Facts and Myths About Rent Regulation

Polonius

Few topics are more fraught in NYC than rent regulation and stances about it are typically set by where people are financially and ideologically. It is always useful when someone tries to add some good old-fashioned facts to the debate in order to help craft good policies. That is particularly true now, given that NYC’s rent laws are supposed to expire on June 15th.

The Citizens Budget Commission has issued a report, 5 Myths About Rent Regulation in New York City. The CBC is hoping that that this report will inform the New York State legislature’s debates over the renewal of New York City’s rent laws (for those who don’t follow this carefully, NYS has jurisdiction over NYC’s rent regulation). Unfortunately, the report is ideologically skewed, which limits its usefulness for those trying to get their hands around this topic.

Here are the CBC’s five “Myths” and “Facts:”

Myth 1: A majority of tenant households in New York City are rent burdened.

Fact 1: 38 percent of tenant households in New York City are rent burdened.

Myth 2: Market-rate units in New York City are not affordable to most tenants.

Fact 2: In market-rate units, 54 percent of tenants have affordable rent.

Myth 3: A rent-regulated housing unit is an affordable unit.

Fact 3: Among tenants in rent-regulated units, 44 percent are rent-burdened.

Myth 4: Middle-income households cannot find affordable housing in New York City.

Fact 4: Outside of Manhattan, 96 percent of middle-income tenant households are not rent burdened.

Myth 5: The number of rent-regulated units is rapidly declining.

Fact 5: The number of rent-regulations is stabilizing.

The CBC claims that public officials and housing advocates are using “problematic” figures and characterizations. That is most certainly true in many cases, and par for the course for advocates. But the CBC does much the same, which should not be par for the course for a nonpartisan civic organization.

The second “Fact” is particularly laughable because CBC is doing exactly what it accuses advocates of doing — some form of rhetorical bait and switch. The second “Myth” is about tenants overall, while the second “Fact” is just about tenants who are currently in market-rate apartments. This is an apples to oranges comparison. Once you see the bait and switch, you see that CBC’s figures actually support the truth of this supposed second “Myth.” There are more problems contained in this document, but I leave it to you to find them for yourself.

I have no problem with CBC trying to make the debate over rent regulation more fact-based. But CBC should follow the wise advice of Polonius: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Picture: "Polonius" by http://www.oregonlink.com/elsinore/poveyglass/polonius.html.

Dos And Don’ts of Mixed-Use Development

Mixed Use Development

I was interviewed on Georgia Public Radio’s On Second Thought radio show about The Dos And Don’ts of Mixed-Use Developments. The segment was about John’s Creek,

an affluent suburb in northeast Atlanta. It’s fairly small — only about 80,000 people live there — but it has big dreams.

The city wants to transform some of its 728-acre office park into a town center with homes, shops and offices. John’s Creek mayor Michael Bodker calls the redevelopment project “The District,” referring to an area that would become the city’s downtown sector. Bodker believes this project will broaden the city’s tax base.

“John’s Creek does not have a healthy and sustainable tax digest,” Bodker said in his most recent State of the City address. “Homeowners are disproportionately supporting the load by covering 81 percent of the tax digest versus 19 percent for commercial.” Without doing something to change the current model, he says, there will be less money for public services like road repairs.

The segment was quite short, so it did not get to what I thought was the key issue — the appropriate role of mass transit in the design of urban centers. It appears that the mayor’s plan does not contemplate linking this new urban center to Atlanta-area mass transit. That seems like the kiss of death for what is supposed to be a walkable town center.

To be an attractive walkable environment, you need a critical mass of walkers. Mass transit brings walkers. Some walk by preference and some by necessity: young people without cars; senior citizens who have grown less comfortable driving; and people who might want to have a few drinks and enjoy the nightlife planned for The District.  Moreover, many retail and service jobs pay relatively low wages, so many workers rely on public transportation to get to work. John’s Creek should take a fresh look at the principles of Transit-Oriented Design and New Urbanism before finalizing its plan.

On Second Thought’s website also discusses some of my other thoughts on planning such a big project.

Seeking Justice Through Litigation

AbandonedHouseDelray

Judge Caproni (SDNY) issued an Opinion and Order in Adkins v. Morgan Stanley, No. 12-CV-7667 (May 14, 2015). It opens,

This is one of many cases arising out of the collapse of the housing market. This one comes with a twist: homeowners in Detroit who received subprime loans seek to hold a single investment bank responsible under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) for discriminating against African-American borrowers, based on their claim that African-Americans were more likely than similarly-situated white borrowers to receive so-called “Combined-Risk loans.” Plaintiffs allege that Morgan Stanley so infected the market for residential mortgages — and for mortgages written by New Century Mortgage Company, a now defunct loan originator, in particular — that it bears responsibility for the disparate impact of New Century’s lending practices. Although Plaintiffs advance creative theories, their class action lawsuit founders on the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. (1-2, footnote omitted)

Judge Caproni notes that she is “not unsympathetic to Plaintiff’s claims,” she concludes that this class action lawsuit is an inappropriate vehicle to rectify the wrong that Plaintiffs allege Morgan Stanley perpetrated.” (2) I am not an expert on the law of class actions, but the opinion does seem to identify a number of ways in which the proposed class is “unworkable.” (2)

We are now nearly ten years in from the start of the financial crisis and it seems like we can get a broad sense of whether justice has been served.  My instinct is that many people would say “No,” a resounding “No!”

At first glance that might seem odd, particularly to the shareholders and management of financial institutions who have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines and judgments. But there is a strong sense that those who have been harmed have not been able to get their day in court with those who did the harming. A case like this reveals the limitations of litigation as a means for seeking justice. Not every injustice is capable of being remedied in a court of law.

What does this tell us about preparing for the aftermath of the next crisis? How can laws be changed now to ensure that the right people and institutions are held accountable when it hits? While there are no easy answers to these questions, lawmakers should consider whether the scope of organizational liability is properly defined, whether agents of organizations are properly held accountable and whether organizations working in tandem with each other can be properly held accountable for the harms that they cause collectively. Easier said than done, I know, but still worth the effort.

Going It Alone on Your Mortgage

walking alone

WiseBread quoted me in When It Makes Sense to Apply for a Mortgage Loan Without Your Spouse. It opens,

You and your spouse or partner are ready to apply for a mortgage loan. It makes sense to apply for the loan jointly, right? That way, your lender can use your combined incomes when determining how much mortgage money it can lend you.

Surprisingly, this isn’t always the right approach.

If the three-digit credit score of your spouse or partner is too low, it might make sense to apply for a mortgage loan on your own — as long as your income alone is high enough to let you qualify.

That’s because it doesn’t matter how high your credit score is if your spouse’s is low. Your lender will look at your spouse’s score, and not yours, when deciding if you and your partner qualify for a home loan.

“If one spouse has a low credit score, and that credit score is so low that the couple will either have to pay a higher interest rate or might not qualify for every loan product out there, then it might be time to consider dropping that spouse from the loan application,” says Eric Rotner, vice president of mortgage banking at the Scottsdale, Arizona office of Commerce Home Mortgage. “If a score is below a certain point, it can really limit your options.”

How Credit Scores Work

Lenders rely heavily on credit scores today, using them to determine the interest rates they charge borrowers and whether they’ll even approve their clients for a mortgage loan. Lenders consider a FICO score of 740 or higher to be a strong one, and will usually reserve their lowest interest rates for borrowers with such scores.

Borrowers whose scores are too low — say under 640 on the FICO scale — will struggle to qualify for mortgage loans without having to pay higher interest rates. They might not be able to qualify for any loan at all, depending on how low their score is.

Which Score Counts?

When couples apply for a mortgage loan together, lenders don’t consider all scores. Instead, they focus on the borrower who has the lowest credit score.

Every borrower has three FICO credit scores — one each compiled by the three national credit bureaus, TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Each of these scores can be slightly different. When couples apply for a mortgage loan, lenders will only consider the lowest middle credit score between the applicants.

Say you have credit scores of 740, 780, and 760 from the three credit bureaus. Your spouse has scores of 640, 620, and 610. Your lender will use that 620 score only when determining how likely you are to make your loan payments on time. Many lenders will consider a score of 620 to be too risky, and won’t approve your loan application. Others will approve you, but only at a high interest rate.

In such a case, it might make sense to drop a spouse from the loan application.

But there are other factors to consider.

“If you are the sole breadwinner, and your spouse’s credit score is low, it usually makes sense to apply in your name only for the mortgage loan,” said Mike Kinane, senior vice president of consumer lending at the Hamilton, New Jersey office of TD Bank. “But your income will need to be enough to support the mortgage you are looking for.”

That’s the tricky part: If you drop a spouse from a loan application, you won’t be penalized for that spouse’s weak credit score. But you also can’t use that spouse’s income. You might need to apply for a smaller mortgage loan, which usually means buying a smaller home, too.

Other Times to Drop a Spouse

There are other times when it makes sense for one spouse to sit out the loan application process.

If one spouse has too much debt and not enough income, it can be smart to leave that spouse out of the loan process. Lenders typically want your total monthly debts — including your estimated new monthly mortgage payment — to equal no more than 43% of your gross monthly income. If your spouse’s debt is high enough to throw this ratio out of whack, applying alone might be the wise choice.

Spouses or partners with past foreclosures, bankruptcies, or short sales on their credit reports might stay away from the loan application, too. Those negative judgments could make it more difficult to qualify for a loan.

Again, it comes down to simple math: Does the benefit of skipping your partner’s low credit score, high debt levels, and negative judgments outweigh the negative of not being able to use that spouse’s income?

“The $64,000 question is whether the spouse with the bad credit score is the breadwinner for the couple,” says David Reiss, professor of law with Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, New York. “The best case scenario would be a couple where the breadwinner is also the one with the good credit score. Dropping the other spouse from the application is likely a no-brainer in that circumstance. And of course, there will be a gray area for a couple where both spouses bring in a significant share of the income. In that case, the couple should definitely shop around for lenders that can work with them.”

Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Alfred Tennyson

       I
HALF a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

       II
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

       III
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

       IV
Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

       V
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

       VI
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Airbn-Beffudled

ox

MainStreet quoted me in Is Airbnb Making It Impossible For You To Rent That Dream Apartment?. It opens,

The accusation is blunt: Airbnb, say some, is sucking up apartment units that otherwise would be available to renters. In San Francisco, that claim is spoken so loudly – by so many politicians – a city agency just filed a report on it.

Similar claims are heard in Santa Monica, Calif., in Manhattan and some Brooklyn neighborhoods, a few areas in Seattle and also a sliver of Boston and adjacent Cambridge. True? False? Is that Airbnb host putting vacationers up in what should be your prime Greenwich Village flat?

Some think such accusations are just distracting from the main issue at hand: housing inventory shortages.

“It’s a diversion,” says Richard Green, the Lusk Chair in Real Estate at the University of Southern California. “Politicians are not dealing with what they should be dealing with to address housing unavailability so they are singling out Airbnb.” His nuanced point is that in most markets the number of Airbnb units is trivial and so whatever impact it has on apartment availability is minimal.

The San Francisco government report does not disagree: “the Budget and Legislative Analyst estimates that between 925 and 1,960 units citywide have been removed from the housing market from just Airbnb listings. At between 0.4 and 0.8%, this number of units is a small percentage of the 244,012 housing units that comprised the rental market in 2013.”

Read the San Francisco report. It said that under 1% of apartments have been removed from rental channels due to Airbnb. How important is that? What does it mean?

What is unique about San Francisco – also Manhattan and a few other places – is that apartment vacancy rates are fiercely low. In a recent survey, it stood at 4.1% in San Francisco and that means this is the type of town where would-be renters get in line early whenever a decent unit goes up for rent. Add back in those Airbnb units and, yes, that might be a happy day for some tenants. But not many.

The other unique feature: San Francisco, Manhattan and a very few other places attract large tourist populations, especially Millennials, and that has been a sweet spot for sharing economy rentals. Take tight supply, add in high hotel prices and a flood of tourists and there is the recipe for cries about any apartment that seems to be lost to the longterm tenant market.

In a lot of markets – from Phoenix to Houston – vacancy rates are already high, tourist numbers are low and nobody really thinks Airbnb is having any impact on local rentals.

But in some cities it just may be. Harry Campbell, TheRideShareGuy.com, said of Airbnb: it is “having a huge impact in coastal communities [of Los Angeles] like Venice/Santa Monica where mid level chain hotels can run upwards of $300-$400 a night. It just doesn’t make much sense for landlords to rent their apartments out traditionally when the profits are so much higher using Airbnb.” (Santa Monica, in mid May, enacted legislation banning short-term rentals such as Airbnb. Nobody knows how it will be enforced or if it will withstand legal challenges.)

At least one Portland, Ore. Airbnb host emailed Mainstreet to admit that two apartment units that had been rented to regular tenants are no longer. Explained that host: “From the point of view of a former landlord, the Airbnb experience is far superior. Airbnb guests are, on the whole, responsible, considerate and never late with rent since this is collected in advance by Airbnb.”

Either way, however, the calculus is not one-sided, not even in those premium markets like San Francisco. Green added: “You could also say that Airbnb is increasing the stock of affordable housing units by letting some keep their apartments by occasionally renting them out. It’s entirely possible Airbnb produces as many units as it loses.”

In that regard, listen to Kip (last name withheld) — a self-described 60+ woman living alone in Beverly Hills in a two bedroom apartment. A few times a month, said Kip, she rents it out through Airbnb. “That helps me with the cost of living,” she said. She stressed she would never take in a roommate but is happy with having guests a few nights a month. “It’s helped me boost my flagging income,” she said.

Christopher Nulty, an Airbnb spokesperson, had fighting words in response to the San Francisco report in particular.

“This comes from the same people who want to ban new housing in the Mission [a San Francisco neighborhood], ban home sharing and make San Francisco more expensive for middle class families,” he said. “Home sharing is an economic lifeline for thousands of San Franciscans who depend on the extra income to stay in their homes.”

So, who’s telling the truth?

“When evaluating claims about Airbnb, it is important to keep in mind whose ox is being gored,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. His point: In some cases, maybe Airbnb brings some harm. In other cases, it does good. Matters just aren’t simple or black and white.

AG Lynch on Wall Street

Loretta_Lynch_US_Attorney

Institutional Investor quoted me in Will New Attorney General Loretta Lynch Shake up Wall Street? It opens,

Those unhappy with the lack of personal accountability for the 2008–’09 financial crisis are running out of time to see justice served: In the U.S., the statute of limitations for many bank-related criminal charges is ten years. But the recent appointment of Loretta Lynch as the first black woman to the post of attorney general could present a window of opportunity.

Given mounting public frustration over the failure to punish financial executives who helped push the world to the brink of another Great Depression, Lynch may be well positioned to act where her predecessor, Eric Holder, was unsuccessful. The U.S. Department of Justice has often talked up its efforts to hold individuals responsible for crimes they may have committed, but there hasn’t been much progress. Last year, however, saw an uptick in the size of bank settlements related to the crash, including a $16.65 billion deal with Bank of America Corp. and a $7 billion agreement with Citigroup.

Some industry observers believe Lynch, who turns 56 on Thursday, could use this momentum to target people. “If she does anything differently [than Holder did], she may push her folks to try to make those cases against individuals higher up the corporate ladder,” says Glen Kopp, former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York and a New York–based partner in the white-collar practice at law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

Lynch’s critics have griped that she may be not be strict enough with Wall Street. They point to her 1980s stint with law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel, which has counted among its clients BofA, Credit Suisse Group and HSBC Holdings, and to a spell early last decade at Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), where she practiced white -collar criminal defense.

Detractors say both positions, as well as her tenure at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2003 to 2005, have compromised her ability to prosecute big banks by establishing relationships that she may not wish to jeopardize as attorney general. During Lynch’s lengthy confirmation process, Republicans criticized her for being too soft on HSBC in a 2012 settlement; the British bank agreed to pay $1.92 billion in a money-laundering case after New York and federal authorities decided that criminal charges might bring down the institution.

But many in the legal community believe the more likely outcome will be somewhere in the middle.

“The financial industry will be dealing with an extremely well-informed AG who will seek to balance the competing concerns that arise when investigating and prosecuting large enterprises like those that dominate Wall Street,” says David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School with expertise in property, mortgage lending and consumer financial services matters.