Tag: FHA

Obama’s Housing Speech: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Yesterday, President Obama went to what was perhaps ground-zero of the housing crisis: Phoenix. He laid out his vision for the role of housing in building a middle class, as well as his solutions for avoiding bubbles.    

On the rhetorical side, the president certainly laid out some principles that anyone would be hard-pressed to disagree with. For instance, he characterized the business mode of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as “heads we win, tails you lose”–which of course it was. The president was correct in calling it “wrong.”  If only then-Senator Obama had aided the efforts to reform Fannie and Freddie by Senator Richard Shelby and others, perhaps this mess could have been avoided. But, hey–better late than never.  

The president is also correct in highlighting the issue of local barriers that increase the cost of housing. Both Cato’s Randy O’Toole and I have written regularly on this topic. You don’t get bubbles without supply constraints. But then every president since Reagan, at least, has pointed to this problem and yet it has only gotten worse. If the president has a substantial plan to bring down regulatory barriers in places like California, then I would love to see it.

Perhaps most importantly, the president recognized that what we had was a housing bubble, and the solution isn’t to “just re-inflate” it. As the president urged, we must “turn the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality” behind the housing crisis. That was the good, and again I applaud the president for recognizing those facts.  

Unfortunately, what details we have of his vision are not exactly consistent with these facts–which are bad and ugly. The president wants “no more leaving taxpayers on the hook for irresponsibility or bad decisions,” but then he implies that government should continue to stand behind risk in the housing market. The primary purpose of FHA, which the president commends, is to allow lenders to pass along the costs of their mistakes to the taxpayer.  

Mr. President, there is only one way to take the taxpayer off the hook:  get the government out of the mortgage market.  Anything short of that will continue to undermine the incentive for lenders to make responsible loans.  

Enforcing Housing Codes Is Not Racist

The federal Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful “[t]o refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer … or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.”  Magner v. Gallagher addresses the question of whether the FHA’s ban on racial discrimination can be violated by someone who does not actually engage in racial discrimination:  Owners of rental properties in St. Paul, Minnesota brought this suit claiming that the city’s enforcement of its housing code — ensuring that rental units were safe and otherwise habitable — violated the FHA because the repairs and maintenance necessary to comply with the code would increase rents and price out many of their African-American tenants.

Unable to show that the housing code intentionally discriminated based on race, however, the owners argued — and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals accepted — a “disparate impact” theory under which a plaintiff need only show that an otherwise neutral practice has a disproportionate effect on some racial group. Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute on an amicus brief supporting the city’s request for Supreme Court review and arguing that the statutory language and congressional intent of the FHA preclude disparate impact claims.

We argue that extending such claims to the FHA “would deeply intrude on the authority of state and local governments, and render much of their housing policies illegal,” and “would inappropriately alter the federal-state balance in far-reaching ways.” Indeed, disparate impact claims would preclude all institutions subject to the FHA — public and private — from implementing many practical policies. For example, “because [the FHA] applies to financial institutions, banks and mortgage companies would be pressured to provide loans to unqualified applicants in order to avoid disparate impact liability. Similar actions played a key role in triggering the mortgage crisis of 2007-2008.”

Moreover, the disparate impact doctrine directly conflicts with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees by forcing government agencies “to engage in unconstitutional race-conscious decision making” in order to avoid liability under the Act. In short, allowing disparate impact claims under the FHA would both lead to adverse economic consequences and create new constitutional tensions.

The Supreme Court will hear Magner v. Gallagher on Feb. 29.

The Mortgage Industry-Government Revolving Door

The Washington Post is reporting that current Federal Housing Administration (FHA) head David Stevens, who only last week announced he was leaving FHA, is going to be the new head of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

When Stevens was first nominated to head FHA, I have to admit I was concerned.  FHA has a long history of prioritizing the interests of the mortgage industry over that of the taxpayer.  And here was a guy right out of the real estate industry (former Freddie Mac exec).  My expectations weren’t exactly high.  Maybe because of that, I’ve been largely impressed.  As FHA Commissioner, Stevens has taken eliminating fraud seriously, as well as avoiding a taxpayer bailout of FHA (so far).

All that said, it is hard to imagine that in under a week’s time, he interviewed with and was hired by the Mortgage Bankers Association.  So while there’s no evidence that he was looking at an MBA job while carrying out his duties running FHA, there is certainly the appearance of such.  The appropriate thing to do would be to leave FHA before getting a job with the very industry that FHA regulates and subsidizes.

Again I think Stevens has done a far better job at FHA than many of his predecessors, and I don’t believe he played a role in the financial crisis, but I do believe the cozy relationship between the mortgage industry and our federal government did play a huge role in the crisis.

A Fannie Mae for Intrastructure?

Like President Bush before him, Obama has a knack for taking the worst ideas of his opponents and making them his own.  It is truly bipartisanship in the worst of ways (think Sarbanes-Oxley, the TARP or No Child Left Behind).  The newest example is the President’s proposed “infrastructure bank.”  A bill along those lines was introduced a few years ago by then Senator Hagel, although the idea is far from new.

First, let’s get out of the way the myth that we have been “under-funding” intrastructure.  Take the largest, and usually most popular, piece:  transportation.  Over the last decade, transportation spending at all levels of government has increased over 70 percent.  One can debate if that money has been spent wisely, but there’s no doubt we’ve been spending an ever-increasing amount on infrastructure - so there goes one rationale for an infrastructure bank.

The real rationale for an infrastructure bank is to transfer the risk of default away from investors, bankers and local/state governments onto the federal taxpayer, but to do so in such a manner that the taxpayer has no idea what they are on the hook for.

If there are truly great projects out there that will pay their own way, then they should have no trouble getting private funding.

Of course, we will be told that the bank will charge an interest rate sufficient to cover losses and that the taxpayer won’t be on the hook.  Again, if it is charging an appropriate rate, then why does the bank need to be chartered (and backed) by the taxpayer?  We’ve heard this story before…with Social Security, flood insurance, FHA, Fannie/Freddie…the list goes on, that all of these programs would pay their own way and never cost the taxpayer a dime.  If there are truly outstanding infrastructure needs, then appropriate the money and pay for them.  An infrastructure bank is just another way to allow Wall Street to line its pockets while leaving the risk with the taxpayer.  If bankers aren’t willing to actually take the risks, then why exactly do we need them?