LEXINGTON, KY. — SHIRLEY McVAY WISEMAN is the first woman to be elected leader of the National Association of Home Builders. The mostly male representatives of the 157,133 member firms refer to her as ``our lady president'' and treat her with the respect commensurate with her 20-year career in building, her work with Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., and her successful climb to the top job of the NAHB.
Housing affordability will be one of her major concerns, she said at a press briefing in her home city of Lexington, where her company is based. ``Where Will Our Children Live?,'' she asks pointedly in a pamphlet essay she wrote for distribution to all member builders.
``Buying a home is too expensive for too many decent, hard-working Americans today, particularly young families,'' she says. ``I see it as the problem of the next decade and have already appointed a task force to help me identify the issues and look at innovative ways to design, build, and finance construction of affordable housing. I see the lack of affordable starter homes in the marketplace as a problem directly related to homelessness.''
The national median price for new homes is expected to reach $119,000 this year, up 5.2 percent from 1988.
Builders, she declares, must find the way to engineer safe, sanitary, good-quality homes with the essential features, for the lowest possible cost, perhaps using more economical designs and different materials. Her task force will help determine both short-range and long-range goals for the NAHB. It will also look into regulatory reforms that could be made at the local level, such as making concessions on density for moderately priced houses for first-time buyers and cutting back on the bureaucracy that governs the whole development process.
Ms. Wiseman has already met several times with Jack Kemp, the Housing and Urban Development secretary, and recently with Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. She told Mr. Greenspan that rising interest rates were slowing sales and construction from coast to coast and that multifamily construction was down 40 percent from production levels two years ago.
``I also told him that we feared that the economy was getting dangerously close to a recession and that he could expect an even bigger drop in construction and sales unless interest rates came down soon.''
Based on secondary market figures, interest rates on 30-year loans are about 10.75 percent today, down from a peak of 11.75 in late March. Initial rates of adjustable rate loans are about 9.5 percent, up from the 7.75 percent starter rates available a year ago.
She indicated that high interest rates are beginning to slow the single-family housing market around the country. Despite the slowdown, however, she forecast about 1 million single-family home starts and about 620,000 new home sales this year.
She warned Greenspan that unless there was a loosening of monetary policy soon, builders could be in bad shape by the end of the year.
Wiseman said the NAHB was supporting housing legislation introduced by Sens. Alan Cranston (D) of California and Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York which would:
Raise the Federal Housing Administration mortgage ceiling to 95 percent of the median price of a home in high-cost areas.
Lower down payments on FHA loans.
Allow buyers to withdraw funds from IRAs, 401 (k) accounts, and other retirement plans to purchase first homes.
Provide grants to local communities and states to stimulate construction of affordable housing and increase aid for the homeless.
Hearings are this month.
How did Shirley McVay Wiseman get into the builder business?
``Out of necessity,'' she replied. ``I had been a department store buyer, but I was newly divorced and had two children and needed to make more money. So I studied for my real estate license and got a job selling houses for a local builder, and also enrolled in real estate, drafting, and blueprint-reading courses.
``While working for the builder, I learned everything I could about contracting and plumbing and cementmaking, so I could be a more intelligent real estate salesperson. Then I got hooked on building and took on the job of `construction superintendent' for seven years, supervising the entire construction of a house from staking out to excavation, framing, plumbing, wiring, and bricklaying.
``My best teachers were not in classrooms, but on the job sites. Those plumbers, electricians, and bricklayers taught me what they knew and I was eager to learn. Then I borrowed money from the bank and began to build a few houses on my own. My first house, 25 years ago, sold for $12,750, and that included the lot. I formed my own company and constructed more than 1,500 single-family homes, intended for moderate-income families, to sell in the $60,000-to-$77,000 range. I am now thinking even more about basic, down-to-earth, no-frills housing that would make home ownership possible to more young people. I'm not against central vacuum cleaners, and water softeners and filters, and fireplaces, and trash compactors, and greenhouse additions, I just think they can be optional items that homeowners can add later.''
At each step along the way, she says, she was helped by more senior builders who admired her pluck and tenacity.
Asked if she had met much male opposition, she said, ``Well, a few men have told me that a man's organization shouldn't be run by a woman. And one workman told me once that it was against his religion to take orders from a woman, so I had to give him instructions through a male co-worker.''
Being a woman builder, as well as a wife and mother, she thinks has enabled her to know what makes a house work.
``I am neither an architect nor a designer, but I know how to adapt plans to meet the needs of the families that will live in my houses. I can glance at plans and see what will and will not work. I know what makes bathrooms functional with counters and shelves, and that linen closets should be accessible to bedrooms, and that you don't leave wasted corners in the kitchen. I think a house without a broom closet is an abomination. And that hall closets must be ample enough in size to hold bulky winter coats of household members, as well as coats of visiting guests.''
Wiseman, who heads Wiseman Construction and Development Company Inc. here, and Wiseman Homes of Florida Inc., in Orlando, Fla., sees building as a great field for women, but says that less then 1 percent of NAHB members are women. Though building may be perceived as a man's business, she terms it a ``wide-open field'' and urges women to get involved.