The Homeownership Rate and The Kerner Commission

 

photo by Marion S. Trikosko

President Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission

The Economic Policy Institute released a report, 50 Years After The Kerner Commission.  It finds that “African Americans are better off in many ways but are still disadvantaged by racial inequality.” (1) The report opens,

The year 1968 was a watershed in American history and black America’s ongoing fight for equality. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots broke out in cities around the country. Rising against this tragedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawing housing discrimination was signed into law. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute as they received their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open singles title, and Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The same year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, delivered a report to President Johnson examining the causes of civil unrest in African American communities. The report named “white racism”—leading to “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing”—as the culprit, and the report’s authors called for a commitment to “the realization of  common opportunities for all within a single [racially undivided] society.” The Kerner Commission report pulled together a comprehensive array of data to assess the specific economic and social inequities confronting African Americans in 1968.

Where do we stand as a society today? In this brief report, we compare the state of black workers and their families in 1968 with the circumstances of their descendants today, 50 years after the Kerner report was released. We find both good news and bad news. While African Americans are in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968, they are still disadvantaged in important ways relative to whites. In several important respects, African Americans have actually lost ground relative to whites, and, in a few cases, even relative to African Americans in 1968. (1, footnote omitted)

I was particularly shocked by one figure in the report:

One of the most important forms of wealth for working and middle-class families is home equity. Yet, the share of black households that owned their own home remained virtually unchanged between 1968 (41.1 percent) and today (41.2 percent). Over the same period, homeownership for white households increased 5.2 percentage points to 71.1 percent, about 30 percentage points higher than the ownership rate for black households. (4)

It is pretty extraordinary that the homeownership rate for African Americans has not really gone up, given all of the resources that were directed to increasing it. The FHA, Fannie, Freddie and other government programs have all focused on increasing that rate for decades. People of different political stripes will read what they want into this state of affairs. My own take is that wage instability has driven down homeownership rates across the board, but that it has hit African American households particularly hard. Households cannot commit to homeownership if they cannot reasonably depend on getting their wages month-in, month-out.

The Hispanic Homeownership Gap

 

 

 

photo by Gabriel Santana

Freddie Mac’s latest Economic & Housing Research Insight asks Will the Hispanic Homeownership Gap Persist? It opens,

This is the American story.

A wave of immigrants arrives in the U.S. Perhaps they’re escaping religious or political persecution. Perhaps a drought or famine has driven them from their homes. Perhaps they simply want to try their luck in the land of opportunity.

They face new challenges in America. Often they arrive with few resources. And everything about them sets them apart—their religions, their languages, their cultures, their foods, their appearances. They are not always welcomed. They frequently face discrimination in housing, jobs, education, and more. But over time, they plant their roots in American soil. They become part of the tapestry that is America. And they thrive.

This is the story of the Germans and Italians and many other ethnic groups that poured into the U.S. a century ago.

Today’s immigrants come, for the most part, from Latin America and Asia instead of Europe. Hispanics comprise by far the largest share of the current wave. Over the last 50 years, more than 30 million Hispanics migrated to the U.S. And these Hispanics face many of the same challenges as earlier European immigrants.

Homeownership provides a key measure of transition from a newly-arrived immigrant to an established resident. Many immigrants arrive without the financial resources needed to purchase a home. In addition, the unfamiliarity and complexity of the U.S. housing and mortgage finance systems pose obstacles to homeownership. As a result, homeownership rates start low for new immigrants but rise over time.

The homeownership rate among Hispanics in the U.S.—a population that includes new immigrants, long-standing citizens, and everything in between— stands around 45 percent, more than 20 percentage points lower than the rate among non-Hispanic whites. Much of this homeownership gap can be traced to differences in age, income, education and other factors associated with homeownership.

Will the Hispanic homeownership gap close over time, as it did for the European immigrants of a century ago? Or will a significant gap stubbornly persist, as it has for African-Americans? (1-2)

It concludes,

Census projections of future age distributions suggest that the age differences of Whites and Hispanics will be reduced by six percent (0.7 years) by 2025 and 12 percent (1.2 years) by 2035. If these projections are realized, the White/Hispanic homeownership gap is likely to narrow by 20 percent (five percentage points) by 2035. The Census projections include both current residents and future immigrants, and averaging the characteristics of these two groups of Hispanics tends to mask the relatively-rapid growth in homeownership among the current residents.

It is important to remember that about 13 percent of the White/Hispanic homeownership gap cannot be traced to population characteristics such as age and income. The explanation for this residual gap is unclear, although some of it may be due to wealth gaps and discrimination. (12)

Researchers at the Urban Institute have documented the importance of the Hispanic homeownership rate to the housing market more generally. It is worthwhile for policymakers to focus on it as well.

The FHA and African-American Homeownership

Federal Government Redlining Map from 1936

I have posted my article, The Federal Housing Administration and African-American Homeownership, to SSRN and BePress. The abstract reads,

The United States Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) has been a versatile tool of government since it was created during the Great Depression. It achieved success with some of its goals and had a terrible record with others. Its impact on African-American households falls, in many ways, into the latter category.  The FHA began redlining African-American communities at its very beginning.  Its later days have been marred by high default and foreclosure rates in those same communities.

 At the same time, the FHA’s overall impact on the housing market has been immense.  Over its lifetime, it has insured more than 40 million mortgages, helping to make home ownership available to a broad swath of American households. And indeed, the FHA mortgage was central to America’s transformation from a nation of renters to homeowners. The early FHA really created the modern American housing finance system, as well as the look and feel of postwar suburban communities.

 Recently, the FHA has come under attack for the poor execution of some of its policies to expand homeownership, particularly minority homeownership. Leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop employing the FHA to do anything other than provide liquidity to the low end of the mortgage market.  These critics’ arguments rely on a couple of examples of programs that were clearly failures, but they fail to address the FHA’s long history of undertaking comparable initiatives. This Article takes the long view and demonstrates that the FHA has a history of successfully undertaking new homeownership programs.  At the same time, the Article identifies flaws in the FHA model that should be addressed in order to prevent them from occurring if the FHA were to undertake similar initiatives to expand homeownership opportunities in the future, particularly for African-American households.

Minority Homeownership During the Great Recession

photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

Print by Andy Kane

Carlos Garriga et al. have posted The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession to SSRN. The paper concludes,

The Great Recession wiped out much of the homeownership gains attained during the housing boom. However, the homeownership experience was very different across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic borrowers experienced substantial repayment difficulties that ultimately led to a greater share of homes in foreclosure.

Given that home equity often represents a substantial share of household wealth, these foreclosure events severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families. The dynamics of delinquency and foreclosure functioned differently across the income distribution within racial and ethnic groups.

For the majority, higher income was associated with lower delinquency rates and fewer foreclosures as a group. However, for Hispanic families this relationship was surprisingly reversed. Hispanics with the highest incomes fared worse than those with the lowest incomes. This counterintuitive finding suggests how college-educated Hispanic families may have had worse wealth outcomes than their non-college-educated peers: Hispanic families with high income (potentially the result of high educational attainment) had a greater share of home equity lost in foreclosure than lower-income Hispanic families.

Logit regressions suggest that underwriting standards and loan structure explain a significant amount of the greater likelihood of foreclosure among Black and Hispanic borrowers. However, underwriting standards explained more of the gap for Black borrowers, while loan structure was a stronger factor among Hispanic borrowers. Regional concentration and variation in housing markets explained more of the Hispanic-White foreclosure gap than any other group. This is understandable given that Hispanic borrowers in our sample were heavily concentrated in housing markets that experienced some of the largest volatility. Despite accounting for these important factors, sizable gaps remain in foreclosures among Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites. Incorporating measures of labor market outcomes into the analysis may offer further insights.

In sum, the homeownership experience during the Great Recession proved to be inimical for many families, but far more so for Black and Hispanic families. For these families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership. (164-65)

I am not sure what this all means for housing finance policy other than the obvious: consumer protection in the mortgage market is a good thing as it ensures that underwriting standards evaluate ability-to-repay and loan structures exclude abusive terms like teaser rates (thanks to the ATR and QM rules and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). There are probably other policies that we should consider to reduce the depths of our busts, but they do not seem likely to gain traction in the current political environment.

Carson’s Call of Duty

photo by Gage Skidmore

Dr. Ben Carson

The Hill published my most recent column, Ben Carson’s Call of Duty as America’s Housing Chief:

Ben Carson, the nominee for secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has made almost no public pronouncements about housing policy. The one exception is a Washington Times opinion piece from 2015 in which he addresses an Obama administration rule on fair housing.

While Carson appears to agree with the Obama administration’s diagnosis of the problem of segregation, he attacks its solution. If he refuses to vigorously enforce the rule at HUD, it is still incumbent on him to address the underlying problem it was meant to address.

Carson acknowledges the history of structural racism in American housing markets. He notes that segregation was caused in part by the federal government’s reliance on “redlining,” which refers to the Federal Housing Administration’s mid-20th century practice of drawing a red line around minority communities on underwriting maps and then refusing to insure mortgages within those borders.

He also acknowledges that racially restrictive covenants played a significant role in maintaining segregation. Racially restrictive covenants were legally enforceable agreements among property owners to keep homes from being sold to members of various minority groups. African Americans were the group most often targeted by them.

These covenants were very common in the mid-20th century, until the Supreme Court ruled that they were not legally enforceable. Shockingly, the Federal Housing Administration continued to encourage their use, even after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Carson also acknowledged that “the Fair Housing Act and other laws have greatly reduced explicit discrimination in housing” but that “significant disparities in housing availability and quality persist.”

All in all, Carson’s take on the history of American housing policy is consistent with the consensus view across the left and the right: the federal government promoted segregationist housing policies for a large part of the 20th century.

Where he veers sharply from the Obama administration is in crafting a solution. The Obama administration promulgated a rule pursuant to the Fair Housing Act that would require localities to affirmatively promote fair housing if they chose to take funds from HUD.

While Carson states that the Obama rule is based on a “tortured reading of Fair Housing law,” the statutory authority for it is pretty clear. The Fair Housing Act states that HUD is to administer housing programs “in a manner affirmatively to further the policies” of the law.

Carson has characterized the Obama administration rule as a “socialist experiment.” I think his characterization is just plain wrong, particularly because the federal government often ties the provision of federal funds to various policy goals.

Think, for instance, of how federal highway dollars were tied to lowering state speed limits to 55 miles an hour. Such linkages are hardly socialist experiments. They merely demonstrate the power of the purse, a long-time tool of the federal government. Even if Carson cannot be convinced of this, the debate over how to address this legacy of discrimination does not end there.

After all, Carson’s opinion identified a serious problem: segregation resulting from longstanding policies of the federal government. He then stated that he does not agree with the Obama administration’s approach to solving the problem. He concluded by stating, “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens.”  But he failed to identify a single policy to address the problems caused by those longstanding and discriminatory federal policies.

If confirmed, Carson must outline how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can address the legacy of structural racism in American housing markets. The text of the Fair Housing Act makes it clear that HUD must administer its housing programs in a manner that would affirmatively further the policies of the law.

The problem Carson faces is clear. The duty imposed upon him by the law is clear.  What remains unclear is how he will fulfill that duty. He has both a legal and moral obligation to set forth his vision, if he is bent on rejecting that of President Obama.

New Landlord in Town

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.

Expectations for Carson at HUD

photo by Gage Skidmore

Dr. Ben Carson

The Christian Science Monitor quoted me in What Could US Cities Expect From Ben Carson as HUD Secretary?

Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon and erstwhile rival of Donald Trump, was nominated Monday by the president-elect to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

If confirmed by the Senate to be secretary of HUD, Carson would oversee a department dedicated to developing and enacting policies on housing, focusing on building community in lower-income neighborhoods, providing financial assistance for homeowners, and preventing racial discrimination in local housing policies.

Reactions to the nomination have fallen largely along party lines, with many Democrats criticizing Carson’s lack of experience, having never held public office before – inexperience that also makes it hard to predict his potential priorities in a Trump administration. But he has been a frequent critic of social welfare programs, saying that church- and community-based initiatives are a better vehicle than government programs for assisting Americans in poverty.

“I am thrilled to nominate Dr. Ben Carson as our next secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development,” Trump said in a statement released by his transition team. “Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities. We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities.”

Trump and Carson had discussed the job before Thanksgiving, but Carson initially expressed reluctance to take a position on the cabinet, despite his campaign for the US presidency, because of his lack of experience in a political office. Since then, Carson has evidently overcome those reservations.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need,” Carson said in the statement.

Carson is the first African-American pick for Trump’s cabinet, and would likely be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Carson’s communication skills give him “the ability to bring the message of poverty alleviation to people nationwide and I hope he would quickly learn the importance of HUD and would try to make it better, stronger, more efficient” Robert C. Moss, the national director of government affairs at CohnReznick, a public accounting firm, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email.

“Carson is a very skilled speaker, maybe one of the best we’ll see in this role,” writes Mr. Moss, who specializes in affordable housing, “and if he hits on the right direction and takes the message around the country, he could help make the case for affordable housing.”

Trump’s campaign did not focus much on housing or urban development, other than to describe the state of poor “inner city” African-Americans and Hispanics as “disastrous” on multiple occasions. Many critics of Carson say that the former Republican presidential candidate ran on a platform of shrinking the role of government agencies like HUD, putting him at philosophical odds with the very department he will be in charge of.

HUD was created in 1965 in order to build stronger communities and create affordable housing for Americans with low incomes. The department was given the responsibility of enforcing the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed most forms of housing discrimination, including racial, religious, or based on family status.

African-Americans, in particular, have experienced decades of housing discrimination, says Professor Reiss.

“Redlining, the practice of refusing to provide credit in minority communities, was implemented on a national scale since the beginning of the New Deal, by government agencies like the Federal Housing Administration,” he says. “Such policies continued on for decades. These policies led, in part, to the disinvestment in cities through the 1960s that impacted African-American communities most of all.”

But some of the HUD’s recent rules have come under criticism for “social engineering.” One particular policy Carson has publicly opposed is the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule adopted by the Obama administration, which requires cities to monitor and report on any housing patterns of racial bias, in an effort to promote less segregated neighborhoods.

“The purpose of the AFFH rule is to reduce segregation which had been caused in part by the federal government’s own actions,” David Reiss, the academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship
 at Brooklyn Law School, tells the Monitor in an email. The secretary of HUD “can signal that fair housing allegations and violations will be taken seriously or not. If Carson is confirmed, it will send a strong signal that local governments do not need to worry about the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule for the foreseeable future.”