icon Breaking Ground

Denise Muha, Executive Director, National Leased Housing Association

10 min read

For 35 years, Denise B. Muha has served as the executive director of the National Leased Housing Association (NLHA), one of the oldest affordable housing advocacy organizations in Washington, DC.

She stays abreast of a myriad of ever-changing issues across diverse subjects, from tax credits to public housing and Federal Housing Administration to rural development. Muha has testified numerous times before Congress and has played an instrumental role in maintaining the long-term viability of the Section 8 program.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Muha to learn more about NLHA and current issues facing its members and to discuss the biggest changes she has seen in the evolution of the affordable housing industry over nearly four decades.  

Tax Credit Advisor: NLHA was founded more than 50 years ago. What was its initial mission and how has that mission changed over the years?

Denise Muha: There was a program called the Section 23 Leased Housing Program, which was administered by housing authorities that leased units from private apartment owners and they in turn leased them to low-income people. That’s how, initially, developers and housing authorities joined forces. The developers who were interested in working with housing authorities needed a way to network and meet other program participants. That was the genesis for creating NLHA and promoting the public-private partnership aspect of the Section 23 program.

TCA: Interesting, so whatever happened to Section 23?  

DM: Section 23 was authorized in 1965. Sometime around 1972, an experimental housing allowance program was created that evolved into Section 8. Our name was initially the Section 23 Leased Housing Association and then in 1975, it was changed to National Leased Housing Association.

TCA: There are a lot of organizations in Washington, DC that support the creation of more affordable housing. What distinguishes NLHA and its members from these other organizations?

DM: There are a lot of good organizations advocating for affordable housing. NLHA always maintained a narrow focus. We support all affordable housing, but we don’t get involved in home ownership or traditional rental housing. Our focus is federally assisted rental housing. That’s primarily Section 8, both project-based and tenant-based, and of course, the tax credit program that helps provide equity to preserve many of these older Section 8 buildings. We are all about those programs, making them better, making sure that they work, and that people understand the rules. We advocate not only for funding but for changes in policy and sometimes laws to make the programs work better.

TCA: What currently are the biggest issues facing your members?

DM: Funding is number one. If Congress fails to provide sufficient appropriations tenants will lose their housing, so we’re always advocating for full funding for Section 8, both project-based and tenant-based. Sometimes our issues require new legislation or technical changes to current housing laws be it related to occupancy, asset management or development issues, or making the tax credit program better. And of course, the ability of housing owners to obtain and afford insurance is of paramount concern right now, particularly in the affordable world. The cost of insurance—property and liability, assault and battery, builders risk, every type of insurance you can imagine—is doubling and tripling every year. It’s not sustainable.

TCA: This leads to my next question. I understand that you’re also coordinating a survey on insurance. What can you share about that?

DM: In 2021, in the middle of COVID, we heard from our members that insurance carriers were no longer providing certain types of coverage. Initially, it was the ability to obtain assault and battery coverage. We learned that carriers were using crime scores to set their premiums and determining that the risk was too high in certain zip codes, regardless of whether there was any crime at a particular property. A claim may never have been filed, but because the property was in a zip code where the insurance company’s algorithms indicated there was high crime, either the premiums went through the roof or coverage was denied. We decided to find out how much this was happening and where it was happening. We also wanted to study how different disasters affected insurance premiums, which we kind of knew the answer to, but we wanted to document it. We contacted other organizations, including the National Association of Home Builders and the National Multifamily Housing Council, and hired a firm to develop a survey. We sent it out to our collective members and over two million units were represented in the results (both conventional and affordable), which showed, on average, a 20 percent increase in insurance premiums. Very few respondents reported no increases in premiums and the most common reason given for higher prices was a limited market.

TCA: Is there anything new to report?

DM: Yes, we know insurance costs continue to rise, in some cases doubling. We want to know what areas have been impacted the most and to better understand how the increases affect affordable housing projects. We want to determine how property owners calculate property replacement values because that can be a complicated process. We also want to know if people are using their own risk managers, or if they are farming that out or relying on their insurance brokers. How many carriers have left the marketplace? What else are people doing to deal with their increasing costs? Are they self-insuring to some extent? NLHA commissioned the survey but will share the link with other affordable housing groups to share with their members. Our goal is to use the data on Capitol Hill, because the first thing that a member of Congress or a staff person asks is, “Where is your data?” We may need some kind of relief. I am not sure what that is, but part of this whole process is developing a strategy around what can be done to make a difference in the insurance marketplace and what role Congress can play. We’re also looking short-term at what the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require when it comes to insurance and can some of those rules be changed to make them more flexible. HUD, for example, requires three bids when a borrower renews insurance on a property with an FHA-insured mortgage. There may no longer be three carriers in that area, so we need to rethink some of these guidelines.

TCA: When is the new survey due out?  

DM: We’d like to have the survey out on the street by late August, give people a few weeks to respond, and then collect the survey results by the end of September, or early October. The sooner the better.

TCA: This is your 35th year serving as executive director. How has the affordable housing industry evolved over time and where do you think it’s headed? 

DM: When I first started, the ownership structures were not as sophisticated as they are today. Back in the day, people developed Section 8 properties because there was a tax incentive, known as accelerated depreciation, that incentivized people to invest. Maybe it was the local dentist, a doctor and a lawyer, who created a partnership and developed housing. Now you have these professional entities that are focused specifically on building or preserving affordable housing. Affordable housing looks different too. At one time, subsidized housing was often the only high-rise in a small town that had little balconies, a basic design and little charm. When these properties were recapitalized and renovated over these last 20 years, most of them were redesigned to look like market-rate apartment buildings and are now quite nice. The last thing I would mention is that nobody talked about services when I first got into the business. Owners started offering services because their elderly tenants were aging, and they knew there was a cost to turning over units. So, how do you keep people aging in place? You bring in a van to take them to the doctor’s office. You might have Meals on Wheels come in. Most of our members have enhanced social services and not just for elderly residents but family properties as well. Our members offer daycare, summer camps and computer rooms. These things didn’t exist 35 years ago, but the mentality has changed, and people realized that when you develop a community versus a building the results are much better for everybody.

TCA: Tell me about the NLHA Education Fund. Why was it created and what impact has it had?    

DM: I’ve always worried about resident outcomes. One of the criticisms of our programs is that people on Capitol Hill say, ‘Tenants never leave once they get a housing subsidy.’ Well, the data doesn’t bear that out. The average length of time that someone holds a Section 8 voucher is around six years. For family housing, the data shows that the outcomes are much better for children living in safe and stable housing. A lot of studies support that, but my thought was what could we do as an industry to facilitate opportunities for education? One of our members approached me and suggested we develop a scholarship program. He committed to donating X amount of dollars over five years from his commissions. He was a broker. I’m like, okay, I’m going to start a foundation. I created this nonprofit and since 2007 we have awarded $1.6 million in scholarships not only to people graduating high school and going to college, but also to non-traditional students, like single mothers, people with disabilities and people who want to learn a trade. We’ve seen kids go through four years of college and then go to graduate school using some of the money that we can provide. We generally don’t provide their whole tuition, but we supplement whatever they have. It makes me very proud. We know we’re making a difference, and our members support it because they want to make a difference. All told, we’ve supported about 500 students.

TCA: You’ve given a substantial part of your professional career to the affordable housing business. What achievement(s) are you most proud of?  

DM: There have been a lot of little victories over the years, but two things stand out. The Multifamily Assisted Housing Reform and Affordability Act, or MAHRA, was passed in the late 1990s to provide a solution for renewing Section 8 contracts when they started to expire. It took a lot of work to convince Congress that if those contracts were allowed to expire, many people would lose their housing and the assisted housing stock would be severely diminished. The outcome was what it needed to be and we’re proud that we preserved 1.5 million units with that legislation. We continue to work on a multitude of preservation issues around that bill. The other measure that NLHA helped develop and promote was the Quality Work and Responsibility Housing Act, which passed around the same time as MAHRA and consolidated two similar tenant-based subsidy programs (Section 8 certificates and vouchers) to create today’s Housing Choice Voucher program.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.