REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

December 8, 2022

A Controversial Fix for America’s Housing Market

By David Reiss


Sustainable Economies Law Center

Insider quoted me in A Controversial Fix for America’s Housing Market: More Foreclosures. It opens,

How many people should lose their homes to foreclosure?

In an ideal world, of course, there would be no foreclosures at all. Everyone who buys a home would get one that fits their income and needs, and people would have enough money to make their mortgage payments on time and in full. But in a housing market built on debt, foreclosures are a painful reality. People lose their jobs or fall behind on payments, and lenders repossess the home to recoup their losses.

Too many foreclosures is obviously a bad thing — losing a home is devastating both financially and emotionally — but it’s also a problem to have too few foreclosures. Low rates of foreclosure activity signal that housing lenders aren’t taking enough risk, locking out hopeful buyers who could have kept up with payments on their mortgage if only lenders gave them the chance.

Most residential loans are backed by the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration. To try to find a happy medium of risk, the GSEs — government-sponsored enterprises — and FHA set a “credit box” to determine who gets a mortgage. The companies base these standards on factors including the borrower’s financial stability and the state of the housing market and economy. When the credit box gets tighter, fewer people get mortgages, and foreclosures generally go down. When it opens up, banks take more risks on people with lower credit scores or worse financial histories, increasing the possibility of foreclosures.

Finding the right size for the credit box is easier said than done. In the years leading up to the Great Recession, banks and private lenders handed out millions of risky loans to homebuyers who had no hope of repaying them. A tidal wave of foreclosures followed, plunging the US housing market — and the global economy — into chaos.

But some experts argue that in the years since the crash, the GSEs, lenders, and regulators overcorrected, shutting loads of potentially reliable buyers out of the housing market. Laurie Goodman, the founder of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said there’s room today to “open the credit box” and relax lending standards without pushing the housing market into crisis. More foreclosures might come as a result, she said, but that would be “a worthwhile trade-off” if it gave more people the opportunity to build wealth through homeownership.

Opening the credit box isn’t a cure-all for housing, and given the weakening economy, more cautious experts argue that making it easier to get a mortgage is unnecessary or dangerous. But if lenders do it correctly, it could be a major step toward a healthier market. A more stable credit box over time could not only ensure future homebuyers aren’t locked out of getting the home of their dreams, but could also smooth out some of the market’s chaotic nature.

The ‘invisible victims’ of the housing market

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the victims of the housing free-for-all were clear. An estimated 3.8 million homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure from 2007 to 2010, and plenty more also lost theirs in the following years. But the overly strict lending standards and tighter regulations that followed created a new class of victims: people who were unable to join the ranks of homeowners. David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, called these would-be homebuyers “invisible victims” — people who probably could have stayed current on their payments if they’d been approved for a loan but who didn’t get that opportunity.

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