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updated: 7/25/2013 10:29 AM

A lobby for homeowner interests

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WASHINGTON -- Do 75 million homeowners need their own advocate before Congress and federal agencies on issues such as the mortgage interest tax deduction, retention of low down payment loans, and the start of tougher financing rules next January?

Who knows? But a group of mortgage and real estate industry veterans, joined by leaders of national community development, fair housing and consumer groups, are set to launch an unusual effort -- a national nonprofit organization modeled after AARP, the seniors lobby, solely to speak for the home-owning public.

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It's called America's Homeowner Alliance, and is scheduled to be formally announced within the next two weeks. The mission, according to its sponsors, is to "protect and promote sustainable homeownership for all segments" of the population -- from moderate-income renters saving money for a down payment to long-established owners.

Members will be asked to pay annual dues of $20 -- AARP's dues by comparison are $16 -- and will receive access to an extensive program of rewards and discounts from more than 1,000 participating companies who offer home-related products and services. They range from Home Depot to Lowe's, Best Buy, Sears, Verizon, major appliance manufacturers, furniture and housewares stores, and encompass what sponsors say will be more than 1 million products. Members will earn points on every product purchase and be able to redeem them for merchandise, travel or other benefits.

The new group, which will be headquartered in St. Louis, is the brainchild of Phil Bracken, former executive vice president for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage and now chief policy officer of government relations for Radian Guaranty Inc., a private mortgage insurer. His specialty as a lender has been financing and promoting affordable homeownership, especially for entry-level buyers, and he has chaired or co-chaired groups such as the Consumer/Lender Roundtable in Washington, D.C. Bracken will serve as chairman of the Alliance. Its president and CEO will be Tino Diaz, who heads a management consulting firm in Florida and is a former chairman and president of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

The group's directors and advisory board represent a mix of industry and consumer group leaders, including several from Asian, Hispanic and African-American real estate organizations, plus the Consumer Federation of America.

In an interview, Bracken said the Alliance is needed "because no one currently represents homeowners' interests," even though trade groups representing realty brokers, lenders and builders take positions on legislative and regulatory issues that often coincide with those interests.

Lisa Rice, a vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance and a member of Bracken's advisory board, said that despite those supportive positions taken by trade groups, the fact remains: "Realtors represent Realtors; builders represent builders. There is no group that is only looking out for and taking care of homeowners."

Bracken said he expects to mount a multichannel marketing outreach campaign using social media and the efforts of organizations participating in the Alliance starting in September. He hopes to have 250,000 members within 12 months. By the end of the second year, the goal is 500,000 members and after five years, 5 million members.

"This is a long-term effort," he said, noting that it has taken AARP decades to grow into the powerhouse it is today. Like AARP, which focuses on a diverse and large pool of people 50 and older, the Alliance is targeted at a base of millions of consumers who often have common interests -- current property owners and millions of renters who would like to become homeowners.

How will the Alliance handle bread-and-butter real estate issues such as the mortgage interest deduction, which is a target this year for tax reformers who complain that homeowner write-offs add too much to the federal deficit and chiefly benefit upper-middle income and wealthy property owners? Bracken says the group will strongly favor retention of the deductions -- a position that coincides with the Realtors and homebuilders.

But at least one of Bracken's board members, John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, hints at the sort of internal policy splits that seem inevitable for the Alliance with its diverse makeup. Taylor said in an interview that if Congress wanted to cut out deductions for second homes to help reduce the federal deficit, he would be in favor -- and would urge the Alliance to work with tax reformers on that issue.

(The Alliance's website, which will go live once the group is formally launched, is www.myaha.com.)

• Write to Ken Harney at P.O. Box 15281, Chevy Chase, MD 20815 or via email at kenharney@earthlink.net.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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