REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 4, 2017

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

By Robert Engelke

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January 4, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

January 3, 2017

New Landlord in Town

By David Reiss

Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life"

Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life”

Bloomberg quoted me in Wall Street, America’s New Landlord, Kicks Tenants to the Curb. It opens,

On a chilly December afternoon in Atlanta, a judge told Reiton Allen that he had seven days to leave his house or the marshals would kick his belongings to the curb. In the packed courtroom, the truck driver, his beard flecked with gray, stood up, cast his eyes downward and clutched his black baseball cap.

The 44-year-old father of two had rented a single-family house from a company called HavenBrook Homes, which is controlled by one of the world’s biggest money managers, Pacific Investment Management Co. Here in Fulton County, Georgia, such large institutional investors are up to twice as likely to file eviction notices as smaller owners, according to a new Atlanta Federal Reserve study.

“I’ve never been displaced like this,” said Allen, who said he fell behind because of unexpected childcare expenses as his rent rose above $900 a month. “I need to go home and regroup.”

Hedge funds, large investment firms and private equity companies helped the U.S. housing market recover after the crash in 2008 by turning empty foreclosures from Atlanta to Las Vegas into occupied rentals.

Now among America’s biggest landlords, some of these companies are leaving tenants like Allen in the cold. In a business long dominated by mom-and-pop landlords, large-scale investors are shifting collections conversations from front stoops to call centers and courtrooms as they try to maximize profits.

“My hope was that these private equity firms would provide a new kind of rental housing for people who couldn’t — or didn’t want to — buy during the housing recovery,” said Elora Raymond, the report’s lead author. “Instead, it seems like they’re contributing to housing instability in Atlanta, and possibly other places.”

American Homes 4 Rent, one of the nation’s largest operators, and HavenBrook filed eviction notices at a quarter of its houses, compared with an average 15 percent for all single-family home landlords, according to Ben Miller, a Georgia State University professor and co-author of the report. HavenBrook — owned by Allianz SE’s Newport Beach, California-based Pimco — and American Homes 4 Rent, based in Agoura Hills, California, declined to comment.

Colony Starwood Homes initiated proceedings on a third of its properties, the most of any large real estate firm. Tom Barrack, chairman of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, and the company he founded, Colony Capital, are the largest shareholders of Colony Starwood, which declined to comment.

Diane Tomb, executive director of the National Rental Home Council, which represents institutional landlords, said her members offer flexible payment plans to residents who fall behind. The cost of eviction makes it “the last option,” Tomb said. The Fed examined notices, rather than completed evictions, which are rarer, she said.

“We’re in the business to house families — and no one wants to see people displaced,” Tomb said.

According to a report last year from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, a record 21.3 million renters spent more than a third of their income on housing costs in 2014, while 11.4 million spent more than half. With credit tightening, the homeownership rate has fallen close to a 51-year low.

In January 2012, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke encouraged investors to use their cash to stabilize the housing market and rehabilitate the vacant single-family houses that damage neighborhoods and property values.

Now, the Atlanta Fed’s own research suggests that the eviction practices of big landlords may also be destabilizing. An eviction notice can ruin a family’s credit and make it more difficult to rent elsewhere or qualify for public assistance.

Collection Strategy?

In Atlanta, evictions are much easier on landlords. They are cheap: about $85 in court fees and another $20 to have the tenant ejected, according to Michael Lucas, a co-author of the report and deputy director of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation. With few of the tenant protections of places like New York, a family can find itself homeless in less than a month.

In interviews and court filings, renters and housing advocates said that some investment firms are impersonal and unresponsive, slow to make necessary repairs and quick to evict tenants who withhold rent because of complaints about maintenance. The researchers said some landlords use an eviction notice as a “routine rent-collection strategy.”

Aaron Kuney, HavenBrook’s former executive director of acquisitions, said the companies would rather keep their existing tenants as long as possible to avoid turnover costs.

But “they want to get them out quickly if they can’t pay,” said Kuney, now chief executive officer of Piedmont Asset Management, a private equity landlord in Atlanta. “Finding people these days to rent your homes is not a problem.”

Poor Neighborhoods

The Atlanta Fed research, based on 2015 court records, marks an early look at Wall Street’s role in evictions since investment firms snapped up hundreds of thousands of homes in hard-hit markets across the U.S.

Researchers found that evictions for all kinds of landlords are concentrated in poor, mostly black neighborhoods southwest of the city. But the study found that the big investors evicted at higher rates even after accounting for the demographics of the community where homes were situated.

Tomb, of the National Rental Home Council, said institutional investors at times buy large blocks of homes from other landlords and inherit tenants who can’t afford to pay rent. They also buy foreclosed homes whose occupants may refuse to sign leases or leave.

Those cases make the eviction rates appear higher than for smaller landlords, according to Tomb, whose group represents Colony Starwood, American Homes 4 Rent and Invitation Homes. The largest firms send notices at rates similar to apartment buildings, which house the majority of Atlanta renters.

Staying Home

Not all investment firms file evictions at higher rates. Invitation Homes, a unit of private equity giant Blackstone Group LP that is planning an initial public offering this year, sent notices on 14 percent of homes, about the same as smaller landlords, records show. In Fulton County, Invitation Homes works with residents to resolve 85 percent of cases, and less than 4 percent result in forced departures, according to spokeswoman Claire Parker.

The Fed research doesn’t say why many institutional investors evict at higher rates. It could be because their size enables them to negotiate less expensive legal rates and replace renters more quickly than mom-and-pop operators.

“Lots of small landlords, when they have good tenants who don’t cause trouble, they’ll work with someone who has lost a job or can’t pay for the short term,” said David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in residential real estate.

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January 3, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

Tuesday’s Regulatory & Legislative Roundup

By Robert Engelke

  • Voucher holders’ options for housing may soon broaden if Maryland lawmakers reintroduce and pass the Home Act in the upcoming 2017 legislative session. The state legislation is intended to stop discrimination in real estate based on source of income.
  • The D.C. Council gave final approval Tuesday to a plan that will provide private-sector workers some of the nation’s most generous family and medical leave benefits, fighting off a last-minute revolt by the city’s business establishment and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.
  • As part of the Obama Administration’s effort to prevent and end homelessness, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development today awarded a record $1.95 billion in grants to nearly 7,600 homeless assistance programs across throughout the nation, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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January 3, 2017 | Permalink | No Comments

January 2, 2017

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

By Robert Engelke

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December 27, 2016

Enlarging The Credit Box

By David Reiss

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The Hill published my column, It’s Time to Expand The Credit Box for American Homebuyers. it reads,

The dark, dark days of the mortgage market are far behind us. The early 2000s were marked by a set of practices that can only be described as abusive. Consumers saw teaser interest rates that morphed into unaffordable rates soon thereafter, high fees that were foisted upon borrowers at the closing table and loans packed with unnecessary and costly products like credit insurance.

After the financial crisis hit, Congress enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The law included provisions intended to protect both borrowers and lenders from the craziness of the previous decade, when no one was sufficiently focused on whether loans would be repaid or not.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) promulgated the rules that Dodd-Frank had called for, like the ability-to-repay and qualified mortgages rules. These rules achieved their desired effect as predatory mortgage loans all but disappeared from the market.

But there were consequences, and they were not wholly unexpected. Mortgage credit became tighter than necessary. People who could reliably make their mortgage payments were not able to get a mortgage in the first place. Perhaps their income was unreliable, but they had a good cushion of savings. Perhaps they had more debts than the rules thought advisable, but were otherwise frugal enough to handle a mortgage.

These people banged into the reasonable limitations of Dodd-Frank and could not get one of the plain vanilla mortgages that it promoted. But many of those borrowers found out that they could not go elsewhere because lenders avoided making mortgages that were not favored by Dodd-Frank’s rules.

Commentators were of two minds when these rules were promulgated. Some believed that an alternative market for mortgages, so-called non-qualified mortgages, would sprout up beside the plain vanilla market, for good or for ill. Others believed that lenders would avoid that alternative market like the plague, again for good or for ill. Now it looks like the second view is mostly correct and it is mostly for ill.

The Urban Institute Housing Finance Policy Center’s latest credit availability index shows that mortgage availability remains weak. The center concludes that even if underwriting loosened and current default risk doubled, it would remain manageable given past experience.

The CFPB can take steps to increase the credit box from its current size. The “functional credit box” refers to the universe of loans that are available to borrowers. The credit box can be broadened from today’s functional credit box if mortgage market players choose to thoughtfully loosen underwriting standards, or if other structural changes are made within the industry.

The CFPB in particular can take steps to encourage greater non-qualified mortgage lending without needing to amend the ability-to-repay and qualified mortgages rules. CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated earlier this year that “not a single case has been brought against a mortgage lender for making a non-[qualified mortgage] loan.”

But lenders have entered the non-qualified mortgage market very tentatively and apparently need more guidance about how the Dodd-Frank rules will be enforced. Moreover, some commentators have noted that the rules also contain ambiguities that make it difficult for lenders to chart a path to a vibrant non-qualified mortgage line of business. Lenders are being very risk-averse here, but that is pretty reasonable given that some violations of these rules can result in criminal penalties, including jail time.

The mortgage market of the early 2000s provided mortgage credit to too many people who could not make their monthly payments on the terms offered. The pendulum has now swung. Today’s market offers very few unsustainable mortgages, but it fails to provide credit to some who could afford them. That means that the credit box is not at its socially optimal size.

The CFPB should make it a priority to review the regulatory regime for non-qualified mortgages in order to ensure that the functional credit box is expanded to more closely approximate the universe of borrowers who can pay their mortgage payments month in, month out. That would be good for those individual borrowers kept out of the housing market. It would also be good for society as a whole, as the financial activity of those borrowers has a multiplier effect throughout the economy.

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December 27, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments

December 23, 2016

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

By Jamila Moore

  • Homeless U.S. veterans in rural areas are receiving help from the state of Virginia and the federal government. This is in an effort to ensure veterans receive stable housing as well as maintain housing on their own.
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded approximately 2 billion dollars to help mitigate some of the housing issues striking many homeless people throughout the country.
  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) is continuing to seek out banks that did not exhibit appropriate conduct during the mortgage crisis years ago. DOJ is suing Barclays for allegedly misleading investors in regards to mortgage-backed securities.

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December 23, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments

December 22, 2016

Thursday’s Advocacy & Think Tank Roundup

By Jamila Moore

  • The Federal Reserve Board recently increased the interests rates for short term mortgage loans. Many are now worry about how the increase will affect home renovation loans. A study by Hermit Baker hypothesizes that the number of home renovation loans will likely increase.
  • The economy has a made a shift towards the better. Unemployment rates are the lowest in decades and home prices have increased significantly. However, single family home construction is continuing to decline which is impeding total economic recovery.
  • Los Angeles is experiencing higher rents and higher homeless rates. More than half of Los Angeles’ renters are “cost burdened.” In 2014, UCLA reported that Los Angeles had the least affordable rent in the nation. Meanwhile politicians have stood by with uttering much on the subject.

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December 22, 2016 | Permalink | No Comments