No More Excuses on Relief to American Homeowners

Read also: Home Opportunity Initiative

One by one, the excuses have fallen. Yet Edward DeMarco, acting head of FHFA, the agency that runs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, still fails to offer the most effective relief available to American homeowners struggling with mortgages held by those entities. Economists, housing experts, and members of DeMarco’s own staff have concluded that reducing to affordable levels the principal owed on at-risk mortgages is effective in reducing foreclosures and their destructive fallout. But, inexplicably, he’s been unmoved by the mounting evidence.

Two weeks ago, after hinting at a possible change of heart, DeMarco punted on the question, saying it needed more study and stating that such a policy question “should be determined by Congress.” But the evidence is too clear, and the stakes are too high, for further delay. It’s time for Mr. DeMarco to either act in the nation’s interest or get out of the way.

While many parts of our economy have gradually improved over the last several years, foreclosures are on the rise in regions around the country. The foreclosure data company RealtyTrac has predicted that one million American homes may enter foreclosure in 2012. An estimated 12 million Americans currently owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, meaning that millions more are at risk.

Fannie, Freddie, and DeMarco’s agency have an oversized role to play in addressing the crisis, since the entities are assumed to own or back roughly 3.3 million underwater mortgages and help set trends in the larger market. By including principal reduction among the tools they use, they could help millions of Americans save their homes while making sustainable payments toward the actual value of their property.

The American people essentially own Fannie and Freddie after a $150 billion bailout. Even before that, the entities were tasked with providing stability and affordability to the nation's mortgage finance market. FHFA’s mission similarly includes supporting housing finance, affordable housing, and a stable and liquid mortgage market, as well as promoting Fannie and Freddie’s safety and soundness.

The calls for principal reduction are growing louder, with evidence increasingly demonstrating that those interests all point toward principal reduction. It results in fewer foreclosures, as compared with alternatives like loan forbearance (delaying loan obligations) that FHFA has authorized. In addition to the obvious benefits to struggling homeowners, reducing foreclosures improves neighborhood home values, prevents abandoned and blighted properties, and saves cash-strapped municipalities the costs of upkeep and enforcement.

Many private lenders have been reducing principal obligations on their own, recognizing it’s often the best way for them to recoup their investment. Moreover, the strategy was a significant part of the Attorneys General settlement over “robo-signing” and related bank misconduct.

Reports have emerged that even FHFA’s own internal analyses show principal reduction is in the interest of both underwater homeowners and Fannie and Freddie. Documents recently obtained by the Congressional Progressive Caucus reportedly show that DeMarco’s agency studied the question in 2009, decided it was worth trying, worked with a major lender to develop a detailed pilot, and then abruptly canceled it in July of 2010 for what the Caucus says were ideological reasons.

To be sure, principal reduction is not a silver bullet. A range of aggressive solutions are necessary to address America’s foreclosure crisis, restore ravaged neighborhoods, and put our national economy back on track. Indeed, a coalition of housing and public interest groups that includes The Opportunity Agenda, National Council of La Raza, and the National Fair Housing Alliance has released a Compact for Home Opportunity highlighting over a dozen actions that government, private industry, and individuals can take to turn things around.

Principal reduction may be only one of those actions. But it’s an important one. With a million American homes at risk of foreclosure, the time for action is now.

Protecting Fair Lending Is Key To Our Economic Recovery

Most Americans correctly understand that the economic meltdown was caused by a perfect storm of misconduct in the lending and financial industries and inadequate rules and enforcement.  A 2010 Pew Financial Reform Project poll, for example, found that American likely voters overwhelmingly blamed banks for making unsustainable mortgages (42%) and too little regulation of Wall Street (24%) for the crisis.

Fewer are aware, however, of the role that racial bias and discrimination by lenders and brokers played in creating the crisis.  Understanding that role and the tools available to correct it is key to ensuring our nation's full economic recovery.

Despite the progress we've made as a nation toward the goal of equal opportunity for all, significant barriers remain, especially when it comes to mortgage lending by banks and brokers.  In a 2005 report using federal data that presaged the current crisis, for example, The Opportunity Agenda, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council warned that-even controlling for income-African-American and Latino borrowers were significantly more likely to be sold high cost, subprime loans than whites, despite the fact that as many as 50% of those borrowers qualified for prime loans. Racial inequity in lending actually increased with borrower income levels, and with the degree of neighborhood segregation.

Loans in these communities were more costly, and were frequently predatory, carrying hidden fees and conditions or marketed through deceptive practices.  Some, for example, were designed with built-in rate adjustment features making them unsustainable over the loan's lifespan.

More recently, a series of lawsuits and settlements have revealed pervasive patterns of racial discrimination in home lending.  In December 2011, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice reached the largest fair lending settlement in its history with the lender Countrywide.  The Department says that Countrywide discriminated on the basis of race and national origin against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers between 2004 and 2008, charging more than 200,000 of these borrowers higher fees and interest rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers, and steering borrowers of color into subprime loans.

The Justice Department has settled similar discrimination cases against AIG Federal Savings Bank, Wilmington Finance Inc., PrimeLending, C&F Mortgage Corporation, Midwest BankCentre, Citizens Republic Bancorp, Inc., and others, reinforcing the reality that these practices are pervasive.

Why would subprime lenders disproportionately target minority communities for risky loans and, often, deceptive and predatory lending practices?  There are several possibilities.  Many minority neighborhoods, even middle-classed ones, lack banks or other traditional lending institutions, making them more susceptible to exploitation.  People of color are more likely to be first generation homebuyers, with fewer sources of information, experience, or advice.  Many lenders assume them to be poor credit risks, even when they are well qualified for traditional loans.

Lenders' discriminatory treatment toward communities of color previewed and paralleled exploitative practices that they visited upon moderate-income white communities, senior citizens, military servicemembers, and more broadly. Today, consequently, we are all in it together, with some two million homes in foreclosure.  In addition to homeowners, the mortgage crisis is displacing millions of renters whose landlords are in default.

Fortunately, solutions exist that can put homeownership back on track, repair devastated communities, and restore the promise of equal opportunity and fair housing for all Americans.  Just as the Obama administration has correctly insisted on a review of loans to servicemembers, for instance, they should demand a review of loans in communities with high concentrations of discriminatory and predatory loan practices.  The administration should direct the Treasury Department to issue long-overdue civil rights and fair housing regulations for programs it oversees.  And Congress should modernize the Community Reinvestment Act to reach a wider range of institutions and to strengthen equal opportunity protections.

Other needed reforms include increasing homeowners' access to financial counseling, reducing the principal of loans owned or backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and maintaining a government role in the secondary mortgage market to ensure that qualified working Americans of all races have access to 30-year fixed mortgages going forward.

Acknowledging the role that racial bias has played in the financial and mortgage crisis is crucial to understanding the scope and scale of that crisis.  Concrete steps toward greater and more equal opportunity for all are important to ending it.

On Foreclosures: Too Little, But Not Too Late

The Obama administration and states around the country have taken important steps in recent months toward putting American homeownership and financial security back on track. But it’s clear that more ambitious solutions are needed.

After a lull due to negotiations over fraudulent bank practices, foreclosures are expected to come roaring back this year, with hundreds of thousands of Americans newly at risk of losing their homes. As the scourge of foreclosures continues, the economic security of families and the stability of communities remain at risk. The crisis has deepened inequality throughout the country, and continues to hold us back as a nation.

To be effective, America’s solutions to this crisis must match the scale and shape of the problem. They must stem foreclosures while ensuring that the abuses that caused this problem never happen again. They must help families and communities rebuild their economic security while ensuring that successful homeownership remains a firm steppingstone to opportunity for working Americans. They must protect people from discrimination and ensure fair housing and lending for all Americans.

Earlier this month, a group of housing experts that includes The Opportunity Agenda, National Council of La Raza, and the National Fair Housing Alliance released a Compact for Home Opportunity. The Compact offers over a dozen practical policy solutions that, taken together, will reduce foreclosures, help families and communities restore their economic security, and rebuild the American Dream for the 21st century. It is a crucial part of the national Home for Good campaign that is gaining strength around the country.

One of the Compact’s calls is for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reduce the principal on loans they own or back to fair market value. A range of economists, experts, and Administration officials agree that doing so would prevent foreclosures while strengthening our economy, improving overall property values and, in the long term, benefiting Fannie and Freddie’s solvency. Yet, Edward DeMarco, acting head of the federal agency that governs Fannie and Freddie, has inexplicably refused to consider principal reduction as a broad-based solution. His position is particularly indefensible, given that Fannie and Freddie are currently owned by the American people after a massive federal rescue in 2008.

While keeping the pressure on DeMarco is key, the Compact for Home Opportunity offers many other things that federal, state, and local actors, as well as private industry, can do today to drastically improve Americans’ housing prospects. One particularly effective example is supporting qualified counseling to Americans considering homeownership and those facing financial difficulty. Counseling by professionals certified by HUD significantly reduces the likelihood of being snagged by predatory lending practices and of running into financial trouble down the line. It’s an investment that saves homes and heartache, as well as tax dollars.

Principal reduction by Fannie and Freddie, housing counseling, and many other solutions exist that can strengthen home opportunity for everyone in our nation. It’s not too late to turn things around. But the clock is ticking.

Weekly Audit: Save Affordable Housing, Help Revive America’s Middle Class

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Over the past decade, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac transformed themselves into some of the worst-run companies in recent history. But contrary to current talking points, the firms’ failings had almost nothing to do with their programs for low-income borrowers. As policymakers debate what should be done with the mortgage giants, a battle is now beginning in which the very availability of affordable housing for the middle class may be at stake.

A history of affordable housing

As Tim Fernholz emphasizes for The American Prospect, before the U.S. government created Fannie Mae in 1938, mortgages were very pricey 5-year loans, so expensive that only very wealthy Americans could ever hope to own a home. Fannie Mae changed all that by rolling out the 30-year mortgage, which lowered monthly payments for borrowers by providing a government guarantee against losses for banks. It worked.

But as Fernholz notes, without some kind of government involvement in the housing market, home ownership will revert to its pre-Depression status a privilege reserved for elites. Policymakers will have to implement significant changes in the mortgage finance system to ensure stability in the U.S. housing market, but whatever changes may come, a robust role for the government in housing will be essential.

Fannie and Freddie have been justifiably but inaccurately maligned in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis. In recent years, their executives ran the firms like out-of-control hedge funds, lobbied Congress like arrogant Wall Street banks and did nothing beyond the bare minimum required by law to help low-income borrowers. But Fannie and Freddie did not go headlong into subprime mortgages—the primary source of their losses came from loans to relatively high-quality borrowers.

The terrible mortgages that crashed the economy were issued by banking conglomerates and Wall Street megabanks—Fannie and Freddie were almost entirely divorced from that line of business. The problem with Fannie and Freddie was largely structural– investors and managers saw the potential for big profits from taking on loads of risk, but believed (accurately) that the government would eat losses if those risks backfired. So Fannie and Freddie ramped up risk, taking on as many mortgages as they could while keeping as little money as possible on hand to cushion against losses. Eventually the strategy destroyed them.

Fixing the mortgage system

Exactly how the government stays involved in the mortgage market is still open to debate, as Annie Lowrey emphasizes for The Washington Independent. Nearly every member of the private sector who testified at a recent housing forum sponsored by the Treasury Department endorsed some kind of government backing for the housing market. This was a meeting of private-sector bigwigs—no community groups or affordable housing advocates were invited to speak at the meeting. Proposals ranged from scaling back government support for some types of mortgages, to the full nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Fannie was a nationalized entity for the first 30 years of its existence).

In other words, the government is going to have to keep subsidizing housing, but it will have to find new ways to do it. The old Fannie and Freddie model didn’t work, but the private sector will be unable to get the job done by itself. Private-sector banks and mortgage brokers, after all, were the source of all the predatory loans issued during the subprime crisis, and the source of all of the most offensive loans that drove the economy off a cliff.

Inefficient and often predatory players on Wall Street are still causing problems today. As Ellen Brown highlights for Yes! Magazine, the mortgage system is so bizarre that banks are finding themselves unable to document their right to foreclose on properties—and courts are (fortunately) refusing to let them do it.

It’s a rare situation in which borrowers may actually hold the higher legal ground against powerful corporations. About 62 mortgages are registered through an electronic documentation system called the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which helps banks with the foreclosure process. But MERS has repeatedly been unable to show proper documentation assigning a mortgage to a specific bank, and courts are now challenging its right to foreclose on behalf of big banks.

That’s good news, Brown notes, because MERS’ shoddy documentation has made it very difficult for borrowers to figure out who actually owns their loan. If you don’t know who owns your mortgage, it’s impossible to modify it if you find yourself unable to pay it off.

As Shamus Cooke argues for Truthout, even successful innovations like the 30-year mortgage are beginning to look a little outdated in an era of heavy, chronic unemployment. Many people can no longer expect to be gainfully employed for three decades on end. If the government refuses to repair our damaged jobs infrastructure, even simply maintaining the status quo in housing could become impossible.

Deficit reduction is not a cure-all

That brings us to another favorite conservative bogeyman, the federal budget deficit. The deficit and jobs generally stand in direct opposition. Creating jobs costs money, and spending that money expands the deficit. Cutting the deficit, by contrast, means cutting support for jobs.

As Steve Benen emphasizes for The Washington Monthly, conservative lawmakers are still harping on deficit reduction as a cure for everything that ills the nation, when the real solution to our problems is a serious jobs bill.

Even if the deficit were a huge problem, trying to cut important social services in the middle of a deep recession is not a good way to go about solving it. Drastic cuts to government spending in a recession result in lower tax returns for the government, which can often be self-defeating, especially in the face of expanding joblessness. The resulting push for deficit reduction—known in economic circles as an “austerity policy,” is better understood as the active pursuit of economic decline. As economist Robert Johnson notes in a New Deal 2.0 piece carried by AlterNet:

Deterioration of government services is bad enough, but imposing austerity due to lack of trust in a time of high unemployment and slack resources is tragic. It is a means to accelerate the decline of living standards of those who have taken a beating since 2007. Double dip or stagnation is too subtle a distinction. We are amidst an unfolding collective choice to pursue a downward spiral.

The government has taken several dramatic steps to repair the nation’s financial system, but it has done almost nothing to help troubled borrowers and not nearly enough to create jobs. Some of this is due to misguided policies enacted by President Barack Obama, and much of it is due to cynical obstructionism. But we cannot repair the economy without fixing jobs and housing. Both are still in a full-blown crisis, and policymakers should feel an urgent need to deal with them.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Save Affordable Housing, Help Revive America’s Middle Class

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Over the past decade, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac transformed themselves into some of the worst-run companies in recent history. But contrary to current talking points, the firms’ failings had almost nothing to do with their programs for low-income borrowers. As policymakers debate what should be done with the mortgage giants, a battle is now beginning in which the very availability of affordable housing for the middle class may be at stake.

A history of affordable housing

As Tim Fernholz emphasizes for The American Prospect, before the U.S. government created Fannie Mae in 1938, mortgages were very pricey 5-year loans, so expensive that only very wealthy Americans could ever hope to own a home. Fannie Mae changed all that by rolling out the 30-year mortgage, which lowered monthly payments for borrowers by providing a government guarantee against losses for banks. It worked.

But as Fernholz notes, without some kind of government involvement in the housing market, home ownership will revert to its pre-Depression status a privilege reserved for elites. Policymakers will have to implement significant changes in the mortgage finance system to ensure stability in the U.S. housing market, but whatever changes may come, a robust role for the government in housing will be essential.

Fannie and Freddie have been justifiably but inaccurately maligned in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis. In recent years, their executives ran the firms like out-of-control hedge funds, lobbied Congress like arrogant Wall Street banks and did nothing beyond the bare minimum required by law to help low-income borrowers. But Fannie and Freddie did not go headlong into subprime mortgages—the primary source of their losses came from loans to relatively high-quality borrowers.

The terrible mortgages that crashed the economy were issued by banking conglomerates and Wall Street megabanks—Fannie and Freddie were almost entirely divorced from that line of business. The problem with Fannie and Freddie was largely structural– investors and managers saw the potential for big profits from taking on loads of risk, but believed (accurately) that the government would eat losses if those risks backfired. So Fannie and Freddie ramped up risk, taking on as many mortgages as they could while keeping as little money as possible on hand to cushion against losses. Eventually the strategy destroyed them.

Fixing the mortgage system

Exactly how the government stays involved in the mortgage market is still open to debate, as Annie Lowrey emphasizes for The Washington Independent. Nearly every member of the private sector who testified at a recent housing forum sponsored by the Treasury Department endorsed some kind of government backing for the housing market. This was a meeting of private-sector bigwigs—no community groups or affordable housing advocates were invited to speak at the meeting. Proposals ranged from scaling back government support for some types of mortgages, to the full nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Fannie was a nationalized entity for the first 30 years of its existence).

In other words, the government is going to have to keep subsidizing housing, but it will have to find new ways to do it. The old Fannie and Freddie model didn’t work, but the private sector will be unable to get the job done by itself. Private-sector banks and mortgage brokers, after all, were the source of all the predatory loans issued during the subprime crisis, and the source of all of the most offensive loans that drove the economy off a cliff.

Inefficient and often predatory players on Wall Street are still causing problems today. As Ellen Brown highlights for Yes! Magazine, the mortgage system is so bizarre that banks are finding themselves unable to document their right to foreclose on properties—and courts are (fortunately) refusing to let them do it.

It’s a rare situation in which borrowers may actually hold the higher legal ground against powerful corporations. About 62 mortgages are registered through an electronic documentation system called the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which helps banks with the foreclosure process. But MERS has repeatedly been unable to show proper documentation assigning a mortgage to a specific bank, and courts are now challenging its right to foreclose on behalf of big banks.

That’s good news, Brown notes, because MERS’ shoddy documentation has made it very difficult for borrowers to figure out who actually owns their loan. If you don’t know who owns your mortgage, it’s impossible to modify it if you find yourself unable to pay it off.

As Shamus Cooke argues for Truthout, even successful innovations like the 30-year mortgage are beginning to look a little outdated in an era of heavy, chronic unemployment. Many people can no longer expect to be gainfully employed for three decades on end. If the government refuses to repair our damaged jobs infrastructure, even simply maintaining the status quo in housing could become impossible.

Deficit reduction is not a cure-all

That brings us to another favorite conservative bogeyman, the federal budget deficit. The deficit and jobs generally stand in direct opposition. Creating jobs costs money, and spending that money expands the deficit. Cutting the deficit, by contrast, means cutting support for jobs.

As Steve Benen emphasizes for The Washington Monthly, conservative lawmakers are still harping on deficit reduction as a cure for everything that ills the nation, when the real solution to our problems is a serious jobs bill.

Even if the deficit were a huge problem, trying to cut important social services in the middle of a deep recession is not a good way to go about solving it. Drastic cuts to government spending in a recession result in lower tax returns for the government, which can often be self-defeating, especially in the face of expanding joblessness. The resulting push for deficit reduction—known in economic circles as an “austerity policy,” is better understood as the active pursuit of economic decline. As economist Robert Johnson notes in a New Deal 2.0 piece carried by AlterNet:

Deterioration of government services is bad enough, but imposing austerity due to lack of trust in a time of high unemployment and slack resources is tragic. It is a means to accelerate the decline of living standards of those who have taken a beating since 2007. Double dip or stagnation is too subtle a distinction. We are amidst an unfolding collective choice to pursue a downward spiral.

The government has taken several dramatic steps to repair the nation’s financial system, but it has done almost nothing to help troubled borrowers and not nearly enough to create jobs. Some of this is due to misguided policies enacted by President Barack Obama, and much of it is due to cynical obstructionism. But we cannot repair the economy without fixing jobs and housing. Both are still in a full-blown crisis, and policymakers should feel an urgent need to deal with them.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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