ultimately, if your energy bills are going to be lower, there ought to be some [mortgage] benefits to that.”

The system might also factor in transportation costs to employment centers in some way, he said, because “most people don’t realize that the average American family spends over 50% of their income on a combination of housing and transportation.” Even with far-flung suburbs’ lower prices for houses, “their transportation costs are huge” -- and metropolitan sprawl itself represents a massive energy-consumption inefficiency.

Mortgage terms -- higher loan amounts for buyers to make energy-conserving improvements, lower mortgage rates for energy-efficient homes -- “can be a very powerful tool” in residential energy conservation, Donovan said, and the booming Federal Housing Administration insurance program would be a good place to start.

“If in the long run there’s a cost of $5,000 to upgrade a house that will produce $10,000 in savings over time for utilities, the perfect tool to realize those savings is a mortgage,” he said.

Although Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA all have had versions of “energy-efficient mortgages” on the books for years, their programs have been poorly marketed and little used. Donovan wants to revive and improve the concept.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Donovan also touched on a variety of other issues.

On national housing policy, he believes that although “homeownership is a very important national goal,” federal policy is “imbalanced” -- overwhelmingly favoring single-family ownership over rental housing options, which tend to allow greater density and more-efficient land use.

Rather than try to limit federal tax breaks that are heavily skewed to ownership, Donovan would prefer to expand and improve the FHA’s apartment-financing programs and produce more rental housing options in general.

On tax issues, Donovan believes that there are millions of potential buyers of houses who do not itemize deductions and would not now qualify for money-saving write-offs for mortgage interest and property taxes. In his view, they should receive some form of federal tax break, as proposed by Obama during his campaign.

Donovan also believes that there has been a misperception about the administration’s budget proposal to limit deductions for upper-income households earning $250,000 or more. This “wasn’t targeted at the mortgage interest deduction,” he said, but rather “was really about deductions more broadly,” because taxpayers in higher brackets get far greater benefits for making charitable contributions or owning a home than households in the middle and lower brackets.

On the FHA, Donovan is “absolutely concerned” by its explosive growth -- from less than a 3% market share during the boom years to more than 30% today. That sort of rapid expansion increases the potential for fraud and bad loans slipping through, which is why he is pressing congressional appropriations committees for money to upgrade the FHA’s computer systems and monitoring ability, plus adding staff.

Distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.