Tom Bozzuto and George W. Bush

As some of you know, I had the extraordinary opportunity to sit with and interview President George W. Bush a few weeks ago at the National Multi Housing Council’s Annual Meeting. NMHC is the national association representing the leading companies in the apartment industry, and there were more than two thousand people in attendance at this meeting.

Regardless of your opinion of President Bush, you would have to agree that there is something awesome about having the opportunity to interview one of the 44 people who have been President of this country. At least, I thought it awesome. And, to my surprise, it was actually great fun. The President is a delightful, interesting and thought-provoking speaker. He also is quite entertaining.

But the purpose of this entry is not to be a show and tell in which I talk about how much fun I had interviewing the President this winter. The purpose is to relate one of the most interesting discussion items that came out of our interview.

Keeping in mind that we were in front of an audience of apartment builders, owners, and managers, I asked, as you would expect me to, if Bush would agree that the government had gone too far in pushing homeownership on the American public, and whether in fact the government didn’t deserve some of the blame for the economic disaster that has affected our country. While he was very careful not to criticize any prior administration, he very willingly acknowledged that under his leadership, the country had gone way too far in urging on and facilitating homeownership. But what he then said was the most striking and important thing we heard. He said that while he was pushing the “ownership society” and homeownership, there was no one in the Oval Office telling him of the risks associated with this. He then looked around the room, and it seemed to me, said to all of us in the apartment industry, “Where were you when we were doing this?”

Well, I’ve thought a lot about this question ever since. After all, the NMHC has had a Political Action Committee for years, and has been lobbying for a “balanced housing policy” for a long time. And while those of us doing the talking heard the message, frankly the PAC was too small and the voice too soft (the latter being a function of the former in American politics) to have any meaningful impact.

So, the best thing we can do to ensure that our voice is heard on Capitol Hill and in the Oval Office is to make sure that this same thing doesn’t happen again. The leaders of our company have committed to increase our contribution to the NMHC PAC significantly over last year. But there are other companies, Equity Residential comes to mind, where all senior employees are given an opportunity to contribute. I have hesitated to do that because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was watching over their contribution to the PAC as part of their personal evaluation. But I have been convinced that we should give people the opportunity to contribute to ensure that the apartment industry has a meaningful voice in Washington, even if that contribution is as small as five dollars. And so we will be doing this in the next month or so.

There are an awful lot of important issues in front of Congress today that affect the apartment industry. The future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who have provided more than 60 percent of permanent financing for our industry, is just one example. We cannot sit on our hands and hope that Congress will pay attention to the needs of American renters when it has been proven time and time again that they seldom do.

I suspect that there are some who are reading this who are thinking how awful it is that we have to contribute politically in order to have our interests heard by our elected representatives. I suppose it is awful, but it is also reality. As demonstrated by the President’s answer to my question, you have to have a loud voice to make yourself heard above the cacophony in DC. The thirty five percent of Americans who live in apartments are best represented and best heard if we all contribute to making the NMHC PAC a louder voice.