Mel Watt becomes new chief overseeing Fannie, Freddie

Franco Ordonez

Mel Watt was sworn into a top housing finance post Monday afternoon while simultaneously bringing to an end a career in Congress spanning more than two decades.

The now-former representative from North Carolina was given the oath to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency by former Charlotte mayor and current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Watt’s path to his new position was cleared last month after a drawn-out debate that included a controversial rule change allowing him to be confirmed with a 57-41 Senate vote.

Watt, 68, said in a statement he was “honored” to lead the little known, but very powerful housing agency that oversees more than $5 trillion in mortgages and mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“Today’s housing finance system is one of the keys to our economic recovery, and I am grateful for the opportunity to help develop a strong foundation for moving this system forward for the benefit of all Americans at this critical point in our nation’s history,” Watt said in his statement.

Watt was first elected to Congress in 1992. He is a longtime member of the House financial services committee, which oversees housing issues. When nominating Watt for the position, White House officials said Watt played “a critical role” in passing the Dodd-Frank Act, which strengthened consumer protections, and spearheaded legislation to end predatory lending practices in the real estate market.

He is the first presidential-appointed, Senate-confirmed director since James Lockhart left the post in August 2009.

Lockhart’s deputy, Edward DeMarco, took over as acting director and has overseen Fannie and Freddie since. DeMarco helped guide the mortgage giants back to profitability, but at times butted heads with the Obama administration.

Critics fear Watt lacks the political independence and expertise for the complex job.

Watt’s tenure is largely expected to lead to a dramatic shift in housing policy. He demonstrated as much before he officially took over. He announced before Christmas that he intended to delay planned mortgage-fee increases to government-backed loans.

DeMarco had announced the fees as part of efforts to curb reliance on the mortgage lenders.

“The fee announcements took the industry by surprise in their specifics,” said Barry Zigas, the director of housing policy for the Consumer Federation of America. “Acting Director DeMarco has made no secret of his intention to keep raising the fees for Fannie and Freddie.”

A separate ceremonial swearing-in event was held Monday afternoon at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden.

At the FHFA swearing in, Watt addressed an audience made up of his family, industry representatives and FHFA staff members, according to attendees.

Watt noted his early criticism of predatory lending and junk mortgage practices.

He told staff he would soon be asking them about their personal stories, but he first wanted to share some of his own.

He spoke about his personal path from segregated North Carolina to his newest Washington post, and how access to homeownership for his family was crucial piece of his journey.

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory announced Monday that a special election will be held on May 6 to replace Watt. At least six Democrats are already running in the heavily Democratic district, which extends from Charlotte to Greensboro.

By Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Washington Bureau