Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

September 5, 2013

Reiss on the FHA and Low Downpayment Mortgages

By David Reiss

I will be speaking at the Cleveland Fed’s 2013 Policy Summit on Housing, Human Capital, and Inequality on Thursday, September 19 from 2:40PM-4:10PM.  My panel is on

Affordable Housing, Mortgage Underwriting, and Default: The Case of the FHA

In the past few years FHA’s market share has increased substantially, as have its default and foreclosure rates. Recently, the White House announced that the FHA may have to make a capital call to Treasury for the first time in its history, prompting much debate over the future of the organization. In this session, a panel of experts will discuss the FHA’s financial situation, its role in providing affordable housing, and explore potential policy responses.


Emre Ergungor, Senior Research Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland


Edward J. Pinto, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, How the FHA Hurts Working-Class Families

David Reiss, Professor, Brooklyn Law School, How Low is Too Low? The Federal Housing Administration and the Low Downpayment Loan

Joseph Tracy, Executive Vice President and Senior Advisor to the President, Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Interpreting the Recent Developments in Housing Markets

My summary and implications are below and those for the other speakers can be found at the link above.

Summary and Findings
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has been a flexible tool of government since it was created during the Great Depression. It succeeded wonderfully, with rapid growth during the late 1930s. The federal government repositioned it a number of times over the following decades to achieve a variety additional social goals. It achieved success with some of its goals and had a terrible record with others. Today’s FHA is suffering from many of the same unrealistic underwriting assumptions that have done in so many subprime lenders as well as Fannie and Freddie. The FHA has come under attack for its poor execution of some of its additional mandates and leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop undertaking them. This article takes the long view and demonstrates that the FHA also has a history of successfully undertaking new programs. It also identifies operational failures that should be noted to prevent them from occurring if the FHA were to undertake similar ones in the future. The article first sets forth the dominant critique of the FHA and a history of its constantly changing role. It then addresses the dominant critique of the FHA and evaluates its priorities in the context of legitimate housing policy objectives. It concludes that the FHA has focused on an unthinking “more is better” approach to housing, but that the FHA can responsibly address objectives other than the provision of liquidity to the residential mortgage market.

Implications for Policy and Practice
Leading commentators on the FHA do not fully appreciate the extent to which down payment requirements alone drive the success and failure of new FHA initiatives. Central to any analysis of the FHA’s role is an understanding of its policies relating down payment size. Much of the FHA’s performance is driven by its down payment requirements, which have trended ever downward so that homeowners were able to get loans for 100% of the value of the house in recent times. As is obvious to all, the larger the down payment, the safer the loan. What appears to have been less obvious is that very small down payments are unacceptably risky. Given that the FHA insures 100% of the losses on its mortgages, the down payment requirement is a key driver of its performance. From an underwriting perspective, 20% is clearly desirable as the risk of default is very low even in a down market. But from an opportunity perspective, a 20% down payment requirement would keep large swaths of potential first-time homeowners from entering the market. If down payments are set too high, than an important social goal may be left by the wayside. So it is important that the public discourse weighs the costs and benefits of setting a fixed down payment requirement versus taking a risk layering approach to down payments. In either case, the FHA must balance the goal of safe underwriting with the goal of making homeownership available to households who could maintain it for the long term.

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