JFK on Independence Day

JFK profile

Here is an excerpt from Some Elements of the American Character, Independence Day Oration by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Candidate for Congress from the 11th Congressional District, July 4, 1946:

The American character has been not only religious, idealistic, and patriotic, but because of these it has been essentially individual.

The right of the individual against the State has ever been one of our most cherished political principles.

The American Constitution has set down for all men to see the essentially Christian and American principle that there are certain rights held by every man which no government and no majority, however powerful, can deny.

Conceived in Grecian thought, strengthened by Christian morality, and stamped indelibly into American political philosophy, the right of the individual against the State is the keystone of our Constitution. Each man is free.

He is free in thought.

He is free in expression.

He is free in worship.

To us, who have been reared in the American tradition, these rights have become part of our very being. They have become so much a part of our being that most of us are prone to feel that they are rights universally recognized and universally exercised. But the sad fact is that this is not true. They were dearly won for us only a few short centuries ago and they were dearly preserved for us in the days just past. And there are large sections of the world today where these rights are denied as a matter of philosophy and as a matter of government.

We cannot assume that the struggle is ended. It is never-ending.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It was the price yesterday. It is the price today, and it will ever be the price.

The characteristics of the American people have ever been a deep sense of religion, a deep sense of idealism, a deep sense of patriotism, and a deep sense of individualism.

Let us not blink the fact that the days which lie ahead of us are bitter ones.

May God grant that, at some distant date, on this day, and on this platform, the orator may be able to say that these are still the great qualities of the American character and that they have prevailed.

The Importance of Understanding G-Fees

United_States_Capitol_west_front_edit2

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has released Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Single-Family Guarantee Fees in 2014. Ok, ok, this is some really technical stuff. But it gives us a lot of important information about what goes into the cost of a home mortgage.

The executive summary opens, “The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) requires the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to submit reports to Congress annually on the guarantee fees charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises).” (2, footnotes omitted) The report finds that “the average level of guarantee fees charged has increased since 2009. The guarantee fees are currently two-and-a-half times their previous level; from 2009 to 2014, average fees increased from 22 basis points to 58 basis points. From 2013 to 2014, average fees increased from 51 basis points to 58 basis points.” (2, footnote omitted)

For all of you non-experts out there, a basis point is 1/100th of a percentage point. So a guarantee fee (or g-fee in the lingo) of 58 basis points increases the interest rate paid by more than half a percentage point (for instance, from 4.5% to 5.08%).  So homeowners should want to understand why g-fees have more than doubled since 2009.

The report breaks down how g-fees gradually increased in response to Congressional and FHFA requirements, some of which are not tied to housing finance goals at all. For instance, Congress added ten basis points to fund an extension of a tax cut.

Many have argued that g-fees should be kept as low as possible in order to help out the housing market. I do not take that position, in large part because cheap credit does not necessarily lower the cost of housing; sellers may just be able to raise the price of their homes in a cheap credit environment. I also believe that the housing market and the mortgage market need to achieve some sort of equilibrium and unnaturally low g-fees will distort such an equilibrium.

The price of the g-fee should reflect the real costs of the g-fee. For instance, it should cover the cost of losses that result from borrower default. It should not be used to fund programs unrelated to housing. G-fees that are unnaturally high distort the housing finance market and make homeowners subsidize other constituencies. Federal housing finance policy tends to get screwed up if it veers too much from its fundamentals, so we should not ask too much of the g-fee.

Fannie and Freddie have been in limbo ever since they entered conservatorship in 2008. The longer they are in that limbo, the more likely it is that Congress will use them to do all sorts of things that do not relate to maintaining a liquid housing finance market. This study outlines how the g-fee has morphed over time and is a wake-up call to homeowners and policy makers alike to set Fannie and Freddie on a healthy course for the long term, starting with that obscure and technical g-fee.

The Road to Rent-To-Own

Rent To Own Sign

TheStreet.com quoted me in Rent-to-Own Homes Can Be a Risky Option for Buyers. It opens,

Instead of shelling out thousands of dollars to rent a home each month, some landlords give their tenants the option to buy the home while they are leasing it — using the rent they’ve paid as a credit toward their mortgage downpayment.

But while rent-to-own options appear like a winning proposition for potential homeowners who have not been able to save up enough money for a down payment or lack a good credit score, these deals can be fraught with many setbacks.

Each state is governed by different laws, and some of them protect homeowners in case they fall behind on payments, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School. This is a crucial point that needs to be addressed with a lawyer before the contract is signed, because a consumer could end up “losing everything” that he had paid toward the house if he loses his job, Reiss added.

“Rent-to-own transactions can be very complicated and there are fewer consumer protections available, so interested buyers should beware,” he said. “There are a lot of shady operators out there.”

The Silent Housing Crisis

J. Ronald Terwilliger

J. Ronald Terwilliger

The J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families, a new entity, has issued its first white paper on the Silent Housing Crisis: A Snapshot of Current and Future Conditions. The paper covers some of the same ground as another recent Urban Institute report that I had recently blogged about (and, indeed, it is informed by the work of those UI researchers, as can be seen in the endnotes), but it raises some interesting issues of its own.

The white paper opens with a quotation from President Truman’s Statement upon signing the Housing Act of 1949, which

establishes as a national objective the achievement as soon as feasible of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family, and sets forth the policies to be followed in advancing toward that goal. These policies are thoroughly consistent with American ideals and traditions. They recognize and preserve local responsibility, and the primary role of private enterprise, in meeting the Nation’s housing needs. But they also recognize clearly the necessity for appropriate Federal aid to supplement the resources of communities and private enterprise. (3)

The white paper argues that the United States

is unprepared for the tremendous challenges that a rapidly expanding renter population will pose to the already strained housing system. Absent a comprehensive and sustained policy response, it is likely that rental cost burdens will only grow in intensity and scope, undermining the stability and dampening the hopes of millions of American families. These conditions, in turn, will exacerbate income inequality, diminish the prospects of social mobility for countless individuals, make us less competitive in the global marketplace, and ultimately hinder America’s economic growth. (6)

While the white paper has a lot to offer in diagnosing problems in the American housing sector, I was surprised to find that it failed to discuss the role of restrictive zoning in increasing the cost of housing, particularly in the vibrant communities that are the main engines of job creation. Any serious effort to address the lack of decent and affordable housing has to tackle the problem of restrictive zoning.

The Terwilliger Foundation was founded in 2014 and “seeks to recalibrate federal housing policy so that it more effectively addresses our nation’s critical affordable housing challenges and meets the housing needs of future generations. The Foundation will offer a set of practical suggestions for tax, spending, and mortgage finance reform that is responsive to the ongoing crisis in housing and the profound demographic changes now transforming America. ” (2) It is good to have another voice in the mix on these important issues. The foundation’s namesake is the Chairman of Terwilliger Pappas Multifamily Properties and is the Chairman Emeritus of Trammell Crow Residential Company, the largest multifamily developer in the U.S. for many years.

CFPB Mortgage Highlights

Richard Cordray 2010

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued its most recent Supervisory Highlights. The CFPB is “committed to transparency in its supervisory program by sharing key findings in order to help industry limit risks to consumers and comply with Federal consumer financial law.” (3)

There were a lot of interesting highlights relating to mortgage origination and servicing, including,

  • one or more instances of failure to ensure that the HUD-1 settlement statement accurately reflects the actual settlement charges paid by the borrower.
  • at least one servicer sent borrowers loss mitigation acknowledgment notices requesting documents, sometimes dozens in number, inapplicable to their circumstances and which it did not need to evaluate the borrower for loss mitigation.
  • one or more servicers failed to send any loss mitigation acknowledgment notices. At least one servicer did not send notices after a loss mitigation processing platform malfunctioned repeatedly over a significant period of time. . . . the breakdown caused delays in converting trial modifications to permanent modifications, resulting in harm to borrowers, and may have caused other harm.
  • At least one other servicer did not send loss mitigation acknowledgment notices to borrowers who had requested payment relief on their mortgage payments. One or more servicers treated certain requests as requests for short-term payment relief instead of requests for loss mitigation under Regulation X.
  • At least one servicer sent notices of intent to foreclose to borrowers already approved for a trial modification and before the trial modification’s first payment was due without verifying whether borrowers had a pending loss mitigation plan before sending its notice. As the notice could deter borrowers from carrying out trial modifications, it likely causes substantial injury . . .
  • at least one servicer sent notices warning borrowers who were current on their loans that foreclosure would be imminent. (14-18, emphasis added)

All of these highlights are interesting because they reflect the types of problems the CFPB is finding and it thus helps the industry comply with federal law. But from a public policy perspective, the CFPB’s approach is lacking. By repeating that each failure was found at “one or more” company, a reader of these Highlights cannot determine how widespread these problems are throughout the industry. And because the Highlights do not say how many borrowers were affected by each company’s failure, it is hard to say whether these problems are isolated and technical or endemic and intentional.

Future Supervisory Highlights should include more information about the number of institutions and the number of consumers who were affected by these violations.

Homeowners Heading to Pottersville?

Lionel_Barrymore_as_Mr._Potter

Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life

The Urban Institute has issued a report, Headship and Homeownership: What Does The Future Hold? The report opens,

Homeownership rates averaged around 64 percent until about 1990, when they began to climb dramatically, reaching 67.3 percent in 2006. The housing crisis that began in 2007 and the ensuing recession, from which the US economy is recovering slowly, resulted in a fall in the homeownership rate to 63.6 percent, according to the latest ACS numbers. Such a trajectory has generated important questions about the future of homeownership at all ages. The issues with young adults seem particularly acute. Will young adults want to own houses? Even if they do, will they be able to afford homeownership? The answers to these questions are still unclear, especially because millennials are not just slower to start their own households and purchase homes: they also are more likely to live in their parents’ homes than any generation in recent history. The rapidly changing racial and ethnic composition of the population also has profound implications for household formation and homeownership.

In this report, we dive deeply into the pace of household formation and homeownership attainment—nationally and by age groups and race/ethnicity over the past quarter-century—and project future trends. Considering the great uncertainty about household formation and homeownership, single-point forecasts of homeownership rates and housing demand could seriously mislead policymakers and obscure the potential implications of their decisions. Instead, we offer plausible competing scenarios for household formation and homeownership that generate a range of future national housing demand projections. (1)

I am not in a position to evaluate how well the report projects future trends, but some of its conclusions are worth considering together:

  • the homeownership rate will decline from 65.1 percent in 2010 to 61.3 percent in 2030; (46)
  • the rapid growth of the renter population will create significant demand for new rental housing construction and encourage shifting of owner-occupied dwellings to rentals; (47)
  • very tight credit availability standards will retard homeownership attainment and may exacerbate the growing shortage in rental housing; (48) and
  • the erosion of black homeownership needs to be addressed by more than mortgage policy. (48)

Taken together, these conclusions all point to a backsliding in the housing market: the American Dream disappearing for millions of Americans, particularly African Americans, who will end up living in overcrowded Pottersvilles straight out of It’s A Wonderful Life. Just like George Bailey, we have choices to make before that nightmare becomes a reality. But before we decide anything too hastily, we should consider the fundamental goals of housing policy.

I have argued that a “fundamental goal of housing policy is to assist Americans to live in a safe, well-maintained and affordable housing unit.” I am less convinced than most housing scholars that homeownership, given the state of today’s economy, is such a sure road to stable housing and financial well-being. So, instead of blindly focusing on increasing the homeownership rate, I would focus on increasing opportunities for sustainable homeownership. I believe the report’s authors would agree with this, but I think that housing scholars in general need to focus on policies that keep households in their housing, given how much income instability they now face.

SCOTUS Upholds Disparate Impact

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs

The United States Supreme Court held today that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs et al. v. The Inclusive Communities Project Inc., (No 13-1371). The conventional wisdom had been that the Court was going to hold that the Fair Housing Act “does not create disparate-impact liability”  (in the words of Justice Alito’s dissent at page 2).

I found it striking the extent to which Justice Kennedy’s opinion, which was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, relied on the history of residential segregation in the United States. For those of us steeped in the history of housing in America, this history is pretty much standard, but it takes on a lot of meaning when it is restated in a Supreme Court opinion. The opinion reads,

De jure residential segregation by race was declared unconstitutional almost a century ago, but its vestiges remain today, intertwined with the country’s economic and social life. Some segregated housing patterns can be traced to conditions that arose in the mid-20th century. Rapid urbanization, concomitant with the rise of suburban developments accessible by car, led many white families to leave the inner cities. This often left minority families concentrated in the center of the Nation’s cities. During this time, various practices were followed, sometimes with governmental support, to encourage and maintain the separation of the races: Racially restrictive covenants prevented the conveyance of property to minorities; steering by real-estate agents led potential buyers to consider homes in racially homogenous areas; and discriminatory lending practices, often referred to as redlining, precluded minority families from purchasing homes in affluent areas. By the 1960’s, these policies, practices, and prejudices had created many predominantly black inner cities surrounded by mostly white suburbs.

The mid-1960’s was a period of considerable social unrest; and, in response, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission. After extensive factfinding the Commission identified residential segregation and unequal housing and economic conditions in the inner cities as significant, underlying causes of the social unrest. The Commission found that “[n]early two-thirds of all nonwhite families living in the central cities today live in neighborhoods marked by substandard housing and general urban blight.” The Commission further found that both open and covert racial discrimination prevented black families from obtaining better housing and moving to integrated communities. The Commission concluded that “[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white— separate and unequal.” To reverse “[t]his deepening racial division,” it recommended enactment of “a comprehensive and enforceable open-occupancy law making it an offense to discriminate in the sale or rental of any housing . . . on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin.”

In April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Nation faced a new urgency to resolve the social unrest in the inner cities. Congress responded by adopting the Kerner Commission’s recommendation and passing the Fair Housing Act. (5-6, citations omitted)

This straightforward acknowledgment of the history of racial discrimination in America may be the most powerful part of this opinion.