May 3, 2016
Money quoted me in 4 Things to Know Before You Prune a Tree. It opens,
It turns out money does grow on trees. Mature specimens can add 10% or more to your property value, according to Greenwich, Conn., arborist and tree appraiser Scott Cullen. But trees can cost big money, too—if a giant oak falls and crushes your garage during the next big storm, for example. Here’s what you need to know about maintaining the trees on your property.
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Understand insurance coverage
In urban and suburban neighborhoods, it’s common for trees to grow along property lines. As a general rule, the owner of the property where the tree meets the ground is the owner of the tree—and responsible for it, says real estate attorney and professor of law at Brooklyn Law School David Reiss. If you own an obviously diseased and dying tree that falls and damages a neighbor’s house or, worse, hurts someone, you could be financially liable for the damage. But in general, if it’s a healthy tree that has been routinely cared for and inspected by a professional, the owners of the property that gets damaged by your tree will likely be covered by their own insurance for damage to their buildings or vehicles.
Know your right to prune
Just as leaves and branches that fall on your land are yours to clean up, regardless of whose tree they came from, you also generally have the right to trim any part of a tree that’s on your property. So if a limb from your neighbor’s tree is bringing squirrels onto your roof or dropping walnuts onto your new car, you are within your rights to have the limb removed. You can’t cut it beyond your property line, however, and if any trimming you do were to kill the tree (or render it unstable or unhealthy), you could be liable for paying its owner for lost value.
In any case, living by the letter of the law is rarely the best solution when it comes to neighborhood relations. Discuss tree issues with all parties involved before anyone fires up a chainsaw, says Reiss. If a tree is yours—in other words, if it leaves the ground in your yard—it’s essentially your tree and your responsibility to keep properly maintained and pruned. Even if you technically aren’t responsible for shaping the limbs over on the neighbor’s side, the increased cost for doing that while a tree guy is on site is well worth the good relations it will engender. If the tree trunk splits the property line, discuss the needed tree work and ask your neighbor to split the bill.
May 2, 2016
The Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) has released its Quarterly Report to Congress (April 27, 2016). The Report focuses on how nonbank servicers raise risks for homeowners participating in the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). (65) The report states that
Mortgage servicers are the single largest factor in determining whether homeowners applying for, or participating in, TARP’s signature foreclosure prevention program HAMP are given a fair shot, and whether the program runs effectively and efficiently. This is because Treasury has contracted with mortgage servicers to play a predominant role in HAMP, by making the day-to-day decisions related to HAMP that have enormous implications for homeowners seeking relief. Mortgage servicers decide whether homeowners are eligible for HAMP, whether homeowners get a trial run in the program, and whether that trial run should result in the servicer permanently modifying the homeowners’ mortgages. Mortgage servicers decide how the mortgage will be modified, such as whether a homeowner will get a lower interest rate, and if so, what rate. Mortgage servicers decide how much the homeowner will have to pay each month. Mortgage servicers also apply payments they receive, and they make decisions on whether a homeowner should be terminated from the program. Because of this outsized role, all mortgage servicers are required to comply with HAMP rules, and federal laws. Following HAMP rules and federal laws is necessary to protect homeowners from harm.
Non-banks who service mortgages have increased their participation in HAMP, and now play a larger role in HAMP than bank servicers, but that was not always the case.
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HAMP and its related programs have become a lucrative business and reliable source of income for non-bank servicers. Treasury pays mortgage servicers for every homeowner who receives a permanent mortgage modification in HAMP. Nonbank mortgage servicers have received $1.1 billion in Federal TARP dollars from Treasury through the HAMP program.
As non-bank servicers increase their role in HAMP, the risk to homeowners has also increased. Non-bank servicers have less federal regulation than banks that service mortgages. Some of the largest non-bank servicers have already been found to have violated laws in their treatment of homeowners, and have been the subject of enforcement actions by the federal or a state government. Some of the largest non-bank servicers also have been found to have violated HAMP’s rules in their treatment of homeowners. This increased risk to homeowners must be met with increased oversight to ensure that homeowners are treated fairly, and that HAMP and its related programs are effective and efficient. (65, notes removed)
Regulators and other government agencies have been taking a hard look at servicers recently (take a look at this and this). It is important for federal regulators to get their oversight of servicers right because they can and do cause mountains of misery for homeowners when things goes wrong.
April 28, 2016
Senator Shelby (R-AL), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office regarding the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, sometimes known as the “enterprises.” It provides an interesting roadmap of Republican thinking about the appropriate role of the federal government in the mortgage market:
the FHFA [Federal Housing Finance Agency] has taken steps that appear to encourage a more active, rather than a reduced, role in the mortgage market for the enterprises. These steps include issuing proposed rules regarding the enterprises’ duty to serve, creating principle [sic] write-down requirements, lowering down-payment requirements, allowing allocation of revenues to the national housing trust fund despite the enterprise having no capital, and other actions. Moreover, the development of the common securitization platform, a joint venture established by the enterprises at the FHFA’s direction, raises a number of questions about the FHFA’s stated goal to gradually contract the enterprises’ dominant presence in the marketplace.
Initially, the purpose of the FHFA’s efforts, such as the common securitization platform, was to facilitate greater competition in the secondary mortgage market, but now it appears that the FHFA is no longer taking steps to enable the platform to be used by entities other than the enterprises. Likewise, lowering the down-payment requirement for mortgages guaranteed by the enterprises will make the enterprises more competitive with others in the mortgage market, not less. Overall, these FHFA actions raise questions about the goals of the conservatorship and whether its ultimate purpose has changed.
To better understand the impact of these changes, I ask that the GAO study and report the extent to which the FHFA’s actions described above could influence:
- The enterprises’ dominance in residential mortgage markets;
- A potential increase in the cost of entry for future competitors to the enterprises;
- Current and future financial demands on the Treasury;
- Possible options for modifying the enterprises’ structures (1)
As I have stated previously, Congress and the Obama Administration have allowed the FHFA to reform Fannie and Freddie on its own, with very little oversight. Indeed, the only example of oversight one could really point to would be the replacement of Acting Director DeMarco with Director Watt, a former Democratic member of Congress. It is notable that Watt has continued many of the policies started by DeMarco, a Republican favorite. That being said, Shelby is right to point out that Watt has begun taking some modest steps that Democrats have favored, such as funding the housing trust fund and implementing a small principal-forgiveness program.
Housing finance reform is the one component of the post-financial crisis reform agenda that Congress and the Executive have utterly failed to address. It is unlikely that it will be addressed in the near future. But perhaps the FHFA’s independent steps to create a federal housing finance infrastructure for the 21st century will galvanize the political branches to finally act and implement their own vision, instead of ceding all of their power to the unelected leaders of an administrative agency.
April 27, 2016
The American Bankers Association has issued its 23rd Annual ABA Residential Real Estate Survey Report for 2016. There is a lot to unpack in its findings. The key ones are
- About 86 percent of loans originated by banks were QM [Qualified Mortgage] compliant compared to 90 percent in 2014, likely because more banks are adjusting underwriting criteria to target selected non-QM loan opportunities
- Despite increased non-QM lending, approximately 72 percent of respondents expect the current ATR [Ability to Repay]/QM regulations will continue to reduce credit availability – down from nearly 80 percent in 2014
- Relatedly, the percentage of banks restricting lending to QM segments dropped from 33 percent to 26 percent, and those providing targeted non-QM lending rose to 54 percent from 48 percent
- High debt-to-income levels continue to be the most likely reason why a non-QM loan did not meet QM standards
- The percentage of single family mortgage loans made to first time home buyers continues to climb to a new all-time high as it represented 15 percent of loans underwritten in 2015 – up from 13 percent in 2013 and 14 percent in 2014
- Approximately half of the respondents state that regulations have a moderate negative impact on business, while nearly a quarter report the impact as extremely negative (4)
The most important finding is that banks are becoming more and more comfortable with non-QM loans. I had thought that this would happen more quickly than it has, but it now seems that the industry has become comfortable with the ATR/QM regs.
There are good non-QM loans — for good borrowers with quirky circumstances. And there are bad non-QM loans — for bad borrowers generally. As a result, the finding that “High debt-to-income levels continue to be the most likely reason why a non-QM loan did not meet QM standards” could cut both ways. There are some non-QM borrowers with high debt-to-income [DTI] ratios who are good credit risks. Think of the doctor about to finish a residency and enter private practice. And there are some non-QM borrowers with high DTI who are bad credit risks. Think of the borrower with lots of student loan, credit card and auto debt. Unfortunately this survey does not provide any insight into what types of non-QM loans are being originated. That is a big limitation of this survey.
The finding that about “half of the respondents state that regulations have a moderate negative impact on business, while nearly a quarter report the impact as extremely negative” is also ambiguous. Is a negative impact a reduction in the number of loan originations? But what if those loans were likely to be unsustainable because of the high DTI ratios of bad borrowers? Is it so bad for the ATR/QM regulations to have kept those loans from having been made in the first place? I don’t think so. It is hard to tell what is meant by this survey question as well. Perhaps the ABA could tighten up its questions for next year’s survey.
April 26, 2016
Alexander von Hoffman of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has posted an interesting working paper, To Preserve Affordable Housing in the United States. It opens,
Most Americans who have any idea about low-income housing policy in the United States think of it as composed of programs that either build and manage residences – such as public housing – or help pay the rent – such as rental vouchers. Few people realize that much, perhaps most, of the government’s effort to house poor families and individuals is now devoted to supporting privately owned buildings that, courtesy of government subsidies, already provide low-income housing. Similarly, few know of the national movement to prevent these rental homes from being converted to market-rate housing or demolished and to keep them affordable and available to low-income households.
The problem of “preservation of affordable housing” generally refers to privately owned but government-subsidized dwellings developed under a particular set of federal subsidy programs. Although the first of these programs was enacted in 1959, their heyday – when they produced the bulk of government-subsidized low-income housing – lasted from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s. Before these programs were adopted, the government’s chief low-income housing program had been public housing, in which government agencies funded, developed, owned, leased, and managed apartments for people of limited incomes on a permanent basis.
Starting about 1960, however, the government shifted to a new policy in which it provided subsidies limited to a specific length of time to private developers of low-income rental housing. These private developers could be nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies operating through entities that earned limited dividends. In the low-income rental programs of the 1960s the government subsidized the rents of poor tenants by providing low-interest mortgage loans (through mortgage insurance and/or direct payments) to the projects’ developers. In 1974, Congress added another program, Section 8, in which the government signed a contract to pay a portion of the tenants’ rents for up to twenty years, which was as long as the mortgage subsidies had been.
After the low-income rental projects were completed, a number of circumstances threatened to displace the projects’ low-income occupants from their homes. In the early years especially, some owners faced financial difficulties, including foreclosures. Starting in the boom years of the 1980s, others desired to pay back their subsidized mortgages early (or “prepay”) to rent or sell the apartments at lucrative market rates. And eventually all owners reached the end of the time limit of their original subsidies. To keep low-income tenants in the subsidized apartments, housing advocates fought to keep the subsidized projects livable and within the means of poor people. The cause they rallied to was the “preservation of affordable housing.”
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Since the late 1980s a wide array of interests – including for-profit owners and investors, non-profit developers and managers, and tenants – have organized their interest-group associations and entered into coalitions with one another to shape government policies. They have worked with sympathetic members of Congress and their aides to preserve the subsidized housing stock for low-income Americans. The road has been rough at times. The Reagan administration was indifferent at best to the issue. Legislation in 1987 and 1990 for all practical purposes banned prepayments, angering the owners’ representatives who opposed these laws. After prepayments were again allowed, advocates and owners joined together again to push for affordable housing preservation programs and procedures. The government programs that they attained in the 1990s became a major component of low-income housing policy in the United States.
Until relatively recently, the interest groups focused on shaping federal policy. They worked to pass – or repeal – national legislation and to influence program rules set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Although the federal government continues to be essential to housing policy, the growing political opposition to large federal spending programs has led advocates of affordable housing preservation to press state governments for financial support. (3-5)
This working paper clearly identifies the problems with “[p]oorly thought out programs” that “encouraged bad underwriting and long-term management” and how they played out in affordable housing projects that were not intended to provide for permanent affordability. (73) It also provides a good foundation for a discussion of where affordable housing policy should be heading now.