Housing in the Trump Era

 

The Real Estate Transactions Section of the American Association of Law Schools has issued the following Call for Papers:

Access + Opportunity + Choice: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era

Program Description:

The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2008 housing crisis—an event described as the most significant financial and economic upheaval since the Great Depression. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which upended many decades of overt housing discrimination. Both events remind us of the significant role that housing has played in the American story—both for good and for bad.

Of the many aspects of financial reform that followed 2008, much of the housing finance-related work was centered around mortgage loan origination and creating incentives and rules dealing with underwriting and the risk of moral hazard. Some of these reforms include the creation of the qualified mortgage safe-harbor and the skin-in-the-game risk retention rules. But when it came to the secondary mortgage market, little significant reform was undertaken. The only government action of any serious importance related to the federal government—through the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)—taking over control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This major government intervention into the workings of the country’s two mortgage giants yielded takings lawsuits, an outcry from shareholders, and the decimation of the capital reserves of both companies. Despite Fannie and Freddie having both paid back all the bailout funds given to them, the conservatorship remains in place to this day.

In the area of fair housing, the past several years saw the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities case whereby the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (and narrowed the scope of) the disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act. We also saw efforts aimed at reducing geographic concentrations of affordable housing through the Obama administration’s promulgation of the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule.

Yet, meaningful housing reform remains elusive. None of the major candidates in the most recent presidential election meaningfully addressed the issue in their policy platforms, and a lack of movement in resolving the Fannie/Freddie conservatorship is viewed as a major failure of the Obama administration. Additionally, housing segregation and access to affordable mortgage credit continues to plague the American economy.

In recent months, the topics of housing finance reform and providing Americans with credit (including mortgage credit) choices have been a point of focus on Capitol Hill and in the Trump White House. Will these conservations result in meaningful legislation or changes in regulatory approaches in these areas? Will programs like the low-income-housing tax credit, the CFPB’s mandatory underwriting requirements, public housing subsidies, and the government’s role in guaranteeing and securitizing mortgage loans significantly change? Where are points of possible agreement between the country’s two major parties in this area and what kinds of compromises can be made?

Call for Papers:

The Real Estate Transactions Section looks to explore these and related issues in its 2019 AALS panel program titled: “Access and Opportunity: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era.” The Section invites the submission of abstracts or full papers dealing broadly with issues related to real estate finance, the secondary mortgage market, fair housing, access to mortgage credit, mortgage lending discrimination, and the future of mortgage finance. There is no formal paper requirement associated with participation on the panel, but preference will be given to those submissions that demonstrate novel scholarly insights that have been substantially developed. Untenured scholars in particular are encouraged to submit their work. Please email your submissions to Chris Odinet at codinet@sulc.edu by Friday, August 3, 2018. The selection results will be announced in early September 2018. In additional to confirmed speakers, the Section anticipates selecting two to three papers from the call.

Confirmed Speakers:

Rigel C. Oliveri, Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law

Todd J. Zywicki, Foundation Professor of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

David Reiss, Professor of Law and Research Director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, Brooklyn Law School

Eligibility:

Per AALS rules, only full-time faculty members of AALS member law schools are eligible to submit a paper/abstract to Section calls for papers. Faculty at fee-paid law schools, foreign faculty, adjunct and visiting faculty (without a full-time position at an AALS member law school), graduate students, fellows, and non-law school faculty are not eligible to submit.

All panelists, including speakers selected from this Call for Papers, are responsible for paying their own annual meeting registration fee and travel expenses.

The Miraculous Continuous Workout Mortgage

Professor Robert Shiller

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller et al. have posted Continuous Workout Mortgages: Efficient Pricing and Systemic Implications to SSRN. The paper opens,

The ad hoc measures taken to resolve the subprime crisis involved expending financial resources to bail out banks without addressing the wave of foreclosures. These short-term amendments negate parts of mortgage contracts and question the disciplining mechanism of finance. Moreover, the increase in volatility of house prices in recent years exacerbated the crisis. In contrast to ad hoc approaches, we propose a mortgage contract, the Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM), which is robust to downturns. We demonstrate how CWMs can be offered to homeowners as an ex ante solution to non-anticipated real estate price declines.

The Continuous Workout Mortgage (CWM, Shiller (2008b)) is a two-in-one product: a fixed rate home loan coupled with negative equity insurance. More importantly its payments are linked to home prices and adjusted downward when necessary to prevent negative equity. CWMs eliminate the expensive workout of defaulting on a plain vanilla mortgage. This subsequently reduces the risk exposure of financial institutions and thus the government to bailouts. CWMs share the price risk of a home with the lender and thus provide automatic adjustments for changes in home prices. This feature eliminates the rational incentive to exercise the costly option to default which is embedded in the loan contract. Despite sharing the underlying risk, the lender continues to receive an uninterrupted stream of monthly payments. Moreover, this can occur without multiple and costly negotiations. (1, references omitted)

If it is not obvious, this is a radical idea.  It was not even contemplated before the financial crisis. That being said, it is pretty brilliant financial innovation, one that should not just be discussed by academics. The paper provides a lot more detail about the proposal for those who are interested. And if you want to avoid taxpayer bailouts of the housing market in the future, you should be interested.

Preparing for the Next Housing Tsunami

Greg Kaplan et al. posted The Housing Boom and Bust: Model Meets Evidence to SSRN. The abstract reads,

We build a model of the U.S. economy with multiple aggregate shocks (income, housing finance conditions, and beliefs about future housing demand) that generate fluctuations in equilibrium house prices. Through a series of counterfactual experiments, we study the housing boom and bust around the Great Recession and obtain three main results. First, we find that the main driver of movements in house prices and rents was a shift in beliefs. Shifts in credit conditions do not move house prices but are important for the dynamics of home ownership, leverage, and foreclosures. The role of housing rental markets and long-term mortgages in alleviating credit constraints is central to these findings. Second, our model suggests that the boom-bust in house prices explains half of the corresponding swings in non-durable expenditures and that the transmission mechanism is a wealth effect through household balance sheets. Third, we find that a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.

I think the last sentence is worth pondering a bit:  “a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.” During the Great Depression, the federal government took steps that relieved the debt burden of over a million households by extending the terms of their mortgages and lowering the interest rates on them.

While this was no panacea, it did let millions stay in their homes during a period of great financial stress. The steps taken to help struggling homeowners during the recent Great Recession were much more timid than those taken during the Great Depression. This paper adds to a body of literature that suggests we should not be so timid the next time we are hit by an economic tsunami.

Improving the 30-Year Mortgage

Wayne Passmore and Alexander von Hafften have posted Improving the 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgage to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The 30-year fixed-rate fully amortizing mortgage (or “traditional fixed-rate mortgage”) was a substantial innovation when first developed during the Great Depression. However, it has three major flaws. First, because homeowner equity accumulates slowly during the first decade, homeowners are essentially renting their homes from lenders. With so little equity accumulation, many lenders require large down payments. Second, in each monthly mortgage payment, homeowners substantially compensate capital markets investors for the ability to prepay. The homeowner might have better uses for this money. Third, refinancing mortgages is often very costly. We propose a new fixed-rate mortgage, called the Fixed-Payment-COFI mortgage (or “Fixed-COFI mortgage”), that resolves these three flaws. This mortgage has fixed monthly payments equal to payments for traditional fixed-rate mortgages and no down payment. Also, unlike traditional fixed-rate mortgages, Fixed-COFI mortgages do not bundle mortgage financing with compensation paid to capital markets investors for bearing prepayment risks; instead, this money is directed toward purchasing the home. The Fixed-COFI mortgage exploits the often-present prepayment-risk wedge between the fixed-rate mortgage rate and the estimated cost of funds index (COFI) mortgage rate. Committing to a savings program based on the difference between fixed-rate mortgage payments and payments based on COFI plus a margin, the homeowner uses this wedge to accumulate home equity quickly. In addition, the Fixed-COFI mortgage is a highly profitable asset for many mortgage lenders. Fixed-COFI mortgages may help some renters gain access to homeownership. These renters may be, for example, paying rents as high as comparable mortgage payments in high-cost metropolitan areas but do not have enough savings for a down payment. The Fixed-COFI mortgage may help such renters, among others, purchase homes.

The authors acknowledge some drawbacks for Fixed-COFI mortgages that can make them unattractive to some borrowers:

What do homeowners lose by choosing Fixed-COFI mortgages instead of traditional fixed-rate mortgages? First, they cannot freely spend refinancing gains on non-housing items. When mortgage rates fall, homeowners with Fixed-COFI mortgages automatically pay less interest and pay down the mortgage principal more. Second, they can no longer “win the lottery” played with capital markets investors and lock in a substantially lower rate for the remainder of their mortgage. With Fixed-COFI mortgages, homeowners trade the option of prepayment for faster home equity accumulation. We believe that many households may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to traditional fixed-rate mortgages. Furthermore, we believe that many renting households without savings for a down payment may prefer Fixed-COFI mortgages to renting. (4)

American households rely too much on the plain vanilla 30-year fixed rate mortgage for their own good. Papers like this give us some reasonable alternatives that might be better suited for many households.

The Long-Term Effects of Redlining

Daniel Aaronson et al. have posted The Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps to SSRN. The paper provides empirical support for the argument that discriminatory government policies have consequences that can last for decades, including increased segregation. The abstract reads,

In the wake of the Great Depression, the Federal government created new institutions such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to stabilize housing markets. As part of that effort, the HOLC created residential security maps for over 200 cities to grade the riskiness of lending to neighborhoods. We trace out the effects of these maps over the course of the 20th and into the early 21st century by linking geocoded HOLC maps to both Census and modern credit bureau data. Our analysis looks at the difference in outcomes between residents living on a lower graded side versus a higher graded side of an HOLC boundary within highly close proximity to one another. We compare these differences to “counterfactual” boundaries using propensity score and other weighting procedures. In addition, we exploit borders that are least likely to have been endogenously drawn. We find that areas that were the lower graded side of HOLC boundaries in the 1930s experienced a marked increase in racial segregation in subsequent decades that peaked around 1970 before beginning to decline. We also find evidence of a long-run decline in home ownership, house values, and credit scores along the lower graded side of HOLC borders that persists today. We document similar long-run patterns among both “redlined” and non-redlined neighborhoods and, in some important outcomes, show larger and more lasting effects among the latter. Our results provide strongly suggestive evidence that the HOLC maps had a causal and persistent effect on the development of neighborhoods through credit access.

The paper’s conclusion is just as interesting:

That the pattern begins to revert starting in the 1970s is at least suggestive that Federal interventions like the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 may have played a role in reversing the increase in segregation caused by the HOLC maps. . . . We believe our results highlight the key role that access to credit plays on the growth and long-running development of local communities. (33)

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.

Dodd-Frank Repeal Unappealing for Homeowners

photo by Gage Skidmore

Congressman Jeb Hensarling

The Hill published my latest column, Why Repealing Dodd-Frank Is Unappealing if You Own a Home. It opens, 

President Trump has made it clear that he wished to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Just two weeks after his inauguration, he issued an executive order to get the ball rolling by means of agency action, an effort that will be led by the Department of the Treasury. Trump will have lots of allies in Congress as he pursues this agenda. A recent memo by House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to his committee’s leadership team outlines a legislative path that leads to much the same goal.

One of the key components of the Dodd-Frank regulatory regime was the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The bureau is responsible for administering a range of consumer protection regulations, some of which predate Dodd-Frank and some of which were mandated by it. Homeowners should sit up and take notice because a lot of protections they can now take for granted will be stripped away if this push is successful.

Many of these regulations protect homeowners as they obtain mortgages for their homes. Others protect homeowners over the life of the mortgages, particularly when they are having trouble keeping up with their mortgage payments because of those common life events that still knock us for a loop when they happen to us: job loss, divorce, medical bills, a death in the family.

Hensarling’s memo makes clear the extent to which he wants to weaken the CFPB. Among many other things, he wants to eliminate the bureau’s consumer education functions, bar it from commencing actions involving unfair, deceptive or abusive acts and practices, end its practice of tracking consumer complaints, and stop if from monitoring and conducting research on the consumer credit market.

Before the financial crisis, homeowners suffered from a range of abusive and predatory behaviors that were prevalent in the mortgage industry for years and years. Lenders would lend without regard to a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, so long as there was sufficient equity in the home to make the lender whole after a foreclosure. Dodd-Frank’s ability-to-repay rule keeps lenders from doing that now. Lenders would make loans that had large balloon payments at the end of the term, forcing unsophisticated borrowers to refinance with all of the fees and costs that that entails. The lenders would look at those refinancing costs as another profit center. Dodd-Frank’s qualified mortgage rule banned those abusive balloon payments for the most part.

While Hensarling claims that Dodd-Frank “clogs the arteries of capitalism,” he seems to forget that unfettered capitalism nearly gave us a fatal heart attack just 10 years ago, when the subprime mortgage crisis led us to the brink of a second Great Depression. He seems to forget that predatory mortgage lending is not only bad for the individuals affected by it, but also for the housing market and economy in general. Housing prices did not just fall for those with unsustainable mortgages—they fell for all of us.

The push to get rid of the CFPB is not being driven by the consumer finance industry. The industry has learned to live with the bureau. It has come to see that there are some benefits that accrue from primarily dealing with one regulator, in place of the patchwork of regulators that was the norm before Dodd-Frank. Rather, the push is being driven by an unfettered free market ideology that is out of step with the workings of the modern economy.

Getting rid of the CFPB will be bad for homeowners. They will no longer be able to assume that a mortgage they receive is one that has payments they can make month-in and month-out. They will need to treat lenders as predators because predatory lending will certainly return to the mortgage market. Caveat emptor.