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.


Taking up Housing Finance Reform

photo by Elliot P.

I am going to be a regular contributor to The Hill, the political website.  Here is my first column, It’s Time to Take Housing Finance Reform Through The 21st Century:

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants under the control of the federal government, have more than 45 percent of the share of the $10 trillion of mortgage debt outstanding. Ginnie Mae, a government agency that securitizes Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) mortgages, has another 16 percent.

These three entities together have a 98 percent share of the market for new residential mortgage-backed securities. This government domination of the mortgage market is not tenable and is, in fact, dangerous to the long-term health of the housing market, not to mention the federal budget.

No one ever intended for the federal government to be the primary supplier of mortgage credit. This places a lot of credit risk in the government’s lap. If things go south, taxpayers will be on the hook for another big bailout.

It is time to implement a housing finance reform plan that will last through the 21st century, one that appropriately allocates risk away from taxpayers, ensures liquidity during crises, and provides access to the housing markets to those who can consistently make their monthly mortgage payments.

The stakes for housing finance reform today are as high as they were in the 1930s when the housing market was in its greatest distress. It seems, however, that there was a greater clarity of purpose back then as to how the housing markets should function. There was a broadly held view that the government should encourage sustainable homeownership for a broad swath of households and the FHA and other government entities did just that.

But the Obama Administration and Congress have not been able to find a path through their fundamental policy disputes about the appropriate role of Fannie and Freddie in the housing market. The center of gravity of that debate has shifted, however, since the election. While President-elect Donald Trump has not made his views on housing finance reform broadly known, it is likely that meaningful reform will have a chance in 2017.

Even if reform is more likely now, just about everything is contested when it comes to Fannie and Freddie. Coming to a compromise on responses to three types of market failures could, however, lead the way to a reform plan that could actually get enacted.

Even way before the financial crisis, housing policy analysts bemoaned the fact that Fannie and Freddie’s business model “privatizing gains and socialized losses.” The financial crisis confirmed that judgment. Some, including House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), have concluded that the only way to address this failing is to completely remove the federal government from housing finance (allowing, however, a limited role for the FHA).

The virtue of Hensarling’s Protecting American Taxpayers and Homeowners Act (PATH) Act of 2013 is that it allocates credit risk to the private sector, where it belongs. Generally, government should not intervene in the mortgage markets unless there is a market failure, some inefficient allocation of credit.

But the PATH Act fails to grapple with the fact that the private sector does not appear to have the capacity to handle all of that risk, particularly on the terms that Americans have come to expect. This lack of capacity is a form of market failure. The ever-popular 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, for instance, would almost certainly become an expensive niche product without government involvement in the mortgage market.

The bipartisan Housing Finance Reform and Taxpayer Protection Act of 2014, or the Johnson-Crapo bill, reflects a more realistic view of how the secondary mortgage market functions. It would phase out Fannie and Freddie and replace it with a government-owned company that would provide the infrastructure for securitization. This alternative would also leave credit risk in the hands of the private sector, but just to the extent that it could be appropriately absorbed.

Whether we admit it or not, we all know that the federal government will step in if a crisis in the mortgage market gets bad enough. This makes sense because frozen credit markets are a type of market failure. It is best to set up the appropriate infrastructure now to deal with such a possibility, instead of relying on the gun-to-the-head approach that led to the Fannie and Freddie bailout legislation in 2008.

Republicans and Democrats alike have placed homeownership at the center of their housing policy platforms for a long time. Homeownership represents stability, independence and engagement with community. It is also a path to financial security and wealth accumulation for many.

In the past, housing policy has overemphasized the importance of access to credit. This has led to poor mortgage underwriting. When the private sector also engaged in loose underwriting, we got into really big trouble. Federal housing policy should emphasize access to sustainable credit.

A reform plan should ensure that those who are likely to make their mortgage payment month-in, month-out can access the mortgage markets. If such borrowers are not able to access the mortgage market, it is appropriate for the federal government to correct that market failure as well. The FHA is the natural candidate to take the lead on this.

Housing finance reform went nowhere over the last eight years, so we should not assume it will have an easy time of it in 2017. But if we develop a reform agenda that is designed to correct predictable market failures, we can build a housing finance system that supports a healthy housing market for the rest of the century, and perhaps beyond.

Who Knows The ABCs of Finance?

Annamaria Lusardi recently posted a working paper, Financial Literacy: Do People Know the ABCs of FInance? to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Increasingly, individuals are in charge of their own financial security and are confronted with ever more complex financial instruments. However, there is evidence that many individuals are not well-equipped to make sound saving decisions. This paper looks at financial literacy, which is defined as the ability to process economic information and make informed decisions about financial planning, wealth accumulation, debt, and pensions. Failure to plan for retirement, lack of participation in the stock market, and poor borrowing behavior can all be linked to ignorance of basic financial concepts. Financial literacy impacts financial decision-making, with implications that apply to individuals, communities, countries, and society as a whole. Given the lack of financial literacy among the population, it may be important to remedy it by adding financial literacy to the school curriculum.

As I have stated previously, not only is financial literacy in bad shape, but efforts to improve it have not proven to be very effective. Lusardi’s paper has some sobering findings:

most individuals in the United States and in other countries cannot
perform simple calculations and do not understand basic financial concepts such as interest compounding, the difference between nominal and real values, and risk diversification. Knowledge of more complex concepts, such as the difference between bonds and stocks, the workings of mutual funds, and basic asset pricing, is even scarcer. Financial illiteracy is widespread among the general population and particularly acute among specific demographic groups, such as women, the young and the old, and those with low educational attainment. (3)

Because evidence does not demonstrate that additional financial education is all that effective, I take a different lesson from Lusardi’s review of survey results. The government should take an active role in regulating financial markets to protect consumers from abusive behavior and to encourage them to make good financial decisions. Financial education is no replacement for consumer protection.

Tax Incentives for Sustainable Homeownership

Harris, Steuerle and Eng have published New Perspectives on Homeownership Tax Incentives in Tax Notes. The report presents

three tax reforms designed to promote homeownership that are fundamentally different from earlier proposals. Many of those earlier proposals would convert existing deductions into credits but would mistakenly, in our view, perpetuate flaws in the current system — namely, the failure to adequately promote the accumulation of home equity. The reforms examined here instead share the common characteristic of subsidizing homeownership through a channel other than the deductibility of mortgage interest, which is the largest tax expenditure for housing. These reforms include a first-time home buyer tax credit, a refundable tax credit for property taxes paid, and an annual flat amount tax credit for homeowners — all largely paid for by restricting the home mortgage interest deduction to a rate of 15 percent. Although far from perfect, these reforms would provide a better and more efficient allocation of housing subsidies and ultimately provide a somewhat larger incentive for wealth accumulation than current policy does. Our simulations show that relative to existing incentives, each policy would raise home prices and make the tax code more progressive. (1315)

This report has some drawbacks, such as overstating the case that empirical studies reinforce “the notion that homeownership improves American communities.” (1315) In fact, the empirical literature is decidedly ambiguous about the spillover and wealth accumulation effects of homeownership, particularly when the last few years are taken into account (I discuss these ambiguities here).

But the report also presents some creative ways to change the incentives that are found in the tax code. They argue, for instance, that it is better to incentivize the accumulation of home equity than unfettered mortgage borrowing. And they make proposals that would do just that.  Worth a read.