By Stan Keasling, RCAC chief executive officer 

Earlier this month in DC, the National Rural Housing Coalition Board and the National Rural Self-Help Housing Association met. Both organizations met with staff from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – Rural Development and there were several areas of concern. First, much to the surprise of the technical and management assistance contractors, USDA Rural Development committed all but $2.5 million of the Section 523 Self-Help funds. This raises some concerns about the proposed funding levels in the House and Senate versions of the budget, and makes it critical that we achieve the Senate funding level of $25 million.

A long term solution to the rural definition is included in the Farm Bill. Some think that the bill will actually pass because Congress needs the savings contained in the bill to help them make a budget deal work. If the Farm Bill does not pass, then the continuing resolution will endure and will include a fix for the rural definition limited to fiscal year 2014.

There was a significant discussion about the length of time it takes USDA – Rural Development staff to approve loans. As a result of continuing cuts, the growing demands on USDA – Rural Development staff make it difficult for them to focus on processing 502 loans, which is a time intensive task. There was hope the packaging pilot program that has operated during the past several years would be able to help USDA – Rural Development with this workload. The proposed regulations for the piloting program are considered as a step backwards and many participants in the demonstration will cease to participate.

USDA – Rural Development did say that there was a change in policy recently that allows them to contract with third party inspectors even for final inspection. No one in the room outside of USDA – Rural Development staff knew of the change and I am still trying to find a copy of where it was made.

I know many of you use the Self-help Homeownership Opportunity Program (SHOP) and have concerns about the energy standards required by the Notice of Funds Available (NOFA). I joined Mitzi Barker, director of rural housing and planning division at Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RurALCAP), in a meeting with Senator Mark Begich’s (D-AK) office. We talked about the energy requirements of the SHOP program, Mitzi explained that RurALCAP did not apply for SHOP funds because the energy standards in Alaska do not conform to Energy Star III, even though the efficiency they achieve is equal to or above Energy Star. Begich’s office is reaching out to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Housing Assistance Council to see if they can help change the standard.

Happy Holidays to all of you. I hope that RCAC can add value to the work you are doing in the coming year.