Taking Down Barriers to Homeownership

Laurie Goodman and her colleagues at the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center have released a report, Barriers to Accessing Homeownership Down Payment, Credit, and Affordability. The Executive Summary states that

Saving for a down payment is a considerable barrier to homeownership. With rising home prices, rising interest rates, and tight lending standards, the path to homeownership has become more challenging, especially for low-to-median-income borrowers and first-time homebuyers. Yet most potential homebuyers are largely unaware that there are low–down payment and no–down payment assistance programs available at the local, state, and federal levels to help eligible borrowers secure an appropriate down payment. This report provides charts and commentary to articulate the challenges families face saving for down payments as well as the options available to help them. This report is accompanied by an interactive map.

Barrier 1. Down Payments

• Consumers often think they need to put more down than lenders actually require. Survey results show that 53 percent of renters cite saving for a down payment as an obstacle to homeownership. Eighty percent of consumers either are unaware of how much lenders require for a down payment or believe all lenders require a down payment above 5 percent. Fifteen percent believe lenders require a 20 percent down payment, and 30 percent believe lenders expect a 20 percent down payment.

• Contrary to consumer perceptions, borrowers are not actually putting down 20 percent. The national median loan-to-value (LTV) ratio is 93 percent. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) typically offer lower down payment options than the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), from 0 to 3.5 percent. As the share of FHA and VA lending has increased considerably in the post-crisis period (since 2008), the median LTV ratio has increased as well.

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Barrier 2. The Credit Box

• Access to homeownership is not limited by down payments alone. Credit access is tight by historical standards. Accordingly, the median credit score of new purchase mortgage originations has increased considerably in the post-crisis period. The median credit score for purchase mortgages is 779, compared with the pre-crisis median of 692. Credit scores of FHA borrowers have historically been lower; the current median credit score is 671.

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Barrier 3. Affordability

• Because of home price appreciation in the past five years, national home price affordability has declined. Low interest rates have aided affordability. If interest rates reach 4.75 percent, national affordability will return to historical average affordability.

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Access to Down Payment Assistance

• Low–down payment mortgages and other down payment assistance programs provide grants or loans to potential homeowners all over the country. There are 2,144 active programs across the country, and 1,295 agencies and housing finance agencies offering them at the local, state, and national levels. One of the major challenges of the offerings in each state is that they are not standard, eligibility requirements vary, and not all lenders offer the programs. Pricing for the programs also vary, so counseling and consumer education about the programs is necessary to ensure consumers understand how the program works and any additional costs that may be incurred.

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• Eligibility for down payment assistance programs is determined by such factors as loan amount, homebuyer status, borrower income, and family size. Assistance is available for many loan types including conventional, FHA, VA, and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans. The share of people eligible for assistance in select MSAs ranges from 30 to 52 percent, and the eligible borrowers could qualify for 3 to 12 programs with down payment assistance ranging from $2,000 to more than $30,000.

Because of the tight credit environment, many borrowers have been shut out of the market and have not been able to take advantage of low interest rates and affordable home prices. As the credit box opens, educating consumers about low–down payment mortgages and down payment assistance is critical to ensuring homeownership is available to more families. (V-VI, emphasis removed)

Rethinking FHA Insurance

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report on Options to Manage FHA’s Exposure to Risk from Guaranteeing Single-Family Mortgages. FHA insurance stands out from other forms of mortgage insurance because it guarantees all of a lender’s loss, rather than just a portion of it. It is certainly a useful exercise to determine whether the FHA could reduce its exposure to those potential credit losses while also making home loans available to people who would otherwise have difficulty accessing them. This report evaluates the options available to the FHA:

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insures the mortgages of people who might otherwise have trouble getting a loan, particularly first-time homebuyers and low-income borrowers seeking to purchase or refinance a home. During and just after the 2007–2009 recession, the share of mortgages insured by FHA grew rapidly as private lenders became more reluctant to provide home loans without an FHA guarantee of repayment. FHA’s expanded role in the mortgage insurance market ensured that borrowers could continue to have access to credit. However, like most other mortgage insurers, FHA experienced a spike in delinquencies and defaults by borrowers.

Recently, mortgage borrowers with good credit scores, large down payments, or low ratios of debt to income have started to see more options in the private market. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the share of FHA-insured mortgages going to such borrowers is likely to keep shrinking as credit standards in the private market continue to ease. That change would leave FHA with a riskier pool of borrowers, creating risk-management challenges similar to the ones that contributed to the agency’s high levels of insurance claims and losses during the recession.

This report analyzes policy options to reduce FHA’s exposure to risk from its program to guarantee single-family mortgages, including creating a larger role for private lenders and restricting the availability of FHA’s guarantees. The options are designed to let FHA continue to fulfill its primary mission of ensuring access to credit for first-time homebuyers and low-income borrowers.

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What Policy Options Did CBO Analyze?

Many changes have been proposed to reduce the cost of risk to the federal government from FHA’s single-family mortgage guarantees. CBO analyzed illustrative versions of seven policy options, which generally represent the range of approaches that policymakers and others have proposed:

■ Guaranteeing some rather than all of the lender’s losses on a defaulted mortgage;

■ Increasing FHA’s use of risk-based pricing to tailor up-front fees to the riskiness of specific borrowers;

■ Adding a residual-income test to the requirements for an FHA-insured mortgage to better measure borrowers’ ability to repay the loan (as the Department of Veterans Affairs does in its mortgage guarantee program);

■ Reducing the limit on the size of a mortgage that FHA can guarantee;

■ Restricting eligibility for FHA-insured mortgages only to first-time homebuyers and low- to moderate-income borrowers;

■ Requiring some borrowers to receive mortgage counseling to help them better understand their financial obligations; and

■ Providing a grant to help borrowers with their down payment, in exchange for which FHA would receive part of the increase in their home’s value when it was sold.

Although some of those approaches would require action by lawmakers, several of the options could be implemented by FHA without legislation. In addition, certain options could be combined to change the nature of FHA’s risk exposure or the composition of its guarantees. CBO did not examine the results of combining options.

What Effects Would the Policy Options Have?

Making one or more of those policy changes would affect FHA’s financial position, its role in the broader mortgage market, and the federal budget. All of the options would improve the agency’s financial position by reducing its exposure to the risk of losses on the mortgages it insures (see Table 1). The main reason for that reduction would be a decrease in the amount of mortgages guaranteed by FHA. CBO projects that under current law, FHA would insure $220 billion in new single-family mortgages in 2018. The options would lower that amount by anywhere from $15 billion to $77 billion (see Figure 1). Some options would also reduce FHA’s risk exposure by decreasing insurance losses as a percentage of the value of the guaranteed mortgages. (1-2)

Treasury’s Trojan Horse for The CFPB

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

The Hill posted my latest column, Americans Are Better off with Consumer Protection in Place. It opens,

This month, the Treasury Department issued a report to President Trump in response to his executive order on regulation of the U.S. financial system. While the report does not seek to do as much damage to consumer protection as the House’s Financial Choice Act, it proposes a dramatic weakening of the federal government’s role in the consumer financial services market. In particular, the report advocates that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s mandate be radically constrained.

Republicans have been seeking to weaken the CFPB since it was created as part of the Dodd-Frank Act. The bureau took over responsibility for consumer protection regulation from seven federal agencies. Republicans have been far more antagonistic to the bureau than many of the lenders it regulates. Lenders have seen the value in consolidating much of their regulatory compliance into one agency.

To keep reading, click here.

How Tight Is The Credit Box?

Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has posted a working paper, Quantifying the Tightness of Mortgage Credit and Assessing Policy Actions. The paper opens,

Mortgage credit has become very tight in the aftermath of the financial crisis. While experts generally agree that it is poor public policy to make loans to borrowers who cannot make their payments, failing to make mortgages to those who can make their payments has an opportunity cost, because historically homeownership has been the best way to build wealth. And, default is not binary: very few borrowers will default under all circumstances, and very few borrowers will never default. The decision where to draw the line—which mortgages to make—comes down to what probability of default we as a society are prepared to tolerate.

This paper first quantifies the tightness of mortgage credit in historical perspective. It then discusses one consequence of tight credit: fewer mortgage loans are being made. Then the paper evaluates the policy actions to loosen the credit box taken by the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) and their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as well as the policy actions taken by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), arguing that the GSEs have been much more successful than the FHA. The paper concludes with the argument that if we don’t solve mortgage credit availability issues, we will have a much lower percentage of homeowners because a larger share of potential new homebuyers will likely be Hispanic or nonwhite—groups that have had lower incomes, less wealth, and lower credit scores than whites. Because homeownership has traditionally been the best way for households to build wealth, the inability of these new potential homeowners to buy could increase economic inequality between whites and nonwhites. (1)

Goodman has been making the case for some time that the credit box is too tight. I would have liked to see a broader discussion in the paper of policies that could further loosen credit. What, for instance, could the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau do to encourage more lending? Should it be offering more of a safe harbor for lenders who are willing to make non-Qualified Mortgage loans? The private-label mortgage-backed securities sector has remained close to dead since the financial crisis.  Are there ways to bring some life — responsible life — back to that sector? Why aren’t portfolio lenders stepping into that space? What would they need to do so?

When the Qualified Mortgage rule was being hashed out, there was a debate as to whether there should be any non-Qualified Mortgages available to borrowers.  Some argued that every borrower should get a Qualified Mortgage, which has so many consumer protection provisions built into it. I was of the opinion that there should be a market for non-QM although the CFPB would need to monitor that sector closely. I stand by that position. The credit box is too tight and non-QM could help to loosen it up.

What’s the CFPB Ever Done for Housing?

TheStreet.com quoted me in What’s the CFPB Ever Done For Housing? Quite A Lot. It reads, in part,

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau grew out of the housing market crash of 2008 and subsequent Dodd-Frank legislation. As a watchdog with teeth, the CFPB’s job is to protect homebuyers from the predatory mortgages that helped sink the economy nine years ago. And it worked.

In theory.

Problem is, for some would-be homeowners, the CFPB is an inconvenient middle-man, adding more red tape to an already impossible situation. In short, it isn’t perfect. But with the Trump administration threatening to tear the whole damn thing down, you’ve got to wonder, is the CFPB really doing more harm to the housing market than good?

How we got here

Pre-housing market crash, the mortgage lending world was a vastly different, Wild West sort of landscape. Dodd-Frank and the CFPB entered the scene, in part, for lending oversight in that uncontrolled housing market. For example, once not-uncommon ‘liar loans,’ which were largely based on the borrower’s word and not much else-for instance, someone saying they made $100,000 a year to qualify for a huge home even though they made $30,000-are now illegal thanks to Dodd-Frank and the CFPB. Mortgage companies cashing in at the expensive of uneducated buyers happened, and it happened a lot.

“Just about everybody I talked to prior to 2008 thought the lending climate was out of control,” says Chandler Crouch, broker and owner of Chandler Crouch Realtors in Dallas-Fort Worth. “People were saying it couldn’t last. It just didn’t make sense. Lending requirements were too loose. Everybody, from Wall Street to the banks to the loan officers to the consumers, was being rewarded for making bad decisions. Lending needed to tighten.”

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“The CFPB has been criticized for restricting mortgage credit too much with its Qualified Mortgage and ability to repay rules,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School who has practiced real estate law since 1998.

This was all done to ensure buyers could afford their home and not end up in foreclosure or short sale (and also avoid another economic collapse). These rules also bar lenders from predatory loans like massive balloon loans and shady adjustable rate mortgages.

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Will no CFPB = housing hellscape?

Let’s say the Republicans get their way and the CFPB goes poof. What happens?

“You’d see an expansion of the credit box-more people would be approved for credit,” says Reiss. “To the extent that credit is offered on good terms, that would be a good development. I think you would see more potential homebuyers being approved for mortgages which would drive up home prices in the short term as there would be more competition.”

But then there’s the opportunity for those really bad loans to come swinging back, which harm homeowners would have in the past and also trigger fears of another housing collapse.

“Liar loans would definitely have a comeback if the CFPB and Dodd-Frank were dismantled,” says Reiss. “The Qualified Mortgage and ability to repay rules were implemented as part of the broader Dodd-Frank rulemaking agenda; without those rules, credit would quickly return to its extreme boom and bust cycle, with liar loans a product that would pick up steam just as the boom reaches its heights…We would bemoan them once again as soon as the bust hits its depths.”

Return to the Great Recession?

US News & World Report quoted me in What Happens if Trump Dismantles the Financial Regulations of the Great Recession? It opens,

On Feb. 3, 2017, President Donald Trump signed two executive orders that will affect the financial sector. That change will come to consumers is undeniable. But exactly what change is coming is, naturally, up for debate.

One of the orders requires the Treasury secretary to review the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 and designed to address some of the shortcomings in the financial system that led to the Great Recession. The other executive action mandates that the Labor Department review its Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule and look at its probable economic impact. As it stands now, the fiduciary rule is supposed to be phased in from April 10, 2017 to Jan. 1, 2018. The rule requires financial professionals who work with retirement plans or provide retirement planning advice to act in a way that’s only based on the client’s best interests.

What do these executive orders portend for consumers? Nobody knows, but what follows are some educated guesses – with best-case and worst-case outcomes.

How the housing market might be affected. There’s potential good news and bad news here, according to Francesco D’Acunto, a finance assistant professor at the University of Maryland. In a study performed by D’Acunto and faculty colleague Alberto Rossi, in the wake of Dodd-Frank, banks decreased mortgage lending to middle class families by about 15 percent in 2014.

“Title XIV, which regulates the mortgage market, could be in for a full-scale renovation that might ultimately improve the fortunes of potential homebuyers from the middle class,” D’Acunto says.

So if you’ve been having trouble getting a mortgage for a house, you may have less trouble – provided you find a reputable lender. Because the downside, according to D’Acunto, is that “such a move risks bringing a return of predatory behavior in lending and mortgage cross-selling, especially by large banks and by non-bank mortgage originators.”

To avoid that, D’Acunto hopes that Congress intervenes “surgically on Title XIV” and only reduces the regulatory costs imposed by the new Qualified Mortgage classification. Created by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Qualified Mortgage category of loans includes features designed to make it more likely that a consumer will be able to pay it back.

But if they don’t intervene with the careful attention to detail D’Acunto advises, then expect “big changes, most of them negative,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor whose specialty is in real estate finance.

Potential best-case scenario: After being denied a mortgage for some time, you finally get your house.

Potential worst-case scenario: Because you were steered to a high-interest loan you can’t afford, you lose your house.

How credit cards, auto loans and student loans might be affected. There has been a lot of talk that the CFPB could be a casualty in the executive order that asks the Treasury secretary to review Dodd-Frank. But will it be ripped to shreds or have its power diminished?

The latter seems to already be happening. For instance, lawmakers, led by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), are in the midst of trying to repeal a rule that is scheduled to go into effect this fall. The rule, among other things, would mandate prepaid-card companies to disclose detailed information about their fees, make it easier to access account information and would curb a consumer’s losses if the cards are lost or stolen.

A little weakening might not be so bad, Reiss says. He thinks the CFPB has tightened “the credit box too much, meaning that some people who could manage more credit are not getting access to it.”

But he also thinks if the CFPB were dismantled, the negatives would far outweigh the positives.

Potential best-case scenario: Easier access to loans and more choices. And for some consumers who can now get that car or credit card, their quality of life improves.

Potential worst-case scenario: Thanks to that easier access, some consumers end up stuck with high-interest loans with a lot of hidden fees and rue the day they applied for them.

Enlarging The Credit Box

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The Hill published my column, It’s Time to Expand The Credit Box for American Homebuyers. it reads,

The dark, dark days of the mortgage market are far behind us. The early 2000s were marked by a set of practices that can only be described as abusive. Consumers saw teaser interest rates that morphed into unaffordable rates soon thereafter, high fees that were foisted upon borrowers at the closing table and loans packed with unnecessary and costly products like credit insurance.

After the financial crisis hit, Congress enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The law included provisions intended to protect both borrowers and lenders from the craziness of the previous decade, when no one was sufficiently focused on whether loans would be repaid or not.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) promulgated the rules that Dodd-Frank had called for, like the ability-to-repay and qualified mortgages rules. These rules achieved their desired effect as predatory mortgage loans all but disappeared from the market.

But there were consequences, and they were not wholly unexpected. Mortgage credit became tighter than necessary. People who could reliably make their mortgage payments were not able to get a mortgage in the first place. Perhaps their income was unreliable, but they had a good cushion of savings. Perhaps they had more debts than the rules thought advisable, but were otherwise frugal enough to handle a mortgage.

These people banged into the reasonable limitations of Dodd-Frank and could not get one of the plain vanilla mortgages that it promoted. But many of those borrowers found out that they could not go elsewhere because lenders avoided making mortgages that were not favored by Dodd-Frank’s rules.

Commentators were of two minds when these rules were promulgated. Some believed that an alternative market for mortgages, so-called non-qualified mortgages, would sprout up beside the plain vanilla market, for good or for ill. Others believed that lenders would avoid that alternative market like the plague, again for good or for ill. Now it looks like the second view is mostly correct and it is mostly for ill.

The Urban Institute Housing Finance Policy Center’s latest credit availability index shows that mortgage availability remains weak. The center concludes that even if underwriting loosened and current default risk doubled, it would remain manageable given past experience.

The CFPB can take steps to increase the credit box from its current size. The “functional credit box” refers to the universe of loans that are available to borrowers. The credit box can be broadened from today’s functional credit box if mortgage market players choose to thoughtfully loosen underwriting standards, or if other structural changes are made within the industry.

The CFPB in particular can take steps to encourage greater non-qualified mortgage lending without needing to amend the ability-to-repay and qualified mortgages rules. CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated earlier this year that “not a single case has been brought against a mortgage lender for making a non-[qualified mortgage] loan.”

But lenders have entered the non-qualified mortgage market very tentatively and apparently need more guidance about how the Dodd-Frank rules will be enforced. Moreover, some commentators have noted that the rules also contain ambiguities that make it difficult for lenders to chart a path to a vibrant non-qualified mortgage line of business. Lenders are being very risk-averse here, but that is pretty reasonable given that some violations of these rules can result in criminal penalties, including jail time.

The mortgage market of the early 2000s provided mortgage credit to too many people who could not make their monthly payments on the terms offered. The pendulum has now swung. Today’s market offers very few unsustainable mortgages, but it fails to provide credit to some who could afford them. That means that the credit box is not at its socially optimal size.

The CFPB should make it a priority to review the regulatory regime for non-qualified mortgages in order to ensure that the functional credit box is expanded to more closely approximate the universe of borrowers who can pay their mortgage payments month in, month out. That would be good for those individual borrowers kept out of the housing market. It would also be good for society as a whole, as the financial activity of those borrowers has a multiplier effect throughout the economy.