Cutting Back on Community Reinvestment

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Banks Look to Narrow Exams Under Community Reinvestment Act. It opens,

Banks see an opening to limit the types of violations that could lead to a Community Reinvestment Act downgrade as federal regulators begin rewriting rules under the 1977 law.

Banks say regulators have improperly used consumer fair lending and other violations involving credit cards or other financial products to evaluate compliance with the law meant to increase lending and investment to lower-income communities.

“When a bank violates a consumer protection law, there is no shortage of enforcement agencies and legal regimes available to seek redress and punishment. Adding the CRA to that long list thus has little marginal benefit, and risks diluting and undermining the CRA’s core purpose of promoting community reinvestment,” the Bank Policy Institute, a leading bank lobbying group, said in a Nov. 19 comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC set the stage for a CRA rewrite in August by releasing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. The Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have signaled a desire to sign on to a joint proposal.

With that momentum building, banks are taking their shot to limit the types of enforcement actions included in CRA reviews. They want CRA reviews to focus on mortgages, small business and other community development investments.

The question of how non-CRA-related violations apply to banks’ community lending reviews is not merely a theoretical exercise.

Wells Fargo & Co. saw its CRA grade downgraded two levels to “needs to improve”in March 2017 following the revelation of the fake accounts it generated for consumers. Several states and municipalities cut off business with the bank in response.

CRA exam cycles run three years for large national banks and can run longer for smaller banks that perform well. Banks receive one of four grades—outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance—and a poor grade can restrict their merger and branch expansion plans.

OCC, Treasury Leading Push

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, has been pushing for the latest CRA revision.

Both of those officials ran into CRA trouble when they tried to sell OneWest Bank to CIT Group Inc. Mnuchin was OneWest’s chairman and Otting its chief executive.

The Treasury Department released a report on “modernizing the CRA” in April. Included in that report is a call to not allow fair lending enforcement investigations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators to slow down CRA reviews.

Otting went farther, issuing a bulletin on Aug. 15 highlighting that his agency’s examiners will no longer take into account non-CRA lending violations when assessing a bank’s CRA compliance.

The FDIC and the Fed have not yet followed suit. But banks want the three agencies to set a common policy on dealing with non-CRA related enforcement actions in their community lending reviews.

“Regulators should develop consistent policies clarifying that CRA will not be used as a general enforcement tool,” the American Bankers Association said in a Nov. 15 comment letter.

There is some merit to the idea, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

“It’s delinking fair lending concerns, which are regulated elsewhere, from CRA concerns. From an industry perspective that may make a lot of sense,” he said in a Nov. 30 phone interview.

The proposal, taken in a vacuum, may be reasonable. But in the context of broader attempts to weaken the CRA, it should be viewed more skeptically.

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.

 

Big Eviction Data

photo by Tim Patterson

The Eviction Lab, run by Princeton University Professor Matthew Desmond (of Evicted fame) has recently released its Methodology Report and related resources. The introduction to the report opens,

In recent years, renters’ housing costs have far outpaced their incomes, driving a nationwide affordability crisis. Current data from the American Housing Survey show that most poor renting families spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing costs. Under these conditions, 1 millions of Americans today are at risk of losing their homes through eviction.

An eviction occurs when a landlord forcibly expels a tenant from a residence. While the majority of evictions are attributed to nonpayment of rent, landlords may evict tenants for a variety of other reasons, including property damage, nuisance complaints, or lease violations. A formal eviction occurs when a landlord carries out an eviction through the court system. Conversely, an informal eviction occurs when a landlord executes an eviction without initiating a legal process. For example, a landlord may offer a buyout or perform an illegal lock-out. Until recently, little was known about the prevalence, causes, and consequences of eviction.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University has collected, cleaned, geocoded, aggregated, and publicized all recorded court-ordered evictions that occurred between 2000 and 2016 in the United States. This data set consists of 82,935,981 million court records related to eviction cases in the United States between 2000 and 2016, gleaned from multiple sources. It is the most comprehensive data set of evictions in America to date.

These data allow us to estimate the national prevalence of court-ordered eviction, and to compare eviction rates among states, counties, cities, and neighborhoods. We can observe eviction trends over time and across geography, and researchers can link these data to other sources of information. (2)

In sum, the Eviction Lab has created “the most comprehensive data set of evictions in America.” (41) This data set is obviously of great importance and will lead to important research about what it means to be poor in the United States. The Eviction Lab website has a user-friendly mapping function among other resources for researchers and policymakers.

“Modernizing” the Community Reinvestment Act

President Carter signs the Housing and Community Development Act of 1977, which contains the Community Reinvestment Act

The Trump Administration has been signaling its intent to do a makeover of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA) for quite a while, describing it as a much needed update.  Last June, Treasury stated in its Banks and Credit Unions report (one of a series of reports on A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities which I discuss here),

The CRA statute is in need of modernization, regulatory oversight must be harmonized, and greater clarity in remediating deficiencies is called for. It is very important to better align the benefits arising from banks’ CRA investments with the interest and needs of the communities that they serve and to improve the current supervisory and regulatory framework for CRA. . . . Aligning the regulatory oversight of CRA activities with a heightened focus on community investments is a high priority for the Secretary. (9)

Well, the modernization effort has now taken off with a Treasury Memorandum for The Office of The Comptroller of the Currency, The Board of Governors of The Federal Reserve System, The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. By way of background, the memorandum notes that

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977 was enacted to encourage banks to meet the credit and deposit needs of communities that they serve, including low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities, consistent with safe and sound operations. Banks are periodically assigned a CRA rating by one of the primary regulators – the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), collectively the CRA regulators – based on the bank’s performance under the appropriate CRA tests or approved Strategic Plan. CRA was enacted in response to concerns about disinvestment and redlining as well as a desire to have financial institutions “play the leading role” in providing the “capital required for local housing and economic development needs.”

The U.S. banking industry has experienced substantial organizational and technological changes; however, the regulatory and performance expectations under CRA have not kept pace. Interstate banking, mortgage securitization, and internet and mobile banking are just a few of the major changes that have come about in the past four decades. In this evolving banking environment, changes should be made to the administration of CRA in order for it to achieve its intended purpose. (1, footnotes omitted)

The bank that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin used to head up, OneWest, had its own run-ins with CRA compliance. As a result, we should look carefully at how Treasury seeks to “modernize” the CRA. The Treasury memo has four recommendations:

  • Assessment Areas. The concept of assessment areas originated within the banking environment that existed in 1977, when there was no interstate banking and deposits almost always came from the community surrounding a branch. Treasury offers recommendations for updating the definitions of geographic assessment areas to reflect the changing nature of banking arising from changing technology, customer behavior, and other factors.
  • Examination Clarity and Flexibility. Both banks and communities would benefit from additional flexibility in the CRA performance evaluation process, including increasing clarity in the examination guidance. Treasury recommends improvements that could be made to CRA performance evaluation criteria that would increase the transparency and effectiveness of CRA rating determinations.
  • Examination Process. Certain aspects of the examination process need to be addressed in order to improve the timeliness of performance evaluations and to allow banks to be more accountable in planning their CRA activity. Treasury recommends improvements that could be made with respect to the timing of CRA examinations and issuance of performance evaluations, and to the consistent use of census data throughout an assessment period.
  • Performance. The purpose of CRA is to encourage banks to meet the credit and deposit needs of their entire community. The law does not have explicit penalties for nonperformance. However, performance is incentivized as regulators must consider CRA ratings as a part of various bank application processes and performance evaluation reports are made available to the public. Treasury offers recommendations as to how the current regulatory approach to downgrades for violations of consumer protection laws and various applications from banks with less than a Satisfactory rating could be improved to incentivize CRA performance. (2, footnotes omitted)

While there is lot to chew on here, I think a key issue will be the scope of the Assessment Areas. As banks move from straight ‘bricks and mortar’ to ‘bricks and clicks’ or even to pure clicks, it is harder to identify the community each bank serves.

While the memo does not offer a new definition for Assessment Areas, one could imagine alternative definitions that are either loose or stringent as far as CRA compliance is concerned. Because the CRA was intended to ensure that low and moderate-income communities had access to mortgage credit after years of redlining, any new definition of Assessment Areas should be designed to support that goal. We’ll have to see how the Trump Administration proceeds in this regard, but given its attitudes toward fair housing enforcement, I am not hopeful that the Administration will take the CRA’s goals seriously.

The Missing Piece in The Affordable Housing Puzzle

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

One of the biggest barriers to economic stability for families in the United States struggling to make ends meet is the severe shortage of affordable rental homes. The housing crisis is most severe for extremely low income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty level or 30% of their area median income (see Box 1). Facing a shortage of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes, extremely low income households account for nearly 73% of the nation’s severely cost-burdened renters, who spend more than half of their income on housing.

Even with these housing challenges, three out of four low income households in need of housing assistance are denied federal help with their housing due to chronic underfunding. Over half a million people were homeless on a single night in 2017 and many more millions of families without assistance face difficult choices between spending their limited incomes on rent or taking care of other necessities like food and medical care. Despite the serious lack of affordable housing, President Trump proposes further reducing federal housing assistance for the lowest income households through budget cuts, increased rents and work requirements.

Based on the American Community Survey (ACS), this report presents data on the affordable housing supply, housing cost burdens, and the demographics of severely impacted renters. The data clearly illustrate a chronic and severe shortage of affordable homes for the lowest income renters who would be harmed even more by budget cuts  and other restrictions in federal housing programs. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include,

  • The nation’s 11.2 million extremely low income renter households account for 25.7% of all renter households and 9.5% of all households in the United States.
  • The U.S. has a shortage of more than 7.2 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low income renter households. Only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low income renter households.
  • Seventy-one percent of extremely low income renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on rent and utilities. They account for 72.7% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the United States.
  • Thirty-two percent of very low income, 8% of low income, and 2.3% of middle income renter households are severely cost-burdened.
  • Of the eight million severely cost-burdened extremely low income renter households, 84% are seniors, persons with disabilities, or are in the labor force. Many others are enrolled in school or are single adults caring for a young child or a person with a disability. (2, citations omitted)

While the report does show how wrongheaded the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to housing subsidies are, I was surprised that it did not address at all the impact of local zoning policies on housing affordability. There is no way that we are going to address the chronic shortage in affordable housing by subsidies alone.

The federal government will need to disincentivize local governments from implementing land use policies that keep affordable housing from being built in communities that have too little housing. These rules make single family homes too expensive by requiring large lots and make it too difficult to build multifamily housing. We cannot seriously tackle the affordability problem without addressing restrictive local land use policies.

Mortgage Insurers and The Next Housing Crisis

photo by Jeff Turner

The Inspector General of the Federal Housing Finance Agency has released a white paper on Enterprise Counterparties: Mortgage Insurers. The Executive Summary reads,

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) operate under congressional charters to provide liquidity, stability, and affordability to the mortgage market. Those charters, which have been amended from time to time, authorize the Enterprises to purchase residential mortgages and codify an affirmative obligation to facilitate the financing of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. Pursuant to their charters, the Enterprises may purchase single-family residential mortgages with loan-to-value (LTV) ratios above 80%, provided that these mortgages are supported by one of several credit enhancements identified in their charters. A credit enhancement is a method or tool to reduce the risk of extending credit to a borrower; mortgage insurance is one such method. Since 1957, private mortgage insurers have assumed an ever-increasing role in providing credit enhancements and they now insure “the vast majority of loans over 80% LTV purchased by the” Enterprises. In congressional testimony in 2015, Director Watt emphasized that mortgage insurance is critical to the Enterprises’ efforts to provide increased housing access for lower-wealth borrowers through 97% LTV loans.

During the financial crisis, some mortgage insurers faced severe financial difficulties due to the precipitous drop in housing prices and increased defaults that required the insurers to pay more claims. State regulators placed three mortgage insurers into “run-off,” prohibiting them from writing new insurance, but allowing them to continue collecting renewal premiums and processing claims on existing business. Some mortgage insurers rescinded coverage on more loans, canceling the policies and returning the premiums.  Currently, the mortgage insurance industry consists of six private mortgage insurers.

In our 2017 Audit and Evaluation Plan, we identified the four areas that we believe pose the most significant risks to FHFA and the entities it supervises. One of those four areas is counterparty risk – the risk created by persons or entities that provide services to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. According to FHFA, mortgage insurers represent the largest counterparty exposure for the Enterprises. The Enterprises acknowledge that, although the financial condition of their mortgage insurer counterparties approved to write new business has improved in recent years, the risk remains that some of them may fail to fully meet their obligations. While recent financial and operational requirements may enhance the resiliency of mortgage insurers, other industry features and emerging trends point to continuing risk.

We undertook this white paper to understand and explain the current and emerging risks associated with private mortgage insurers that insure loan payments on single-family mortgages with LTVs greater than 80% purchased by the Enterprises. (2)

It is a truism that the next crisis won’t look like the last one. It is worth heeding the Inspector General’s warning about the

risks from private mortgage insurance as a credit enhancement, including increasing volume, high concentrations, an inability by the Enterprises to manage concentration risk, mortgage insurers with credit ratings below the Enterprises’ historic requirements and investment grade, the challenges inherent in a monoline business and the cyclic housing market, and remaining unpaid mortgage insurer deferred obligations. (13)

One could easily imagine a taxpayer bailout of Fannie and Freddie driven by the insolvency of the some or all of the six private mortgage insurers that do business with them. Let’s hope that the FHFA addresses that risk now, while the mortgage market is still healthy.

Micro Apartments and The Housing Crisis

photo by BalazsGlodi

The NYU Furman Center has posted 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? The policy brief opens,

Throughout much of the last century, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing was a commonly available type of low-rent housing in New York City, providing housing to people newly arrived in the city, low-income single New Yorkers, and people needing somewhere to live during life transitions. SRO units typically consisted of a private room with access to full bathroom and kitchen facilities that a renter shared with other building occupants. As the city fell onto hard times, so did SRO housing. During the second half of the last century, many SROs came to serve as housing of last resort, and policymakers enacted laws limiting their construction and discouraging the operation of SRO units. Many SROs were converted to other forms of housing, resulting in the loss of thousands of low-rent units in the city.

New research and analysis from the NYU Furman Center addresses the question of whether small housing units (self-contained micro units and efficiency units with shared facilities) can and should help meet the housing need previously served by SROs. In this policy brief, we present a summary of the paper, 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? We provide an overview of the potential demand for smaller, cheaper units, discuss the economics of building small units, analyze the main barriers to the creation of small units that exist in New York City, and suggest possible reforms that New York City can make to address these barriers. (1)

The policy brief makes a series of recommendations, including

  • reducing density limitations for micro units near transit hubs
  • permitting mixed-income and market-rate efficiency units
  • creating a government small unit program to promote the construction of micro apartments

There is no doubt that the lack of supply is a key driver of the affordable housing crisis across the country. Small units should be part of the response to that crisis, not just in New York City but in all high-cost cities.