Housing out of Thin Air

NYU’s Furman Center has posted a policy brief, Creating Affordable Housing out of Thin Air: The Economics of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning in New York City. It opens,

In May 2014, New York City’s new mayor released an ambitious housing agenda that set forth a multi-pronged, ten-year plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. One of the most talked-about initiatives in the plan was encapsulated in its statement, “In future re-zonings that unlock substantial new housing capacity, the city must require, not simply encourage, the production of affordable housing in order to ensure balanced growth, fair housing opportunity, and diverse neighborhoods.” In other words, the city intends to combine upzoning with mandatory inclusionary zoning in order to increase the supply of affordable housing and promote economic diversity. (1)
Inclusionary zoning, “using land use regulation to link development of market-rate housing units to the creation of affordable housing,” is seen by many as a low-cost policy to support a broader affordable housing approach. (2) There is a limit to the reach of such a program because developers will only build if the overall project pencils out, including any units of mandatory inclusionary zoning.
The policy brief’s conclusions are important:
In many neighborhoods, including some that the city has already targeted for the new program, market rents are too low to justify new mid- and high-rise construction, so additional density would offer no immediate value to developers that could be used to cross-subsidize affordable units. In these areas, inclusionary zoning will need to rely on direct city subsidy for the time being if it is to generate any new units at all regardless of the income level they serve.
Where high rents make additional density valuable, there is capacity to cross-subsidize new affordable units without direct subsidy, but the development of a workable inclusionary zoning policy will be complex. The amount of affordable housing the city could require without dampening the rate of new construction or relying on developers to accept lower financial returns or landowners to be willing to sell at lower prices will vary widely depending on a neighborhood’s market rent, the magnitude of the upzoning, and, to a lesser extent, on the level of affordability required in the rent-restricted units. Where developers must provide the required affordable housing, and whether they can instead pay a fee directly to the city, also bears heavily on the number of affordable units a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy has the potential to generate, but raises other difficult issues. (14-15)
The de Blasio Administration’s housing and land use team is very sophisticated (including the Furman Center’s former director, Vicki Been, now Commissioner at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development), so the City will be well aware of these constraints on a mandatory inclusionary housing program. Nonetheless, it will be of great importance to design a flexible program that can adapt to changing market conditions to ensure that such a program is actually a spur to new development and not merely a well-intentioned initiative.

FIRREA Wall

Courts have read the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) very broadly, giving the federal government a powerful weapon in its lawsuits against financial institutions regarding events relating to the financial crisis. Judge Swain (SDNY) has issued a rare Opinion and Order limiting the reach of FIRREA, FDIC v. Bear Stearns Asset Backed Securities I LCC et al. (No. 12CV4000, Mar. 24, 2015), a suit over allegedly rotten residential mortgage-backed securities.

The limitation derives from a pretty technical Supreme Court opinion, CTS Corp. v. Waldburger. In CTS, the Supreme Court held that statutes of repose were not preempted by a statute that has identical language as the FDIC Extender Provision found in FIRREA and at issue in FDIC v. Bear Stearns.

I warned you that this is technical, so here is what is at issue:

Claims brought under Section 11 of the 1933 Act are subject to the two-pronged timing provision of Section 13 of that Act, which is codified as 15 U.S.C. § 77m. The first prong of Section 13 is a statute of limitations, which provides that Section 11 claims must be brought within one year of “the discovery of the untrue statement or the omission, or after such discovery should have been made by the exercise of reasonable diligence.” 15 U.S.C.S. § 77m (LexisNexis 2012). The statute of limitations may be tolled based on equitable considerations, but not beyond three years from the date of the relevant offering, at which point a plaintiff’s claim is extinguished by Section 13’s second prong – a statute of repose – which provides that “[i]n no event shall any such action be brought . . . more than three years after the security was bona fide offered to the public.” Id.

The FDIC asserts that its claims are timely, notwithstanding the three-year Section 13 statute of repose, because the statute of repose is preempted by the FDIC Extender Provision . . .. (6)

Relying on CTS Corp. v. Wadburger, the Judge Swain concludes that “the FDIC Extender Provision does not preempt the statute of repose set forth in Section 13 of the 1933 Act.” (14-15)

The reasoning in FDIC v. Bear Stearns does not apply to all FIRREA claims, but it would apply to some meaningful subset of them. One of the most powerful things about FIRREA is its very long statute of limitations. If other courts follow FDIC v. Stearns, it could have a meaningful impact on the reach of FIRREA.

Frannie Conservatorships: What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

The Federal Housing Finance Agency Office of Inspector General has posted a White Paper, FHFA’s Conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: A Long and Complicated Journey. This White Paper on conservatorships updates a first one that OIG published in 2012. This one notes that over the past six years,

FHFA has administered two conservatorships of unprecedented scope and simultaneously served as the regulator for these large, complex companies that dominate the secondary mortgage market and the mortgage securitization sector of the U.S. housing finance industry. Congress granted FHFA sweeping conservatorship authority over the Enterprises. For example, as conservator, FHFA can exercise decision-making authority over the Enterprises’ multi-trillion dollar books of business; it can direct the Enterprises to increase the fees they charge to guarantee mortgage-backed securities; it can mandate changes to the Enterprises’ credit underwriting and servicing standards for single-family and multifamily mortgage products; and it can set policy governing the disposition of the Enterprises’ inventory of approximately 121,000 real estate owned properties. (2)

I was particularly interested by the foreward looking statements contained in this White Paper:

Director Watt has repeatedly asserted that conservatorship “cannot and should not be a permanent state” for the Enterprises. Director Watt has indicated that under his stewardship FHFA will continue the conservatorships and build a bridge to a new housing finance system, whenever that system is put into place by Congress. In this phase of the conservatorships, FHFA seeks to place more decision-making in the hands of the Enterprises. (3)

Those who have been hoping that the FHFA will act decisively in the face of Congressional inaction should let that dream go. And given that just about nobody believes (I still hope though) that there will be Congressional reform of Fannie and Freddie during the remainder of the Obama Administration, we must face the reality that we are stuck with the conservatorships and all of the risks that they foster for the foreseeable future. Today’s risks include historically high rates of mortgage delinquencies and exposure to defaults by counterparties like private mortgage insurers. As I have said before, the risks that Fannie and Freddie are nothing to laugh at. Let’s hope that the FHFA is up to managing them until Congress finally acts.

Transferring Risk from Fannie & Freddie

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has posted its FHFA Progress Report on the Implementation of FHFA’s Strategic Plan for the Conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As its name suggests, it provides a progress report on a range of topics, but I was particularly interested in its section on credit risk transfers for single-family credit guarantees:

The 2014 Conservatorship Strategic Plan’s goal of reducing taxpayer risk builds on the Enterprises’ previous risk transfer efforts. Under the 2013 Conservatorship Scorecard, FHFA expressed the expectation that each Enterprise would conduct risk transfer transactions involving single-family loans with an unpaid principal balance (UPB) of at least $30 billion. The 2014 Conservatorship Scorecard tripled the required risk transfer amount, with the expectation that each Enterprise would transfer a substantial portion of the credit risk on $90 billion in UPB of new mortgage-backed securitizations. FHFA also expected each Enterprise to execute a minimum of two different types of credit risk transfer transactions. FHFA required the Enterprises to conduct all activities undertaken in fulfillment of these objectives in a manner consistent with safety and soundness. During 2014, the two Enterprises executed credit risk transfers on single-family mortgages with a UPB of over $340 billion, which is well above the required amounts. (14)

Risk transfer is an important tool to reduce the risks that taxpayers will be on the hook for future bailouts. The mechanism for these risk transfer deals are not well understood because they are pretty new. The Progress Report describes how they work in relatively clear terms:

The primary way that the Enterprises have executed single-family credit risk transfers to date has been through debt-issuance programs. Freddie Mac transactions are called Structured Agency Credit Risk (STACR) notes, and Fannie Mae transactions are called Connecticut Avenue Securities (CAS). Following the release of historical credit performance data in 2012, each Enterprise has issued either STACR or CAS notes that transfer a portion of the credit risk from large reference pools of single-family mortgages to private investors. These reference pools are comprised of loans that the Enterprises had previously securitized to sell the interest rate risk of the loans to private investors. The STACR and CAS transactions take the next step of transferring a portion of the credit risk for these loans to investors as well. Each subsequent credit risk transfer transaction is intended to provide credit protection to the issuing Enterprise on the mortgages in the relevant reference pool. (14)

The Progress Report provides more detail for those who are interested. For the rest of us, we may just want to think through the policy implications. How much credit risk can Fannie and Freddie offload? Is it sufficient to make a real dent in the overall risk that the two companies pose to taxpayers? It would be helpful if the FHFA answered those questions in future reports.

Another Fannie/Freddie Bailout?

The Federal Housing Finance Agency Office of the Inspector General has issued a White Paper Report, The Continued Profitability of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Is Not Assured. The Executive Summary opens,

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (collectively, the Enterprises) returned to profitability in 2012 after successive years of losses. Their improved financial performance is encouraging; however, their continued profitability is not assured. The mortgage industry is complex, cyclical, and sensitive to changes in economic conditions, mortgage rates, house prices, and other factors. The Enterprises have acknowledged in their public disclosures that adverse market and other changes could lead to additional losses and that their financial results are subject to significant variability from period to period.

Notwithstanding the Enterprises’ recent positive financial results, they face many challenges. For example:

  The Enterprises must reduce the size of their retained investment portfolios over the next few years pursuant to the terms of agreements with the U.S. Department of Treasury (Treasury) and additional limits from FHFA. Declines in the size of these portfolios will reduce portfolio earnings over the long term. These portfolios have been the Enterprises’ largest source of earnings in the past.

  Core earnings from the Enterprises’ business segments—single-family guarantee, multifamily, and investments—comprised only 40% of net income in 2013. Sixty percent of the Enterprises’ net income came from non-recurring tax-related items and large settlements of legal actions and business disputes, which are not sustainable sources of revenue. Core earnings comprised 55% of net income in 2014.

  The Enterprises are unable to accumulate a financial cushion to absorb future losses. Pursuant to the terms of agreements with Treasury, the Enterprises are required to pay Treasury each quarter a dividend equal to the excess of their net worth over an applicable capital reserve amount. The applicable capital reserve amount decreases to zero by January 1, 2018.

  Stress test results released by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) in April 2014 indicate that the Enterprises, under the worst scenario—a scenario generally akin to the recent financial crisis— would require additional Treasury draws of either $84.4 billion or $190 billion, depending on the treatment of deferred tax assets, through the end of the stress test period, which is the fourth quarter of 2015.

  Absent Congressional action, or a change in FHFA’s current strategy, the conservatorships will go on indefinitely. The Enterprises’ future status is beyond their control. At present, it appears that Congressional action will be needed to define what role, if any, the Enterprises play in the housing finance system. (1-2)

While I am overall sympathetic to the underlying message of this white paper — Reform Fannie and Freddie Now! — I think it is somewhat misleading. Fannie and Freddie have been sending billions of dollars to the Treasury that exceed the amount of support that they received during the financial crisis. Before we could talk about a second taxpayer bailout, I think we would have to credit them with those excess payments.

That being said, the Obama Administration and Congress have left Fannie and Freddie to linger for far too long in conservatorship limbo. I have no doubt that this state of affairs will contribute to some kind of crisis for the two companies, so we should support some kind of exit strategy that gets implemented sooner rather than later. Inaction is the greatest threat to Fannie and Freddie, and to the housing finance system itself.

Foreign Funding for Real Estate Projects

Jeanne Calderon and Gary Friedland have posted A Roadmap to the Use of EB-5 Capital: An Alternative Financing Tool for Commercial Real Estate Projects. The paper provides a great overview of a relatively new source of funding for real estate deals. The introduction opens,

From an immigrant’s perspective, the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program (“EB-5” or the “Program”) represents merely one of several paths to obtain a visa.  The EB-5 visa is based on the immigrant’s investment of capital in a business that creates new jobs. However, from a real estate developer’s perspective, the immigrant’s investment to qualify for the visa creates an alternative capital source for the developer’s project (“EB-5 capital” or “EB-5 financing”).

Despite the Program’s enactment by Congress in 1990, for many years EB-5 was not a common path followed by immigrants to seek a visa. However, when the traditional capital markets evaporated during the Great Recession, developers’ demand for alternate capital sources rejuvenated the Program. Since 2008, the number of EB-5 visas sought, and hence the use of EB-5 capital, has skyrocketed. EB-5 capital has become a capital source providing extraordinary flexibility and attractive terms, especially to finance commercial real estate projects. Consequently, many developers routinely consider EB-5 capital as a potential source to fill a major space in the capital stack. As the financing tool becomes more widely known and understood, this source of capital should become even more popular.

The EB-5 investor’s motivation for making the investment accounts for the relative flexibility and favorable terms afforded by EB-5 capital compared to conventional capital sources. Unlike that of the conventional capital providers (such as banks, private equity funds, REITs, life insurance companies and pension funds), the EB-5 investor’s reason for making the investment is to secure a visa. Thus, his primary objective at the time of making the investment is to satisfy the EB-5 visa requirements. Consequently, so long as the investor believes that the investment will qualify for the visa and result in the safe return of his capital, he is willing to accept a below market, if not minimal, return on the investment. Furthermore, the investor might not require some of the other protections that more sophisticated, conventional real estate investors typically seek.

*     *     *

Simply stated, the Program requires that the immigrant make a capital investment of $500,000 or $1,000,000 (depending on whether the project is located in a “Targeted Employment Area”) in a business located within the United States. The business must directly create 10 new, full-time jobs per investor. Thus, the number of jobs that a project will create is a key determinant of the amount of the potential EB-5 capital raise. (3-4)

This once exotic funding technique is now becoming quite mainstream. Of interest to some readers of this blog, the paper describes at various points how EB-5 funds have been used in residential projects. The paper is a useful introduction for those who want to know more about this program.

Tax Expenditure Wars: Wealthy Households v. Poor

Henry Rose has posted How Federal Tax Expenditures That Support Housing Contribute to Economic Inequality to SSRN. This short article examines “how federal income tax laws benefit more affluent owner households but provide no benefits to economically-strapped renter households.” (1) Housing policy analysts (myself included) constantly bemoan the regressive nature of federal tax policy as it relates to housing, but it is always worth looking at the topic with updated numbers. And this article contains some tables with some interesting numbers.

One table provides an overview of the estimated tax savings (in billions) in FY 2014 for five federal tax expenditures for owners of housing that they occupy:

Mortgage Interest Deduction  (MID)                                                 $66.91

Property Tax Deduction (PTD)                                                        $31.59

Capital Gains Exclusion on Sales                                                   $35.54

Net Imputed Rental Income Exclusion                                            $75.24

Discharge of Mortgage Indebtedness Exclusion                            $3.1

Total                                                                                                 $212.38

The next table provides an estimated distribution of two of these tax expenditures (FY 2014, savings in millions):

Tax-Filer AGI                PTD Tax Savings         MID Tax Savings                

Below $50,000              $693                              $1,443

$50,000-75,000             $2,190                           $4,330

$75,000-100,000           $3,478                           $6,581

$100,000-200,000         $13,648                         $27,421

$200,000+                     $11,798                         $29,340

Total                              $31,806                         $69,115                               

The article concludes by noting that despite

the great disparity in economic positions between owners and renters, federal tax expenditures lavish tax savings on primarily affluent owners and provide none for renters. The federal tax expenditures for owners are so generous that interest can be deducted on mortgage balances up to $1,000,000 and can also be taken on second homes, even yachts, as well as primary residences. It is difficult to conceive of a federal public policy that more directly promotes economic inequality than the federal tax expenditures that support owners of housing but are not available to renters. (9-10, footnote omitted)

I don’t expect this disparity to be addressed any time in the near future, given the current political environment, but it is certainly one that should stay at the top of any list of reforms for those concerned with promoting equitable federal housing policies.