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Gerald Hunter

IHFA president on why there's no place like home

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Housing is in Gerald Hunter's blood. His father toiled in the construction industry and worked for years in the real estate business. Hunter never intended to follow in his father's work boots--he chose a career of business and accounting--but housing always somehow seemed to follow him. In fact, when Hunter was a CPA in Salt Lake City, many of his clients primarily focused on real estate.

In 1987, Hunter was hired as chief financial officer of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, the Boise-based corporation that works both ends of the housing spectrum, managing a nearly $3 billion portfolio of home loans while partnering with dozens of nonprofits to assist Idaho's homeless.

Today, Hunter is president and executive director of IHFA, overseeing approximately 200 staff in five offices and serving nearly 23,000 customers.

You have been with IHFA through at least two significant economic cycles. The adage is that real estate drives our nation's economy and vice versa.

Yes, I've been through different cycles over the past 20 years and this one has been the most challenging to figure out exactly when we're going to come out of this economic turmoil. I have a little more optimism than some. We still see a fairly strong demand for our loan products. That sends a signal to me that there are people who want to buy homes. Many of them have been on the sidelines, and I'm optimistic that we're close to the bottom of the market, in terms of pricing.

Are there too many homes on the market?

In some respects, I think that's true. The number of foreclosures has been very high. That's an unfortunate outcome of our unemployment rate. It savaged a lot of Idaho families in terms of their ability to have decent, safe, affordable housing. But inventories are lower now than they have been for a while, and we're starting to see some house prices come up a little bit.

Many of your customers are walking through your doors to secure a loan or make a payment, but aren't you seeing more people who rely on your organization for counseling?

We serve as an approved counselor for the state of Idaho. What that means is that we're not only doing counseling for our borrowers, but we also help many others who secured their loans from other lenders. Every day, our counselors are speaking with people whose lives have been dramatically impacted--one story after another of hardship, dilemma and challenge.

There a number of federal programs available, but can you tell us about some of the best-kept secrets that can help keep people in their homes?

The Home Affordable Refinance Program is one. It can help people defer payments, possibly to the end of their mortgage or even lower their interest rates. It's a program that has been much-maligned in the national media, but we've had some success with it.

There's another program we launched a few months back: the Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program. It allowed us to find folks having difficulty with their mortgage--maybe they're underemployed or unemployed but they have a reasonable chance of regaining employment. So there's an opportunity for them to stay in their home and continue to make payments in the long run. We had very limited funding for the State of Idaho, but we used all those resources quickly and we were one of only six states in the nation to use all of our allotted funding. That ended up assisting more than 300 households.

Isn't it fair to say that many of these programs come and go as presidential administrations come and go?

There's no question. But once those decisions have been made, our position is, take maximum advantage of those resources and help those we serve the best we can.

What's the best advice for someone who is living in fear of losing their home?

They need to talk to their lender as soon as they can.

But overcoming that fear is daunting.

Absolutely. If you get behind on your mortgage payment--three, four or five payments--it's almost impossible to get back on top and continue to be a successful homeowner. You would probably think that many of our homebuyers would have a less-than-average capacity to sustain their loans. But in reality, our delinquency rates and foreclosure rates are less than the average statistics when you look at all of Idaho.

Is that because of your organization's counseling?

It's because we have such aggressive outreach in our servicing departments. We contact people quickly when they get behind. We try to figure out what's going on so we can put together a plan to get them back on track.

Can you speak to the relationships that IHFA has, formal or informal, with organizations that serve the homeless?

We work with more than two dozen organizations across the state--nonprofits that provide shelter, food and counseling, trying to help people back on their feet. In many cases, we can combine all of those different organizations together to secure greater efficiencies to secure grants or help with fundraising.

IHFA's portfolio also includes a good amount of economic development financing.

Something that's new for us is our collateral support program. We picked up $13 million to help put collateral behind small business to help stimulate lending activity in Idaho.

You're currently serving as president of the National Council of State Housing Finance Agencies, so I'm guessing you compare notes with other states.

Our organization is one of the best in the country--not from an asset size, but on a per capita basis. We probably do more lending than any state in the nation.

How much in loans do you have on the books right now?

Our asset base is about $2.7 billion. We do at least $500 million in business each year. That includes home loans, multi-family apartment loans, transportation [Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle or GARVEE] bonds and economic development financing.

Tell me about your colleagues who work here.

We provide much more than a paycheck. Time and again, our folks tell me how they're doing something meaningful. Our counselors hear these tough stories but they're helping people and that's quite satisfying.

I'm guessing that you see optimism where a lot of people don't.

People create their own path in life. If you're an optimist, and you work in that direction, I think good things will follow.