Expanding Access to Homeownership

New homeowners Lateshia, Sylvia, and Tyrell Walton stand in front of their new home.  U.S. Navy photograph by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Shamus O’Neill

Christopher Herbert et al. has posted Expanding Access to Homeownership as a Means of Fostering Residential Integration and Inclusion. It opens,

Efforts to enable greater integration of communities by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity have to confront the issue of housing affordability. Cities, towns and neighborhoods that offer access to better public services, transportation networks, shopping, recreational opportunities, parks and other natural amenities have higher housing costs. Expanding access to these communities for those with lower incomes and wealth necessarily entails some means of bringing housing in these areas within their financial reach. While households’ financial means are central to this issue, affordability intersects with race/ethnicity in part because minorities are more likely to be financially constrained. But to the extent that these areas are also disproportionately home to majority-white populations, discrimination and other barriers to racial/ethnic integration must also be confronted along with affordability barriers.

Enabling greater integration also entails some means of fostering residential stability by maintaining affordability in the face of changing neighborhood conditions. This issue is perhaps most salient in the context of neighborhoods that are experiencing gentrification, where historically low-income communities are experiencing rising rents and house values, increasing the risk of displacement of existing residents and blocking access to newcomers with less means. More generally, increases in housing costs in middle- and upper-income communities may also contribute to increasing segregation by putting these areas further out of reach of households with more modest means.

It is common to think of subsidized rental housing as the principal means of using public resources to expand access to higher-cost neighborhoods and to maintain affordability in areas of increasing demand. But for a host of reasons, policies that help to make homeownership more affordable and accessible should be included as part of a portfolio of approaches designed to achieve these goals.

For example, survey research consistently finds that homeownership remains an important aspiration of most renters, including large majorities of low- and moderate-income households and racial/ethnic minorities. Moreover, because owner-occupied homes account for substantial majorities of the existing housing stock in low-poverty and majority-white neighborhoods, expanding access to homeownership offers the potential to foster integration and to increase access to opportunity for low- income households and households of color. There is also solid evidence that homeownership remains an important means of accruing wealth, which in turn can help expand access to higher-cost communities. Owning a home is associated with greater residential stability, in part because it provides protection from rent inflation, which can help maintain integration in the face of rising housing costs. Finally, in communities where owner-occupied housing predominates, there may be less opposition to expanding affordable housing options for homeowners.

The goal of this paper is to identify means of structuring subsidies and other public interventions intended to expand access to homeownership with an eye towards fostering greater socioeconomic and racial/ethnic integration. (1-2, footnotes omitted)

The paper gives an overview of the barriers to increasing the homeownership rate, including affordability, access to credit and information deficits and then outlines policy options to increase homeownership. The paper provides a good overview for those who want to know more about this topic.

 

The Budgetary Impact on Housing Finance

slide by MIT Golub

The MIT Golub Center for Finance and Policy has posted some interesting infographics on The President’s 2019 Budget: Proposals Affecting Credit, Insurance and Financial Regulators:

The White House released the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 on February 12, just days after President Trump signed a bill extending spending caps for military and domestic spending and suspending the debt ceiling. While the new law has already established government-wide tax and spending levels for the coming fiscal year, the specific proposals contained in the budget request reflect Administration priorities and may still be considered by the Congress. Here, we consider how such proposals may affect the Federal Government in its role as a lender, insurer, and financial regulator.

Between its lending and insurance balances, it is apparent that the U.S. Government has more assets and insured obligations than the five largest bank holding companies combined.

Through various agencies, the US government is deeply involved in the extension of credit and the provision of insurance. It also plays an active regulatory and oversight role in the financial marketplace. While individual credit and insurance programs serve different target populations, they collectively reach into the lives of most Americans, from homeowners to small business owners to bank account holders and students. Note that this graphic does not reflect social insurance, such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

I was particularly interested, of course, in the slides that focused on housing finance, but I found this one slide about all federal loans outstanding to be eye-opening:

The overall amount is huge, $4.34 trillion, and housing finance’s share is also huge, well over half of that amount.

As we slowly proceed down the path to housing finance reform, we should try to determine a principled way to evaluate just how big of a role the federal government needs to have in the housing finance market in order to serve the broad swath of American households. Personally, I think there is a lot of room for private investors to take on more credit risk so long as underserved markets are addressed and consumers are protected.

The Mortgage Servicing Collaborative

The Urban institute’s Laurie Goodman et al. have announced The Mortgage Servicing Collaborative:

All mortgage market participants share the same goal: successful homeownership. Failure to achieve that goal hurts not only consumers and neighborhoods, but investors, insurers, guarantors, and servicers. Successful homeownership hinges on several factors. Consumers need access to a range of mortgage products when buying a home and need effective mortgage servicing. Servicing is the critical work that begins after the mortgage loan is closed and includes collecting and transferring mortgage payments from borrowers to investors, managing escrow, assisting borrowers who fall behind on their payments, and administering the foreclosure process. If closing the loan is the birth of the mortgage, servicing is its day-to-day care.

Despite its importance, mortgage servicing is frequently overlooked in major policy conversations, including the housing finance reform debate. That is a mistake. The servicing industry has changed dramatically since the 2008 mortgage default and foreclosure crisis and subsequent Great Recession. Overlooking servicing while implementing changes to the housing finance system has resulted in some unintended and unwanted consequences, including significant increases in the cost of servicing, a suboptimal servicing system, reduced access to credit for consumers, and an exodus from the industry by depository servicers.

To address this policy oversight, the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center (HFPC) has convened the Mortgage Servicing Collaborative (MSC) to elevate the mortgage servicing discussion and facilitate evidence-based policymaking by bringing more data and evidence to the table. The MSC has convened key industry stakeholders—lenders, servicers, consumer groups, civil rights leaders, researchers, and government—and tasked them with developing a common understanding of the biggest issues in mortgage servicing, their implications, and possible solutions and policy options that can advance the debate. And with the mortgage industry no longer operating in crisis mode, we believe now is the right time for this effort.

In this brief, the first in a series prepared by HFPC researchers with the collaboration of the MSC, we review how we arrived at the present state of affairs in mortgage servicing and explain why it is important to institute mortgage servicing reforms now. (1-2, footnote omitted)

The report provides a short but useful history of servicing, which at the best of times is a dark corner of the mortgage market. It also provides an overview of the risks inherent in a poorly constructed system of servicing for consumers and other players in that market. The Collaborative will certainly be taking deeper dives into these risks in future releases.

As with much of the Housing Finance Policy Center’s work, this collaborative is very forward-looking. Hopefully, it will help us prepare for the next downturn in the housing market.

Investing in Homes

photo by Pictures of Money

TheStreet.com quoted me in Investing In Your Home Remains a Sound Financial Decision for 2018. It reads, in part,

Homeowners are still pouring money into their homes as renovations and upkeep are generating a large portion of sales for Home Depot as demand for purchasing homes rose in September and the three massive hurricanes in the U.S. boosted revenue.

Home Depot’s third-quarter sales surged in the aftermath of a robust hurricane season that spanned from Texas to Puerto Rico, increasing demand from homeowners who faced immense rebuilding as homes were destroyed by relentless floodwaters.

The Atlanta-based home improvement retailer reported an impressive 7.9% increase in comparable-store sales in the third quarter, which exceeded the Wall Street estimate of 5.8%. Home Depot also beat on earnings, reporting $1.84 a share, 2 cents ahead of forecasts. The company’s total revenue was $25.03 billion, up 8% from the same period last year.

 Home Depot’s third-quarter earnings rose 15% from a year ago and its comparable sales in the U.S. increased at a 7.7% clip.

“Though this quarter was marked by an unprecedented number of natural disasters,” said CEO Craig Menear in a statement, “the underlying health of our core business remains solid.

The company was able to raise its fiscal 2017 guidance due to its stellar earnings and now estimates comp sales growth of 6.5% and earnings per share of $7.36, which reflects its $8 billion buyback program this year.

Home Depot shares rose 2.7% to $168.06 on Nov. 14.

 Interest from first-time home buyers remains strong and home sales rose in September — new home sales increased to a seasonally adjusted rate of 667,000, which is up 18.9% month over month and 17% year over year.

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“When an individual buys a share of stock they can monitor the value of the investment on a minute-to-minute basis,” Johnson said. “People can see the fluctuation in value. With real estate, however, no one is quoting you a price instantaneously on your real estate purchase. Absent a market price, people tend not to worry about the value of their real estate purchase and assume that it is very stable in the short run.”

Millennials tend to be conservative with their investment choices and are “drawn to this seeming stability in the value of residential real estate,” he said.

Nevertheless, purchasing a home can often be a very poor financial decision and potential home buyers need to be aware of the additional costs and potential pitfalls.

“People fall prey to the stories of individuals realizing substantial gains by buying a home and selling it at a much higher price years down the road,” Johnson said.

Noble laureate economist and Yale University professor Robert Shiller had made a compelling case that real estate, especially residential homes, are a much inferior investment when compared to stocks. He found that on an inflation-adjusted basis, the average home price has increased only 0.6% annually over the past 100 years.

The stock market’s average return on a large stock index such as the S&P 500 has been about 10% while inflation has averaged around 3% from 1926 through 2016 while the inflation adjusted return of the stock market over the past 90 years has been approximately 7%.

The rate of homeownership still remains much lower than the 1998 rate of 9.5% and the rate has remained stable since the commencement of the financial crisis — hovering around 5% since 2008.

So should you own or rent?

Renting can be a better deal for many consumers, depending on the city and region, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School in N.Y.

“This is a better question to ask yourself than whether owning is a sound investment choice because you are going to need to live somewhere no matter what,” he said. “It is not too helpful to look at national numbers to answer this question – you should look at the figures in the communities you are considering living in.”

The Economics of Housing Supply


chart by Smallman12q

Housing economists Edward L. Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko have posted The Economic Implications of Housing Supply to SSRN (behind a paywall but you can find a slightly older version of the paper here). The abstract reads,

In this essay, we review the basic economics of housing supply and the functioning of US housing markets to better understand the distribution of home prices, household wealth and the spatial distribution of people across markets. We employ a cost-based approach to gauge whether a housing market is delivering appropriately priced units. Specifically, we investigate whether market prices (roughly) equal the costs of producing the housing unit. If so, the market is well-functioning in the sense that it efficiently delivers housing units at their production cost. Of course, poorer households still may have very high housing cost burdens that society may wish to address via transfers. But if housing prices are above this cost in a given area, then the housing market is not functioning well – and housing is too expensive for all households in the market, not just for poorer ones. The gap between price and production cost can be understood as a regulatory tax, which might be efficiently incorporating the negative externalities of new production, but typical estimates find that the implicit tax is far higher than most reasonable estimates of those externalities.

The paper’s conclusions, while a bit technical for a lay audience, are worth highlighting:

When housing supply is highly regulated in a certain area, housing prices are higher and population growth is smaller relative to the level of demand. While most of America has experienced little growth in housing wealth over the past 30 years, the older, richer buyers in America’s most regulated areas have experienced significant increases in housing equity. The regulation of America’s most productive places seems to have led labor to locate in places where wages and prices are lower, reducing America’s overall economic output in the process.

Advocates of land use restrictions emphasize the negative externalities of building. Certainly, new construction can lead to more crowded schools and roads, and it is costly to create new infrastructure to lower congestion. Hence, the optimal tax on new building is positive, not zero. However, there is as yet no consensus about the overall welfare implications of heightened land use controls. Any model-based assessment inevitably relies on various assumptions about the different aspects of regulation and how they are valued in agents’ utility functions.

Empirical investigations of the local costs and benefits of restricting building generally conclude that the negative externalities are not nearly large enough to justify the costs of regulation. Adding the costs from substitute building in other markets generally strengthens this conclusion, as Glaeser and Kahn (2010) show that America restricts building more in places that have lower carbon emissions per household. If California’s restrictions induce more building in Texas and Arizona, then their net environmental could be negative in aggregate. If restrictions on building limit an efficient geographical reallocation of labor, then estimates based on local externalities would miss this effect, too.

If the welfare and output gains from reducing regulation of housing construction are large, then why don’t we see more policy interventions to permit more building in markets such as San Francisco? The great challenge facing attempts to loosen local housing restrictions is that existing homeowners do not want more affordable homes: they want the value of their asset to cost more, not less. They also may not like the idea that new housing will bring in more people, including those from different socio-economic groups.

There have been some attempts at the state level to soften severe local land use restrictions, but they have not been successful. Massachusetts is particularly instructive because it has used both top-down regulatory reform and incentives to encourage local building. Massachusetts Chapter 40B provides builders with a tool to bypass local rules. If developers are building enough formally-defined affordable units in unaffordable areas, they can bypass local zoning rules. Yet localities still are able to find tools to limit local construction, and the cost of providing price-controlled affordable units lowers the incentive for developers to build. It is difficult to assess the overall impact of 40B, especially since both builder and community often face incentives to avoid building “affordable” units. Standard game theoretic arguments suggest that 40B should never itself be used, but rather work primarily by changing the fallback option of the developer. Massachusetts has also tried to create stronger incentives for local building with Chapters 40R and 40S. These parts of their law allow for transfers to the localities themselves, so builders are not capturing all the benefits. Even so, the Boston market and other high cost areas in the state have not seen meaningful surges in new housing development.

This suggests that more fiscal resources will be needed to convince local residents to bear the costs arising from new development. On purely efficiency grounds, one could argue that the federal government provide sufficient resources, but the political economy of the median taxpayer in the nation effectively transferring resources to much wealthier residents of metropolitan areas like San Francisco seems challenging to say the least. However daunting the task, the potential benefits look to be large enough that economists and policymakers should keep trying to devise a workable policy intervention. (19-20)

Gen Z Eying Real Estate Trends

photo by Thomas Tolkien

The Washington Post along with its content partner National Association of Realtors quoted me in Eye on the Future. It reads, in part,

The suburbs as we know them are in flux. Many of the country’s bedroom communities have traditionally been known for their single-family homes and a lack of walkable public spaces. That’s changing as condos, sprawling townhome complexes and apartment buildings now dot areas where single-family homes would have been built.  Developers are building walkable public spaces to accommodate young families leaving cities but still seeking urban-like amenities.

 Another wave of change is expected in the next five to 10 years. That’s when members of Generation Z-those born on the heels of millennials-will become homeowners. Experts say they’ll transform areas that are sandwiched between major cities and suburbs into districts with an urban feel and amenities, without the hefty price tags major metros demand.

That transformation is already starting to happen. “Many of our ‘suburbs’ are actually neighborhoods in Los Angeles, particularly the San Fernando Valley,” said Kathryn Bishop, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Studio City, Calif. and member of the National Association of Realtors. “In the Valley, many neighborhoods have become mini ‘cores.’ Sherman Oaks, Encino and Woodland Hills have office towers, good restaurants and night-life business creating their own city areas.”

It’s no surprise that the younger generation needs to find an alternative to the sky-high costs of urban living. The Economic Policy Institute noted in 2016 that folks who live in San Francisco face a cost of living that’s 52.9 percent above the national average. For New Yorkers, living costs were 49.4 percent higher. The country’s least-affordable place to live was Washington D.C., where residents faced costs 63.5 percent higher than the national average.

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“Since the financial crisis there has been an increase in multigenerational households, driven in large part by financial limitations and insecurity as well as by marital status and educational attainment,” said David Reiss, professor of law and research director at he Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.  “Young adults are more likely to live at their parent’s home in recent years than they have been for more than a century.”

Kafka and the CFPB

photo by Ferran Cornellà

Statue of Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Rona

The Hill published my latest column, The CFPB Is a Champion for Americans Across The Country. It opens,

Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have been arguing that consumers should be freed from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “regulatory blockades and financial activism.” House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) accuses the CFPB of engaging in “financial shakedowns” of lenders. These accusations are weighty.

But let’s take a look at the types of behaviors consumers are facing from those put-upon lenders. A recent decision in federal bankruptcy court, Sundquist v. Bank of America, shows how consumers can be treated by them. You can tell from the first two sentences of the judge’s opinion that it goes poorly for the consumers: “Franz Kafka lives. This automatic stay violation case reveals that he works at Bank of America.”

The judge continues, “The mirage of promised mortgage modification lured the plaintiff debtors into a Kafka-esque nightmare of stay-violating foreclosure and unlawful detainer, tardy foreclosure rescission kept secret for months, home looted while the debtors were dispossessed, emotional distress, lost income, apparent heart attack, suicide attempt, and post-traumatic stress disorder, for all of which Bank of America disclaims responsibility.”

Homeowners who reads this opinion will feel a pit in their stomachs, knowing that if they were in the Sundquists’ shoes they would also tremble with rage and fear from the way Bank of America treated them: 20 or so loan modification requests or supplements were “lost;” declared insufficient, incomplete or stale; or denied with no clear explanation.

Over the years, I have documented similar cases on REFinBlog.com. In U.S. Bank, N.A. v. David Sawyer et al., the Maine Supreme Judicial Court documented how loan servicers demanded various documents which were provided numerous times over the course of four court-ordered mediations and how the servicers made numerous promises about modifications that they did not keep. In Federal National Mortgage Assoc. v. Singer, the court documents the multiple delays and misrepresentations that the lender’s agents made to the homeowners.

The good news is that in those three cases, judges punished the servicers and lenders for their pattern of Kafka-esque abuse of the homeowners. Indeed, the Sundquist judge fined Bank of America a whopping $45 million to send it a message about its horrible treatment of borrowers.

But a fairy tale ending for a handful of borrowers who are lucky enough to have a good lawyer with the resources to fully litigate one of these crazy cases is not a solution for the thousands upon thousands of borrowers who had to give up because they did not have the resources, patience, or mental fortitude to take on big lenders who were happy to drag these matters on for years and years through court proceeding after court proceeding.

What homeowners need is a champion that will stand up for all of them, one that will create fair procedures that govern the origination and servicing of mortgages, one that will enforce those procedures, and one that will study and monitor the mortgage market to ensure that new forms of predatory behavior do not have the opportunity to take root. This is just what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has done. It has promulgated the qualified mortgage and ability-to-repay rules and has worked to ensure that lenders comply with them.

Kafka himself said that it was “the blend of absurd, surreal and mundane which gave rise to the adjective ‘kafkaesque.’” Most certainly that is the experience of borrowers like the Sundquists as they jump through hoop after hoop only to be told to jump once again, higher this time.

When we read a book like Kafka’s The Trial, we are left with a sense of dislocation. What if the world was the way Kafka described it to be? But if we go through an experience like the Sundquists’, it is so much worse. It turns out that an actor in the real world is insidiously working to destroy us, bit by bit.

The occasional win in court won’t save the vast majority of homeowners from abusive lending practices. A regulator like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can. And in fact it does.