It does the heart good to read of thousands of everyday Americans helping many of our returning warriors.  While most have come home and managed to assume some return to normalcy, thousands more need help.  For some that help might be in the form of advice as they search for a job, try to get into college, or even put their financial affairs in order.  Others need much more assistance perhaps even physical rehabilitation or mental health counseling.  As these young men and women try to get on with their lives and eventually leave the service, there is one area where America could extend a big helping hand and in so doing help relieve them of at least one immense burden—and that is making sure they have a roof over their head.

Rewind the clock more than four years ago to September 2005 in the days following hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.  By design, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) had never really been in the business of disaster relief housing, but as the housing need grew exponentially, a unique plan soon developed.  The FHA had within its portfolio thousands of foreclosed homes—so why not house victims of the hurricanes within some of the vacant homes? 

Knowing FEMA’s lead role in coordinating disaster housing, FEMA and FHA were able to successfully coordinate their efforts and FEMA agreed to help defray some of FHA’s expenses in support of its relief efforts.  FHA’s eligibility requirements were simple: you must have lost your home in the hurricane and be either a family with children or a senior citizen.  At its peak, more than 2,200 families found safety and solace within an FHA home—most of them in one of the states closest to Louisiana, Mississippi, or Texas.

Within a few months, families started asking if they could buy the home.  Recognizing their lives back home were not going to return to normal anytime soon (with schools and workplaces heavily damaged or gone and neighbors relocated across the country), many families simply wanted to begin their lives anew in a place they wanted to call home.  In response, FHA extended its program and also offered eligible families a discount off the fair market value.  More than 400 families used the FHA program. 

So why not do the same for our returning veterans?  This opportunity seems to make unique sense at this moment, especially given the massive number of foreclosed homes out there in the portfolios of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, VA, or FHA.  While FHA offered the hurricane victims a small discount off the fair market value of the homes, we can (and should) go much further this go around—why not offer a 100% discount?  Yes, a free home for these injured and brave men and women to enjoy with their loved ones.

There should be some eligibility requirements relative to need and family size and I would strongly recommend some housing counseling as a precursor to participation.  But given the nation’s desire (and I would add moral obligation) to support those brave men and women who have so unselfishly given so much, and  the historically high inventory of homes,  why not begin with a small pilot project involving 5000 homes?  The FHA and VA could work together with the GSE’s chief regulator and manage the program.  If successful, it could be expanded far more broadly.

I have little doubt the program would soon be extremely popular and even serve many functions beyond helping veterans and their families.  It could help revitalize communities and neighborhoods by filling thousands of currently vacant homes many of which have become a blight on the surrounding neighborhood. 

And in an industry without much good news, I suspect they too would find a large measure of satisfaction by helping these families who have given so much to us.  Isn’t it our time to give them a little more?  They certainly deserve that much.