Lingering Effects of Racially Restrictive Covenants

Image by US Census as modified by Ruhrfisch

The York Daily Record quoted me in York County Neighborhoods That Once Barred ‘Any Negro or Mongolian’ Still Do Harm. It opens,

When the Rev. David and Eulamae Orr moved into the Fayfield neighborhood in Springettsbury Township in 1963, they were the first to break the color barrier in the all-white suburban subdivision.

While the Orrs were a well-known and respected York-area black couple, owners of several business enterprises and active in civil rights, their purchase of the South Harlan Street home was uncommon enough at the time to draw headlines in local newspapers.

“My parents were very dignified about it,” Charles Orr, who inherited the home, said in a 1999 interview. “They simply said it was our right, that they had worked hard, that they always had wanted a larger, nicer house and were now able to afford it.”

The color barrier that the Orrs broke through, however, was multi-layered and resilient. People found other ways to keep minorities out of the white neighborhoods even after the Orrs had crossed the line. In fact, social and economic obstacles blocking access to fair housing for minorities remain today.

And urban planning experts say such racial barriers must come down if the city and the county of York are to reach their full potential.

Restrictions elsewhere in York County

By 1963, the 1947 Fayfield subdivision restriction prohibiting the occupancy of any Fayfield home “by any Negro, or any person of Negro extraction, excepting domestic servants …” had disappeared.

The same discriminatory restrictions against minority ownership were found in the 1931 subdivision plan for the proposed Wyndham Hills area. That covenant prohibited home ownership or occupancy by any “negro” or “Mongolian.”

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss, Academic Program Director for The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, explained the term “Mongolian” in that time period was used to refer to “various people of Asian descent, including those of Chinese and Japanese heritage.”

The Wyndham Hills deed restriction placed minority home ownership under its “Nuisances” clause along with operating a foundry, a slaughterhouse, bone-boiling “or other establishment offensive to the neighborhood.”

And, it wasn’t just in the middle- and upper-class York County suburbs either. Two city homes a block apart on West Kurtz Avenue and West Maple Street, for example, carried the same minority ownership restrictions.

That initial covenant restriction against minority home ownership in Fayfield was to be open to a vote among home owners in the neighborhood in 1952. Fayfield homeowners were to vote whether the prohibition against minority ownership was to be removed, rescinded, altered, changed or extended for definite periods of time or perpetuity.

If that vote ever took place, York County historical records don’t easily reveal any documentation of it.

Now illegal, but effects remain

Steve Snell, former president of Realtors Association of York and Adams Counties, said those covenants and restrictions — while apparently legal when written — became blatantly unlawful. He couldn’t be sure if Fayfield homeowners took any action against them or if they were quietly removed as houses in the neighborhood were resold.

These covenants and restrictions kept minorities concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods, primarily in the city of York. The effects of this concentration of poverty remain today, according to acclaimed urban planner David Rusk and others who have studied York. Those effects are seen in everything from the rate of homicide to the school dropout rate.


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.


Rising Mortgage Borrowing for Seniors

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J. Michael Collins et al. have posted Exploring the Rise of Mortgage Borrowing Among Older Americans to SSRN. The abstract reads,

3.6 million more older American households have a mortgage than 2000, contributing to an increase in mortgage usage among the elderly of thirty-nine percent. Rather than collecting imputed rent, older households are borrowing against home equity, potentially with loan terms that exceed their expected life spans. This paper explores several possible explanations for the rise in mortgage borrowing among the elderly over the past 35 years and its consequences. A primary factor is an increase in homeownership rates, but tax policy, rent-to-price ratios, and increased housing consumption are also factors. We find little evidence that changes to household characteristics such as income, education, or bequest motives are driving increased mortgage borrowing trends. Rising mortgage borrowing provides older households with increased liquid saving, but it does not appear to be associated with decreases in non-housing consumption or increases in loan defaults.

The discussion in the paper raises a lot of issues that may be of interest to other researchers:

Changes to local housing markets tax laws, and housing consumption preferences also appear to contribute to differential changes in mortgage usage by age.

Examining sub-groups of households helps illuminate these patterns. Households with below-median assets and those without pensions account for most of the increase in borrowing. Yet there are no signs of rising defaults or financial hardship for these older households with mortgage debt.

Relatively older homeowners without other assets, especially non-retirement assets, may simply be borrowing to fund consumption in the present—there are some patterns of borrowing in response to local unemployment rates that are consistent with this concept. This could be direct consumption or to help family members.

Older homeowners are holding on to their homes, and their mortgages, longer and potentially smoothing consumption or preserving liquid savings. Low interest rates may have enticed many homeowners in their 50s and 60s into refinancing in the 2000s. Those loans had low rates, and given the decline in home equity and also other asset values in the recession, paying off these loans was less feasible. There is also some evidence that borrowing tends to be more common in areas where the relative costs of renting are higher–limiting other options. Whether these patterns are sustained as more current aging cohorts retire from work, housing prices appreciate, and interest rates increase remains ambiguous.

The increase in the use of mortgages by older households is a trend worthy of more study. This is also an important issue for financial planners, and policy makers, to monitor over the next few years as more cohorts of older households retire, and existing retirees either take on more debt or pay off their loans. Likewise, estate sales of property and probate courts may find more homes encumbered with a mortgage. Surviving widows and widowers may struggle to pay mortgage payments after the death of a spouse and face a reduction of pension or Social Security payments. This may be a form of default risk not currently priced into mortgage underwriting for older loan applicants. If more mortgage borrowing among the elderly results in more foreclosures, smaller inheritances, or even estates with negative values, this could have negative effects on extended families and communities.

Housing Affordability and GSE Reform

Jim Parrott and Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute have posted Making Sure the Senate’s Access and Affordability Proposal Works. It opens,

One of the most consequential and possibly promising components of the draft bill being considered in the Senate Banking Committee is the way in which it reduces the cost of a mortgage for those who need it. In the current system, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs) deliver subsidy primarily through the level pricing of their guarantee fees, overcharging lower-risk borrowers in order to undercharge higher-risk borrowers. While providing support for homeownership through cross-subsidy makes good economic and social sense, there are a number of shortcomings to the way it is done in the current system.

First, it does not effectively target those who need the help. While Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are both pushed to provide secondary market liquidity for the loans of low- and moderate-income (LMI) borrowers in order to comply with their affordable housing goals and duty to serve obligations, almost one in four beneficiaries of the subsidy are not LMI borrowers (Parrott et al. 2018). These borrowers receive the subsidy simply because their credit is poorer than the average GSE borrower and thus more costly than the average guarantee fee pricing covers. And LMI borrowers who pose less than average risk to the GSEs are picking up part of that tab, paying more in the average guarantee fee than their lower-than-average risk warrants.

Second, the subsidy is provided almost exclusively through lower mortgage rates, even though that is not the form of help all LMI borrowers need. For many, the size of their monthly mortgage is not the barrier to homeownership, but the lack of savings needed for a down payment and closing costs or to cover emergency expenses once the purchase is made. For those borrowers, the lower rate provided in the current system simply does not help.

And third, the opacity of the subsidy makes it difficult to determine who is benefiting, by how much, and whether it is actually helping. The GSEs are allocating more than $4 billion a year in subsidy, yet policymakers cannot tell how it has affected the homeownership rate of those who receive it, much less how the means of allocation compares with other means of support. We thus cannot adjust course to better allocate the support so that it provides more help those who need it.

The Senate proposal remedies each of these shortcomings, charging an explicit mortgage access fee to pay for the Housing Trust Fund, the Capital Magnet Fund, and a mortgage access fund that supports LMI borrowers, and only LMI borrowers, with one of five forms of subsidy: a mortgage rate buy-down, assistance with down payment and closing costs, funding for savings for housing-related expenses, housing counseling, and funding to offset the cost of servicing delinquent loans. Unlike the current system, the support is well targeted, helps address the entire range of impediments to homeownership, and is transparent. As a means of delivering subsidy to those who need it, the proposed system is likely to be more effective than what we have today.

If, that is, it can be designed in a way that overcomes two central challenges: determining who qualifies for the support and delivering the subsidy effectively to those who do. (1-2, footnote omitted)

This paper provides a clear framework for determining whether a housing finance reform proposal actually furthers housing affordability for those who need it most. It is unclear where things stand with the Senate housing finance reform bill as of now, but it seems like the current version of the bill is a step in the right direction.

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.

Understanding Homeownership


The Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute released its House Finance at a Glance Chartbook for December. It states that financial education “can help reduce barriers to homeownership.” As I argue below, I do not think that financial education is the right thing to emphasize when trying to get people to enter the housing market.

The Introduction makes the case for financial education:

While mortgage debt has been stable to marginally increasing, other types of debt, particularly auto and student loan debt have increased far more rapidly. Our calculations, based on The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, show that over the past 5 years (Q3 2012 to Q3 2017), mortgage debt outstanding has grown at an annualized rate of 1.3 percent, while non-mortgage debt (which includes credit card debt, student loan debt, auto debt, and other debt) has grown by 6.8 percent annualized rate. Student loan debt has grown by 7.3 percent per year while auto debt has been growing by 9.6 percent per year. In Q3 2012, the number of accounts for mortgage loans and auto loans are very close (84 million vs 82 million). By Q3 2017, the number of accounts for mortgages had fallen to 80 million consistent with declining homeownership rate, while the number of accounts for auto loans had increased to 110 million.

Another metric where auto loans have diverged from mortgages is delinquency rates. Over the past 5 years, mortgage delinquencies have plummeted (pages 22 and 29) while the percent of auto loans that is more than 90 days late is roughly flat despite an improving economy. However, the percent of auto loans transitioning into serious delinquency has risen from 1.52 percent in Q3 2012 to 2.36 percent in Q3 2017. While these numbers remain small, the growth bears monitoring.

When we looked at the distribution of credit scores for new auto origination and new mortgage origination, we found no major change in either loan category; while mortgage credit scores are skewed higher, the distribution of mortgage credit scores (page 17) and the distribution of auto credit scores have been roughly consistent over the period. Our calculations based off NY Fed data shows the percent of auto loan origination balances with FICOs under 660 was 35.9% in Q3, 2012, it is now 31.7%; similarly the percent of auto origination with balances under 620 has contracted from 22.7 percent to 19.6 percent. There have been absolutely more auto loans with low FICOs originated, but this is because of the increased overall volume.

So what might explain the differences in trends in the delinquency rate and loan growth between these two asset classes? A good part of the story (in addition to tight mortgage credit) is that many potential low- and moderate-income borrowers do not believe they can get a mortgage. As a result, many don’t even bother to apply. We showed in our recently released report on Barriers to Accessing Homeownership that survey after survey shows that borrowers think they need far bigger down payments than they actually do. And there are many down payment assistance programs available. Moreover, it is still less expensive at the national level to own than to rent. This suggests that many LMI borrowers who are shying away from applying for a mortgage could benefit from financial education; with a better grasp of down payment facts and assistance opportunities, many of these families could be motivated to apply for mortgages and have the opportunity to build wealth. (5)

I am not sure if financial education is the whole answer here. Employment instability as well as generalized financial insecurity may be playing a bigger role in home purchases than in car purchases. The longer time horizon as well as the more serious consequences of a default with homeownership may be keeping people from stepping into the housing market. This is particularly true if renters have visions in their heads of family members or friends suffering during the long and lingering foreclosure crisis.

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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

• 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)