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.
April 22, 2016
The United States Government Accountability Office has issued a report, Nonbank Mortgage Servicers: Existing Regulatory Oversight Could Be Strengthened. The GAO found that
The share of home mortgages serviced by nonbanks increased from approximately 6.8 percent in 2012 to approximately 24.2 percent in 2015 (as measured by unpaid principal balance). However, banks continued to service the remainder (about 75.8 percent). Some market participants GAO interviewed said nonbank servicers’ growth increased the capacity for servicing delinquent loans, but they also noted challenges. For example, rapid growth of some nonbank servicers did not always coincide with their use of more advanced operating systems or effective internal controls to handle their larger portfolios—an issue identified by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and others.
Nonbank servicers are generally subject to oversight by federal and state regulators and monitoring by market participants, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the enterprises). In particular, CFPB directly oversees nonbank servicers as part of its responsibility to help ensure compliance with federal laws governing mortgage lending and consumer financial protection. However, CFPB does not have a mechanism to develop a comprehensive list of nonbank servicers and, therefore, does not have a full record of entities under its purview. As a result, CFPB may not be able to comprehensively enforce compliance with consumer financial laws. In addition, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) is the safety and soundness regulator of the enterprises. As such, it has indirect oversight of third parties that do business with the enterprises, including nonbanks that service loans on the enterprises’ behalf. However, in contrast to bank regulators, FHFA lacks statutory authority to examine these third parties to identify and address deficiencies that could affect the enterprises. GAO has previously determined that a regulatory system should ensure that similar risks and services are subject to consistent regulation and that a regulator should have sufficient authority to carry out its mission. Without such authority, FHFA may lack a supervisory tool to help it more effectively monitor third parties’ operations and the enterprises’ actions to manage any associated risks.
As with many GAO reports, this one provides a lot of information about a very obscure, but important, subject. In this case, the report provides a good overview of the servicing industry since the financial crisis. The report also highlights the risks to consumers and the financial industry that result from the rapid expansion of the servicing market share of nonbanks.
One of the disturbing aspects of the foreclosure crisis was the sense that the servicing sector couldn’t do a better job of assisting borrowers, even if it wanted to, because it did not have the resources to meet the challenge. Changes implemented since then, driven in large part by the CFPB, may make things better during the next such crisis. But this report does not give one the sense that they will be all that much better. The GAO report rightly calls for further work to be done to ensure that the industry is prepared to meet the challenges that are sure to come its way.
- The Government Accountability Office released a report on the growth of nonbank servicers in the mortgage market, finding that these servicers have increased their market share from 6.8 percent in 2012 to 24.2 percent in 2015.
- The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that rental assistance funding has fallen dramatically over the past six years, likely due to the Budget Control Act of 2011.
April 21, 2016
Geng Li, Weifeng Wu and Vincent Yao, three Fed economists, have posted a research note, Do People Leave Money on the Table? Evidence from Joint Mortgage Applications and the Minimum FICO Rule. The authors state that there “is mounting evidence that households make suboptimal savings and investment decisions” and find that
many mortgage borrowers appear to have failed to apply for mortgages that give the lowest interest rates. Specifically, we find that nearly 10 percent of prime borrowers who applied for their loans jointly could have lowered their mortgage interest rate at least one eighth of 1 percentage point if the mortgage was applied for by the applicant with a higher credit score and an income high enough to qualify for the mortgage. Furthermore, among the joint applicants with a lower credit score below 740, for whom mortgage interest rates are most sensitive to credit scores, more than 25 percent could have significantly reduced their borrowing cost by having the individual with a higher credit score apply. This is due to the fact that when lenders price mortgages with joint applications, the interest rates are determined by the lower score of the two–often known as the minimum FICO rule. We estimate that such borrowers could reduce their annual interest payment by between $220 and $1,400. Consistent with the existing literature, we find that couples who appeared to have left money on the table tend to have lower credit scores and be much younger and less financially sophisticated. (1, emphasis added)
This note provides an example of just how complicated the mortgage underwriting process is, particularly for less financially sophisticated borrowers.
One wonders if the CFPB should take a look at this. Should lenders be required to evaluate if joint mortgage applicants would get a better rate if only one of them ended up taking out the mortgage? And when the answer is yes, should lenders be required to share that information with the applicants? I can think of a variety of reasons why that should not be the case (not the least of which is that it could leave just one member of the family holding the bag if things go south), but it might be worth exploring this question more systematically.
- A study, The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, led by Raj Chetty has found that the gap between life spans of low-income and high-income persons increased from 2001 to 2014.
- Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released report, Challenges and Opportunities in Creating Healthy Homes: Helping Consumers Make Informed Decisions, examining the health concerns of American homeowners and renters.
April 20, 2016
The Economic Report of the President contains an important analysis of local land use policies in a section titled “Constraints on Housing Supply:”
Supply constraints provide a structural challenge in the housing market, particularly in high-mobility, economically vibrant cities. When housing supply is constrained, it has less room to expand when demand increases, leading to higher prices and lower affordability. Limits on new construction can, in turn, impede growth in local labor markets and restrain aggregate output growth. Some constraints on the supply of housing come from geography, while others are man-made. Constraints due to land-use regulations, such as minimum lot size requirements, height restrictions, and ordinances prohibiting multifamily housing, fall into the man-made category and thus could be amended to support more inclusive growth. While these regulations can sometimes serve legitimate purposes such as the protection of human health and safety and the prevention of environmental degradation, land-use regulations can also be used to protect vested interests in housing markets.
Gyourko and Molloy (2015) argue that supply constraints have worsened in recent decades, in large part due to more restrictive land-use regulations. House prices have risen faster than construction costs in real terms, providing indirect evidence that land-use regulations are pushing up the price of land.
According to Gyourko and Molloy (2015), between 2010 and 2013, real house prices were 55 percent above real construction costs, compared with an average gap of 39 percent during the 1990s. Several other studies note that land-use regulations have been increasing since roughly 1970, driving much of the real house appreciation that has occurred over this time (Glaeser, Gyourko, and Saks 2005; Glaeser and Ward 2009; Been et al. 2014). This pattern is noteworthy because of the positive correlation between cities’ housing affordability and the strictness of their land use regulations, as measured by the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulation Index (Gyourko et al. 2008). Cities to the lower right of the figure which include Boston and San Francisco, have stringent land-use regulations and low affordability. Cities at the upper left, which include St. Louis and Cleveland, have low regulation and high affordability. Supply constraints by themselves do not make cities low in affordability. Rather, the less responsive housing supply that results from regulation prevents these cities, which often happen to be desirable migration destinations for workers looking for higher-paying jobs, from accommodating a rise in housing demand.
In addition to housing affordability, these regulations have a range of impacts on the economy, more broadly. Reduced housing affordability—whether as an ancillary result of regulation or by design—prevents individuals from moving to high productivity areas. Indeed, empirical evidence from Molloy, Smith, and Wozniak (2012) indicates that migration across all distances in the United States has been in decline since the middle of the 1980s. This decreased labor market mobility has important implications for intergenerational economic mobility (Chetty et al. 2014) and also was estimated in recent research to have held back current GDP by almost 10 percent (Hsieh and Moretti 2015).
Land-use regulations may also make it more difficult for the housing market to accommodate shifts in preferences due to changing demographics, such as increased demand for modifications of existing structures due to aging and increased demand for multifamily housing due to higher levels of urbanization (Goodman et al. 2015). A number of Administration initiatives, ranging from the Multifamily Risk-Sharing Mortgage program to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, try to facilitate the ability of housing supply to respond to housing demand. Ensuring that zoning and other constraints do not prevent housing supply from growing in high productivity areas will be an important objective of Federal as well as State and local policymakers. (87-89, figures omitted and emphasis added)
It is important in itself that the Executive Branch of the federal government has acknowledged the outsized role that local land use policies play in the economy. But the policies that the Obama Administration has implemented don’t go very far in addressing the problems caused by myopic land use policies that favor vested interests. The federal government can be far more aggressive in rewarding local land use policies that support equitable housing and economic development goals. It can also punish local land use policies that hinder those goals.
Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko get much of the credit for demonstrating the effect that local land use policies have on federal housing policy. Now that the President is listening to them, we need Congress to pay attention too. This could be one of those rare policy areas where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground.