Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

August 28, 2015

Underwriting Sustainable Homeownership

By David Reiss

Mesa-Mesa Journal-Tribune FHA Demonstration Home-1925" by Marine 69-71

I have posted Underwriting Sustainable Homeownership: The Federal Housing Administration and the Low Down Payment Loan to SSRN (and to BePress). It is forthcoming in the Georgia Law Review. The abstract reads,

The United States Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) has been a versatile tool of government since it was created during the Great Depression. The FHA was created in large part to inject liquidity into a moribund mortgage market. It succeeded wonderfully, with rapid growth during the late 1930s. The federal government repositioned it a number of times over the following decades to achieve a variety of additional social goals. These goals included supporting civilian mobilization during World War II; helping veterans returning from the War; stabilizing urban housing markets during the 1960s; and expanding minority homeownership rates during the 1990s. It achieved success with some of its goals and had a terrible record with others. More recently, the FHA is in the worst financial shape it has ever been in.

Today’s FHA suffers from many of the same unrealistic underwriting assumptions that have done in so many other lenders during the 2000s. It has also been harmed, like other lenders, by a housing market as bad as any seen since the Great Depression. As a result, the federal government recently announced the first bailout of the FHA in its history. At the same time that it has faced these financial challenges, the FHA has also come under attack for the poor execution of some of its policies to expand homeownership. Leading commentators have called for the federal government to stop using the FHA to do anything other than provide liquidity to the low end of the mortgage market. These critics rely on a couple of examples of programs that were clearly failures but they do not address the FHA’s long history of undertaking comparable initiatives. This article takes the long view and demonstrates that the FHA has a history of successfully undertaking new homeownership programs. At the same time, the article identifies flaws in the FHA model that should be addressed in order to prevent them from occurring if the FHA were to undertake similar initiatives in the future.

In order to demonstrate this, the article first sets forth the dominant critique of the FHA. Relying on often overlooked primary sources, it then sets forth a history of the FHA and charts its constantly changing roles in the housing finance sector. In order to give a more detailed picture of the federal government’s role in housing finance, the article also incorporates the scholarly literature regarding (i) the intersection of race and housing policy and (ii) the economics and finance literature regarding the role that down payments play in the appropriate underwriting of mortgages for low- and moderate-income households. The article concludes that the FHA can responsibly address objectives other than the provision of liquidity to the residential mortgage market. It further proposes that FHA homeownership programs for low- and moderate-income families should be required to balance access to credit with households’ ability to make their mortgage payments over the long term. Such a proposal will ensure that the FHA extends credit responsibly to low- and moderate-income households while minimizing the likelihood of future bailouts.

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