Tag: homeowners

What’s a Conservatorship Good For?

A central reason that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have not played a bigger role in rescuing homeowners, or otherwise handing out “freebies,” is that these two companies are in conservatorship.

Conservatorship is almost like a bankruptcy proceeding, or a receivership in the banking context, but without the power to impose losses. I’ve been criticized for believing that a conservatorship requires Fannie’s regulator to “conserve” the company, and not simply allow it to be used as a slush fund. The basis of said criticism is that FHFA, Fannie’s regulator, has a broad public mission, which could include handing out freebies to underwater borrowers.

Matt Yglesias suggests that “clearly the purpose of creating the FHFA and taking Fannie and Freddie into conservatorship can’t have been to minimize direct taxpayer financial losses on agency debt.” Now, Matt makes a lot of Congress being vague in the statute. And he is correct about it being vague, in some areas, but it isn’t here.

As one of the two people (the other being Peggy Kuhn) who actually drafted that section of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA) during my time as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I can clearly say the purpose of the drafters, in terms of conservatorship, was to nurse those companies back to health. Again, how do I know that? Because I was there.

Of course, if one simply read that section of the statute, Section 1145 of HERA, which amends Section 1367 of the 1992 GSE Act, one would clearly see what the purpose, duties, and role of a conservatorship actually is. For instance, what does the law say the powers of a conservatorship are? They are to ”take such action as may be—(i) necessary to put the regulated entity in a sound and solvent condition; and (ii) appropriate to carry on the business of the regulated entity and preserve and conserve the assets and property of the regulated entity.”

Now, I don’t see anything in there about handing out freebies to underwater borrowers. Citing an agency-written mission statement or a vague “purposes” at the beginning of an act is no substitute for actually reading the provisions of a statute.

Eminent Domain Shenanigans

Five years ago, in the landmark property rights case of Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court upheld the forced transfer of land from various homeowners by finding that “economic development” qualifies as a public purpose for purposes of satisfying the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.  In doing so, however, the Court reaffirmed that the government may not “take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.”

State and federal courts have since applied that pretext standard in widely differing ways while identifying four factors as indicators of pretext: evidence of pretextual intent, benefits that flow predominantly to a private party, haphazard planning, and a readily identifiable beneficiary.  Moreover, since Kelo, 43 states have passed eminent domain reform laws that constrain or forbid “economic development” condemnations.

While many of these laws are strong enough to curtail abuse, in at least 19 states the restrictions are undercut by nearly unlimited definitions of “blight.”  The state of New York has seen perhaps the most egregious examples of eminent-domain abuse in the post-Kelo era, and now provides the example of Columbia University’s collusion with several government agencies to have large swaths of Manhattan declared blighted and literally pave the way for the university’s expansion project.  In this brazen example of eminent-domain abuse, the New York Court of Appeals (the highest state court) reversed a decision of the New York Appellate Division that relied extensively on Kelo’s pretext analysis and thus favored the small business owners challenging the Columbia-driven condemnations.  The Court of Appeals failed even to cite Kelo and ignored all four pretext considerations, instead defining pretext so narrowly that even the most abusive forms of favoritism will escape judicial scrutiny.

Cato joined the Institute for Justice and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in a brief supporting the condemnees’ request that the Supreme Court review the case and address the widespread confusion about Kelo’s meaning in the context of pretextual takings.  Our brief highlights the need for the Court to establish and enforce safeguards to protect citizens from takings effected for private purposes.  We argue that this case is an excellent vehicle for the Court to define what qualifies a taking as “pretextual” and consider the weight to be accorded to each of the four criteria developed by the lower and state courts.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case later this fall. The name of the case is Tuck-It-Away, Inc. v. New York State Urban Development Corp and you can read the full brief here (pdf).  You can read more from Cato on property rights here.

Two Cheers for the U.S. Economy

Two articles in today’s Wall Street Journal deal with the housing sector.  They complement each other. Journal reporters note that “Industry Speeds Recovery, And Housing Slows It Down.”  The story notes that that “ground-breaking for new homes and applications for building permits both plunged last month.”  Meanwhile, U.S. industrial output showed strong growth in May.

Bravo for both numbers, which are inter-related.  The headline (over which reporters have no control) reflects conceptual confusion.  U.S. industrial production is strong at least in part because construction of new homes is weak.   The bloated home sector is no longer absorbing a disproportionate share of economic resources.  The new homeowners tax credit has mercifully expired, ending that bit of misguided stimulus.

David Wessel’s article, “Rethinking Home Ownership,” further clarifies the reallocation of resources taking place in the U.S. economy.  Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government adopted a number of policies to stimulate home ownership.  As Wessel makes clear, it was a bipartisan effort.  Home ownership rates rose from around 65% to a peak of 69.4% in 2004.  It was an unsustainable policy, a true asset bubble.

Home ownership rates have now fallen back to where they began, or even below.  The experience of the 1990s and early 2000s in housing demonstrates why government stimulus is not a permanent source of demand, nor the path to sustainable economic growth. Lest we forget, the folly of these programs is measured not just in housing numbers, but in shattered dreams and hopes and ruined lives. And the terrible financial crisis to which these programs contributed

Short-Sighted Rules for Affordable Housing

The state of Maryland wants more people to have affordable housing – at least if they’ve already got it. Concerned that the owners of mobile home parks might sell the land for other uses, “affordable housing advocates” succesfully lobbied Maryland legislators this year for

legislation that, they say, discourages owners of mobile-home parks from selling their properties. If the landowner does sell, it provides the homeowner with some protection.

Under the law, which was passed earlier this year, a mobile-home park owner who wants to sell and change land use must give written notification to the residents and provide displaced homeowners with a relocation plan and relocation assistance that equals 10 months’ worth of rent. The legislation applies to mobile parks with more than 38 sites.

Now the first thing to be said about this is that it is theft. That’s become so common in legislatures that we’ve become accustomed to it. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what happened here: Some people spent their own money to buy land. They rented that land to people with mobile homes, who knew that they were not buying the land, they were just renting a place to park their mobile homes. (The word “mobile” might be a tipoff that they’re made to move.) And then the government took away the owner’s right to change the use of his land. The owner could still sell it, of course, as long as he gives written notification of his plans, provides the renters with a “relocation plan,” and pays them 10 months’ rent to leave his land. That’s a huge burden; the government has simply appropriated much of the value of the owner’s land.

But there’s an obvious long-term consequence here, too, one that the Washington Post didn’t get to in its 1000-word story. What’s going to occur to a landowner as she reads this story? She’s going to think, if I allow anyone to park a mobile home on my property, I’ll be permanently harnessed to that tenant, like a medieval serf. So maybe I’d better not rent any space to a mobile home owner. But then she’s going to think a bit further: What about other kinds of affordable housing? If I build inexpensive apartments or bungalows, and rent them to people who need affordable housing, will the state of Maryland decide that I shouldn’t be allowed to change the use of the land or sell it? After all, wealthy Montgomery County, Maryland – which doesn’t have many mobile homes – does have a 20-page handbook of rules and restrictions for any owner who might want to convert an apartment building to condominiums, including the county’s right to buy the land and a guarantee of lifetime tenancies for low-income elderly tenants. William Tucker pointed out in a 1997 Cato paper how rent control laws usually had to be followed by condo conversion restrictions, as building owners tried to find some way to make a profit on their buildings. And then of course the whole series of attempts to “protect” affordable housing leads to housing shortages and sky-high rents.

If you want people to supply affordable housing, it’s probably a good idea not to pile taxes, restrictions, and threats of confiscation on the backs of those who do.

Cisneros Rewriting HUD History

In a recent speech to real estate interests, former Clinton HUD secretary Henry Cisneros preposterously claimed that the recent housing meltdown “occurred not out of a governmental push, but out of a hijacking of the homeownership process by some unscrupulous interests.”

The only criticisms Cisneros could muster for the government’s housing policies over the past 20 years were that regulations weren’t tough enough and it should have focused more on rental subsidies.

The reality is that Cisneros-era HUD regulations and policies directly contributed to the housing bubble and subsequent burst as a Cato essay on HUD scandals illustrates:

  • Cisneros’s HUD pursued legal action against mortgage lenders who supposedly declined higher percentages of loans for minorities than whites. As a result of such political pressure, lenders begin lowering their lending standards.
  • On Cisneros’s watch, the Community Reinvestment Act was used to pressure lenders into making more loans to moderate-income borrowers by allowing regulators to deny merger approvals for banks with low CRA ratings. The result was that banks began issuing more loans to otherwise uncreditworthy borrowers, while purchasing more CRA mortgage-backed securities. More importantly, these lax standards quickly spread to prime and subprime mortgage markets.
  • The Clinton administration’s National Homeownership Strategy, prepared under Cisneros’s direction, advocated “financing strategies, fueled by creativity and resources of the public and private sectors, to help homebuyers that lack cash to buy a home or income to make the payments.” In other words, his policies encouraged the behavior that he now calls “unscrupulous.”
  • Cisneros’s HUD also put Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under constant pressure to facilitate more lending to “underserved” markets. It was under Cisneros’s direction that HUD agreed to allow Fannie and Freddie credit toward its “affordable housing” targets by buying subprime mortgages. Fannie and Freddie are now under government conservatorship and will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.

Cisneros now serves as the executive chairman of an institutional investment company focused on urban real estate. Might that explain why Cisneros is now a fan of subsidizing rental housing?

“Unscrupulous” would be a good word to describe the millions of dollars Cisneros has made in the real estate industry following his exit from government.

From the Cato essay:

In 2001, Cisneros joined the board of Fannie Mae’s biggest client: the now notorious Countrywide Financial, the company that was center stage in the subprime lending scandals of recent years. When the housing bubble was inflating, Countrywide and KB took full advantage of the liberalized lending standards fueled by Cisneros’s HUD. In addition to the money he received as a KB director, Cisneros’s company, in which he held a 65 percent stake, received $1.24 million in consulting fees from KB in 2002.

When Cisneros stepped down from Countrywide’s board in 2007, he called it a “well-managed company” and said that he had “enormous confidence” in its leadership. Clearly, those statements were baloney—Cisneros was trying to escape before the crash. Just days before his resignation, Countrywide announced a $1.2 billion loss, and reported that a third of its borrowers were late on mortgage payments. According to SEC records, Cisneros’s position at Countrywide had earned him a $360,000 salary in 2006 and $5 million in stock sales since 2001.

The Census Asks Too Much

Everyone in America, I presume, has just received a letter from the U.S. Census Bureau urging us to fill out our Census forms. Seems like a very expensive way to tell us to watch for the form to arrive in the mail. But I’m particularly interested in why they say we should promptly fill out the form:

Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of [federal] government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.

Obviously this is a zero-sum game. If my neighbors and I all fill out the form, then you and your neighbors will get less from the common federal trough. But at least we’ll be getting our “fair share,” as the letter tells us twice in three sentences.

But where does the government get the authority to ask me my race, my age, and whether I have a mortgage? In fact, the Constitution authorizes the federal government to make an “actual enumeration” of the people in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. That’s all. Not to define and count us by race. Not to ask whether we’re homeowners or renters. Just to ask how many people live here, so they can apportion congressional seats.

I’m not interested in getting taxpayers around the country to pay for roads and schools and “many other programs” in my community. All the government needs to know from me is how many people live in my house. And I will tell them.

More on the census and the Constitution here.

Obama Small Business Lending Fund Likely A Bust

President Obama has announced his intention to use $30 billion in TARP funds to create a new small business lending fund.  In all likelihood, this is $30 billion the taxpayers will never see returned.

First of all, the problem facing small business, outside of the massive uncertainty being created by Washington, is one of credit availability, not cost.  For those who can get credit, its quite cheap, arguably too cheap.  So if the president doesn’t intend to lower the cost of credit, the plan must be to lower the quality; using the $30 billion to cover expected credit losses.  Of course, we tried throwing lots of taxpayer money at unsustainable homeownership, is there any reason to believe throwing taxpayer money at unsustainable businesses is going to work any better?

Using TARP funds for this program is also somewhat disingenuous.  This program adds $30 billion to the deficit regardless of whether it’s funded by TARP or by Congressional appropriations.  Taking from the TARP only allows the President to keep treating the TARP as his personal slush fund.  Nowhere in the TARP legislation can you find language authorizing the use of funds to cover credit losses on new loans.  Being a constitutional scholar, the President should know very well that the spending power rests with Congress, not the President.  If we are to have a new small business lending program, it should be designed and funded by Congress, not bureaucrats at the Treasury Department.

Historically the two main sources of small business start-up funding have been home equity and credit cards.  Clearly the availability of home equity has declined.  Sadly as well, with the passing of credit card “reform” the availability of credit card lending has also declined.  If the President truly wants to help small business, then the first thing to do is ask Congress to repeal the credit card bill and then just get out of the way.