Lingering Effects of Racially Restrictive Covenants

Image by US Census as modified by Ruhrfisch

The York Daily Record quoted me in York County Neighborhoods That Once Barred ‘Any Negro or Mongolian’ Still Do Harm. It opens,

When the Rev. David and Eulamae Orr moved into the Fayfield neighborhood in Springettsbury Township in 1963, they were the first to break the color barrier in the all-white suburban subdivision.

While the Orrs were a well-known and respected York-area black couple, owners of several business enterprises and active in civil rights, their purchase of the South Harlan Street home was uncommon enough at the time to draw headlines in local newspapers.

“My parents were very dignified about it,” Charles Orr, who inherited the home, said in a 1999 interview. “They simply said it was our right, that they had worked hard, that they always had wanted a larger, nicer house and were now able to afford it.”

The color barrier that the Orrs broke through, however, was multi-layered and resilient. People found other ways to keep minorities out of the white neighborhoods even after the Orrs had crossed the line. In fact, social and economic obstacles blocking access to fair housing for minorities remain today.

And urban planning experts say such racial barriers must come down if the city and the county of York are to reach their full potential.

Restrictions elsewhere in York County

By 1963, the 1947 Fayfield subdivision restriction prohibiting the occupancy of any Fayfield home “by any Negro, or any person of Negro extraction, excepting domestic servants …” had disappeared.

The same discriminatory restrictions against minority ownership were found in the 1931 subdivision plan for the proposed Wyndham Hills area. That covenant prohibited home ownership or occupancy by any “negro” or “Mongolian.”

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss, Academic Program Director for The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, explained the term “Mongolian” in that time period was used to refer to “various people of Asian descent, including those of Chinese and Japanese heritage.”

The Wyndham Hills deed restriction placed minority home ownership under its “Nuisances” clause along with operating a foundry, a slaughterhouse, bone-boiling “or other establishment offensive to the neighborhood.”

And, it wasn’t just in the middle- and upper-class York County suburbs either. Two city homes a block apart on West Kurtz Avenue and West Maple Street, for example, carried the same minority ownership restrictions.

That initial covenant restriction against minority home ownership in Fayfield was to be open to a vote among home owners in the neighborhood in 1952. Fayfield homeowners were to vote whether the prohibition against minority ownership was to be removed, rescinded, altered, changed or extended for definite periods of time or perpetuity.

If that vote ever took place, York County historical records don’t easily reveal any documentation of it.

Now illegal, but effects remain

Steve Snell, former president of Realtors Association of York and Adams Counties, said those covenants and restrictions — while apparently legal when written — became blatantly unlawful. He couldn’t be sure if Fayfield homeowners took any action against them or if they were quietly removed as houses in the neighborhood were resold.

These covenants and restrictions kept minorities concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods, primarily in the city of York. The effects of this concentration of poverty remain today, according to acclaimed urban planner David Rusk and others who have studied York. Those effects are seen in everything from the rate of homicide to the school dropout rate.

 

How To Buy A Foreclosed Home

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in  How to Buy a Foreclosed Home. It opens,

As home prices soar in many cities, buyers might look to foreclosures as an affordable option for landing their dream home. Typically, a foreclosure occurs when a homeowner no longer can make the mortgage payments and the lender seizes the property. The lender then requires the former owner to vacate the property before offering it for sale, usually at a discounted price. In some cases, the home is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Foreclosures offer home shoppers the potential to score a great deal, says Elizabeth Mendenhall, a Realtor in Columbia, Missouri, who is president of the National Association of Realtors.

“Sometimes people think a foreclosure only happens to the lower end of the market, but you can definitely find foreclosures at any price range,” she says.

But while buying a foreclosure can save you a lot of cash, it does come with risks. If you pursue a foreclosure, it helps to have a “stomach of steel,” says David Reiss, law professor and academic programs director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
“There’s going to be a lot more ups and downs” than in a typical homebuying process, says Reiss, whose work focuses on real estate finance and community development.

Why Buy a Foreclosure?

In recent years, foreclosure sales have been trending downward, according to national property data curating company Attom Data Solutions. That is largely because a strengthening U.S. economy has reduced the number of borrowers who lose their homes as a result of failing to pay the mortgage. In 2017, distressed home sales – including foreclosures and short sales – made up 14 percent of all U.S. single family home and condo sales, according to Attom Data Solutions. That number was down from 15.5 percent in 2016 and a recent high of 38.6 percent in 2011.

Still, some buyers look to foreclosures to get the best possible deal. Homes may be for sale in various states of foreclosure. For example, pre-foreclosure is a period when the owner has fallen behind on payments, but the lender has not actually taken the home from the owner. Homes sold at this point often go through the short sale process, where the lender agrees to accept an amount of money from the buyer that is less than what the current owner owes on the mortgage.

Properties that are already in foreclosure are sold at an online or offline auction, or by a real estate agent. The biggest lure of buying a foreclosure is the potential savings you get compared with buying a similar nondistressed property.

“It can be like a 15 percent discount on your neighboring houses,” Reiss says. “So, it can be significant.”

But Mendenhall says how much you will save depends on the local real estate market and the stage of foreclosure of the property.

The Risks of Buying a Foreclosure

Purchasing a foreclosure involves several substantial risks, so buyers must enter the process with their eyes wide open. In many cases, if you buy a foreclosure at auction, you must purchase the property sight unseen. Reiss says this is the biggest potential danger of buying a foreclosure.

“The big, scary thing is that with a number of foreclosures, you can’t actually inspect the property before you actually bid,” he says. “That’s in part why the prices are below the market.”

Even if you can get a professional inspection on a foreclosure, you typically have to buy the house “as is.” Once you purchase the home, any problems that pop up are yours – as is the responsibility for finding and paying for a remedy. Such problems are more likely in a foreclosure than in a nondistressed property. For example, in some cases, a frustrated family might strip the home of valuable elements before vacating the house.

“Or they kind of just beat it up because they were angry about having to go through the foreclosure,” Reiss says.

The mere fact that the home is vacant also can lead to problems. Reiss says a home is like a plant – if you don’t tend to it regularly, it can wither and die. “If you happen to leave it alone on its own for too long, water leaks in, pipes can burst, rodents can get in, just the elements can do damage,” he says.

Mendenhall adds that people who lose their homes to foreclosure typically have major financial troubles. That can trigger other troubles for the new owner. “If the previous owner was in financial distress, there’s a chance that there’s more maintenance and work maybe that they haven’t completed,” she says.

Reducing the Dangers of Buying a Foreclosure

There are a few things you can do to mitigate the risks associated with buying a foreclosure. For starters, see if you can get a professional inspection of the property. Although buyers often cannot inspect a foreclosure property, that is not always the case. So, be sure to ask a real estate agent or the seller about hiring a home inspector.

“Even though it may extend the process, if you can have a qualified inspector come in, you can know a little bit more about what you’re getting into,” Mendenhall says.

If you can’t inspect the property, Reiss recommends researching its history. Look at publicly available records to find out when the property was last sold and how long the current owner had possession. Also, check whether building permits were drawn and what type of work was done. “Maybe you’ll see some good news, like a boiler was replaced two years ago,” Reiss says. “Or maybe you’ll see some scary news, like there’s all these permits and you don’t know if the work was completed.”

Also, visit the house and perform a “curbside inspection” of your own, Reiss says. “Even if you can’t go inside the house, you want to look at the property,” he says. “If you can peek in the windows, you probably want to peek in the windows.”

Knock on the doors of nearby neighbors. Tell them you want to bid on the property but need to learn all that you can about the previous owners, including how long they lived in the home and whether they took care of it. And ask if there have been any signs of squatters or recent break-ins.

“Try to get all that information,” Reiss says. “Neighbors are probably going to have a good sense of a lot of that, and I think that kind of informal due diligence can be helpful.”

Working with a real estate agent experienced in selling distressed property may help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls of buying foreclosures, Mendenhall says. Some agents have earned the National Association of Realtors’ Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource Certification, or SFR. Such Realtors can help guide you through processes unique to purchasing distressed properties, Mendenhall says.

How to Find a Foreclosure

You can find foreclosures by searching the listings at bank websites, including those of giants such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The government-sponsored companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac also have listings on their websites.

The federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development owns and sells foreclosed homes. You can find listings on the website.

Private companies such as RealtyTrac offer foreclosure listings online, typically for a fee. Finally, you can contact a real estate agent who will find foreclosures for you. These agents may help you find foreclosures before others snatch them up.

Is a Foreclosure Right for You?

Before you pursue a foreclosure, Reiss encourages you to ask yourself whether you are in a good position to take on the risk – and, hopefully, to reap the reward – of buying a foreclosure. It is possible to use conventional financing, or even a loan from the Federal Housing Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs, to buy a foreclosure. However, people with deeper pockets are often better candidates for buying a foreclosure.

Because the process can be highly competitive, buyers with access to large amounts of cash can swoop in and land the best deals. “You can get financing, but you need to get it quickly,” Reiss says. “I think a lot of people who go into purchasing foreclosure(s) want to have the cash to just kind of act.”

Sellers of distressed properties love cash-only buyers, because the home can be sold without a lender requiring either a home appraisal or a home inspection. “So, the more cash you have on hand, the more likely you’re playing in those sandboxes,” Reiss says.

In addition, buyers of foreclosures often need to spend money to bring a property up to code or to make it competitive with other homes in the neighborhood. “Have a big cushion in case the building is in much worse condition than you expected,” Reiss says.

He cites the example of someone who buys a foreclosure, only to discover that the piping has been stripped out of the basement and will cost $10,000 to repair and replace. “You need to know that you can handle that one way or the other,” Reiss says.

People with solid home maintenance and repair skills also are good candidates for buying a foreclosure. “I think if you’re a handy person, you might be able to address a lot of the issues yourself,” Reiss says. He describes such buyers as anyone who has “a can-do attitude and is looking to trade sweat equity for home equity.”

Reiss and Mendenhall agree that flexibility is crucial to successfully shopping for and purchasing a foreclosure. Mendenhall notes that a foreclosure sale can take a long time to complete. “It can be a long process, or a frustrating one,” she says. “It can depend upon where they are in the foreclosure process. It can take a much longer time to go from contract to close.”

For that reason, a foreclosure might not make sense for buyers who need to move into a property quickly, she says. Also, think hard about how you really feel about buying a house that needs extensive renovation work that might take a long time to complete.

“It can be hard for some people to live in a property and do repairs at the same time,” Mendenhall says.

Rising Mortgage Rates

graphic by Chris Butterworth

NBC News quoted me in Mortgage Rates Just Hit 5 Percent: What Does That Mean for Homebuyers and Owners? It opens,

Mortgage rates crossed the 5 percent line on Wednesday for the first time since 2011, marking a new era for a generation of Americans raised on super-low borrowing rates and highlighting the downside of a burgeoning national economy.

Strengthening economic growth, near-record low unemployment, inflation rates and policy moves by the Federal Reserve have all contributed to move the needle beyond the psychological 5 percent barrier.”It has only been in this decade that they have fallen below 5 percent, rates not seen since the 1960s,” said David Reiss, an expert in real estate law and professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

From 1971 through early October 2008, the average rate for a 30-year mortgage was 8.1 percent. The day before Halloween 1981, the number spiked at 18.44 percent, according to data from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage rebundler.

Psychology aside, there’s a real money impact as well. Every increase of 10 basis points, or 0.1 percentage point, means another $6 per month per $100,000 of mortgage, said Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com.

Over the last year, the mortgage on a typically priced home of $295,000 has increased by $115 to $120 a month.

Growing monthly payments are just one of the factors contributing to tougher times for many buyers. House prices also have been on the increase, and potential homeowners must contend with the loss of the so-called SALT deductions in last year’s tax cut legislation, which complicate things in high-tax states.

Real Estate Transactions in the United States

 

I attended the Saint Petersburg International Legal Forum in May and gave a series of talks on American law to an international audience. My lecture on Real Estate Transactions in the United States was recorded and is now on YouTube.

This lecture provides an overview of the basic U.S. residential real estate transaction for those who know very little about the subject.

Hope for GSE Shareholders

Judge Lamberth issued an opinion in Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. FHFA (Civ. No.13-1439) (Sept. 28, 2018) that gives some hope to the private shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These shareholders have been on the losing end of nearly every case brought against the government relating to its handling of the conservatorships of the two companies.  Readers of this blog know that I have long been a skeptic of the shareholders’ claims because of the broad powers granted the government by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed during the height of the financial crisis, as well as the highly regulated environment in which the two companies operate. This highly regulated environment means that GSE profits are driven by regulatory decisions much more than those of other financial institutions. As such, Fannie and Freddie live and die by the sword of government intervention in the mortgage market.

Judge Lamberth had dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, but was reversed in part on appeal. In this case, he revisits the issues arising from the reversal of his earlier dismissal. Once again, Judge Lamberth dismisses a number of the plaintiffs’ claims, but he finds that that their claim that the government breached the duty of good faith survives.

The opinion gives a road map that shareholders can follow to success. The judge identifies allegations that, if true, would be a sufficient factual basis for a holding that the government breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is plausible that the preponderance of proof may support these allegations. Some evidence has already come to light that indicates that at least some government actors had good reason to believe that Fannie and Freddie were on the cusp of sustained profitability when the government implemented the net worth sweep. The net worth sweep had redirected the net profits of the two companies to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Lamberth highlights some of aspects of the plaintiffs’ argument that he found compelling at the motion to dismiss phase of this litigation. First, he notes that absence of “any increased funding commitment” is atypical when senior shareholders receive “enhanced disbursement rights,” as was the case when the government implemented the net worth sweep. (21) He also states that the plaintiffs would not have expected that the GSEs would have extinguished “the possibility of dividends arbitrarily or unreasonably.” (22)

While this opinion is good news for the plaintiffs, it is still unclear what their endgame would be if they were to get a final judgment that the net worth sweep was invalid. Depending on the outcome of regulatory and legislative debates about the future of the two companies, the win may be a pyrrhic one. Time will tell. In the interim, expect more discovery battles, motions for summary judgment and even a trial in this case. So, while this opinion gives shareholders some hope of ultimate success, and perhaps some leverage in political and regulatory debates, I do not see it as a game changer in itself.

In terms of the bigger picture, there are a lot of changes on the horizon regarding the future of the housing finance system. The midterm elections; Hensarling and Corker’s departure from Congress; and the Trump Administration’s priorities are all bigger drivers of the housing finance reform train, at least for now.

Housing Finance Transitions

image by NCTC Creative Imagery/USFWS

The Congressional Budget Office released a report, Transitioning to Alternative Structures for Housing Finance: An Update. The report updates a 2014 analysis

to inform policymakers about how different approaches to restructuring the housing finance system would affect federal costs, risks to taxpayers, and mortgage interest rates. The study focuses on the secondary mortgage market, in which financial institutions buy residential mortgages, pool them into mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), and sell the securities to investors with a guarantee against defaults on the underlying loans. That market is dominated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that have been under the control of the federal government since the financial crisis of 2008.

• Federal Costs. CBO projects that under current policy, the GSEs will guarantee almost $12 trillion in new MBSs over the next 10 years and that those guarantees will cost the government about $19 billion on a fair-value basis. That cost represents the estimated amount that the government would have to pay private guarantors to bear the credit risks of the new guarantees. New structures for the secondary mortgage market that emphasized private capital would greatly reduce federal costs, compared with current policy, and would decrease taxpayers’ exposure to credit risk, but mortgage borrowers would face slightly higher costs.

• Risks to the Government. Three of the four approaches to restructuring the secondary market that CBO analyzed would keep some type of explicit federal guarantee of MBSs to provide stability to the market during a financial crisis. Under those approaches, the government would continue to bear most of the risks on new guarantees during a financial crisis, but the approaches differ in the extent to which private guarantors and investors would share risks under normal market conditions. Alternatively, if the secondary market were largely privatized, there would be no explicit federal guarantees on most residential mortgages. But some type of government intervention might be necessary to stabilize mortgage markets during a financial crisis.

• Availability of Mortgages and Changes in Interest Rates. New structures for the secondary market that emphasized private capital would lead to slightly higher interest rates and slightly lower home prices under normal conditions (because the fees that the GSEs currently charge for their guarantees are close to the prices that CBO judges private firms would charge). If the market were controlled by a single, fully federal agency, interest rates could fall slightly. During a financial crisis, however, borrowers could face significant constraints on the availability of mortgages and higher interest rates under a largely private secondary market, though not under the other structures, unless the government chose to intervene.

This report is particularly valuable because it focuses on the transition from the limbo state of conservatorship that we find ourselves in to a more stable one that is built to last. The report considers four possible pathways:

  • A secondary market in which a single, fully federal agency would guarantee qualifying MBSs. (1)
  • A hybrid public-private market in which government and several private guarantors would share the credit risk on eligible MBSs. (1)
  • A secondary market in which the government would play a very small role during normal times, but would act as the “guarantor of last resort” during a financial crisis. (2)
  • A largely private model in which there would be no federal guarantees in the secondary market. (2)

Things still are very much up in the air as to which way things will go when Congress finally turns its attention to this issue, but this report helps to plan for the transition no matter which path is followed.

GSE Shareholders Floored, Again

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion in Saxton v. FHFA (No. 17-1727, Aug. 23, 2018). The Eighth Circuit joins the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and D.C. Circuits in rejecting the arguments of Fannie and Freddie shareholders that the Federal Housing Finance Agency exceeded its authority as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The Court provides the following overview:

     The financial crisis of 2008 prompted Congress to take several actions to fend off economic disaster. One of those measures propped up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, which were founded by Congress back in 1938 and 1970, buy home mortgages from lenders, thereby freeing lenders to make more loans. See generally 12 U.S.C. § 4501. Although established by Congress, Fannie and Freddie operate like private companies: they have shareholders, boards of directors, and executives appointed by those boards. But Fannie and Freddie also have something most private businesses do not: the backing of the United States Treasury. 

     In 2008, with the mortgage meltdown at full tilt, Congress enacted the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA or the Act). HERA created the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and gave it the power to appoint itself either conservator or receiver of Fannie or Freddie should either company become critically undercapitalized. 12 U.S.C. § 4617(a)(2), (4). The Act includes a provision limiting judicial review: “Except as  provided in this section or at the request of the Director, no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of the [FHFA] as a conservator or a receiver.” Id. § 4617(f). 

     Shortly after the Act’s passage, FHFA determined that both Fannie and Freddie were critically undercapitalized and appointed itself conservator. FHFA then entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Treasury whereby Treasury would acquire specially-created preferred stock and, in exchange, would make hundreds of billions of dollars in capital available to Fannie and Freddie. The idea was that Fannie and Freddie would exit conservatorship when they reimbursed the Treasury.

     But Fannie and Freddie remain under FHFA’s conservatorship today. Since the conservatorship began, FHFA and Treasury have amended their agreement several times. In the most recent amendment, FHFA agreed that, each quarter, Fannie and Freddie would pay to Treasury their entire net worth, minus a small buffer. This so-called “net worth sweep” is the basis of this litigation. 

     Three owners of Fannie and Freddie common stock sued FHFA and Treasury, claiming they had exceeded their powers under HERA and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by agreeing to the net worth sweep. The shareholders sought only an injunction setting aside the net worth sweep; they dismissed a claim seeking money damages. Relying on the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Perry Capital LLC v. Mnuchin, 864 F.3d 591 (D.C. Cir. 2017), the district court dismissed the suit.

What amazes me as a longtime watcher of the GSE litigation is how supposedly dispassionate investors lose their heads when it comes to the GSE lawsuits. They cannot seem to fathom that judges will come to a different conclusion regarding HERA’s limitation on judicial review.

While I do not rule out that the Supreme Court could find otherwise, particularly if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, it seems like this unbroken string of losses should provide some sort of wake up call for GSE shareholders. But somehow, I doubt that it will.