Tag: homeownership

Federal Homeownership Policy: Money for Nothing

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times ran a column repeating the simplistic notion that since homeownership is “good” then subsidies for homeownership must therefore also be “good.” Never asked, or apparently even contemplated, is the question of whether all our various homeownership subsidies actually deliver homeownership. Let’s start with the ever popular mortgage interest deduction (MID). The chart below, reproduced from Glaeser and Shapiro, shows the value of the MID and the homeownership rate. Hard to see any relationship there, probably because there isn’t one. I discuss the MID in more detail here.  

 

Next would be Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The chart below shows the homeownership rate and the Fannie/Freddie share of the mortgage market. What should be immediately obvious is that the long run homeownership rate steadied out in the mid-60 percents when Fannie & Freddie were bit players, having a market share in the single digits. In no way can we say that Fannie & Freddie have increased the long-run trend rate of homeownership.   So even if one believes homeownership is worthy of subsidy, a questionable proposition on its own, it should be beyond question that our current system of homeownership subsidies has not delivered long run gains in the homeownership rate.

Homeownership Before the New Deal

The latest canard offered for keeping taxpayers on the hook for mortgage risk is that, without such, homeownership would limited to the wealthy.  Sarah Rosen Wartell of the Center for American Progress stated before the House Subcommittee on Capital Markets, “The high cost, limited availability, and high volatility of pre-New Deal mortgage finance meant that homeownership was effectively limited to the wealthy.”  Congressman Al Green repeated the point.  As I’ve generally found Sarah to be one of the more reasonable CAP employees, and that this is fundamentally an empirical question, I would have expected her to offer some evidence to support such a claim.  Alas, she did not.  So I will.

According to the US Census Bureau, at the turn of the century in 1900, the US homeownership rate was 46.5%.  I’m pretty sure that even Sarah wouldn’t claim that close to half of US households in 1900 were “wealthy.”  Interestingly enough, homeownership after the first 10 years of the New Deal was lower than before the New Deal.

While 46.5% is about 20 percentage points below the current rate, the population in 1900 was considerably younger, and one thing we do know is that homeownership is positively correlated with age.  In 1900, 54% of the US population was under the age of 25, a reasonable cut-off for homeownership.  Today, that number is 35%.  I don’t think it would be a stretch to say the greatest driver behind the homeownership rate over the last 100 years has been the aging of the US population, probably followed by the increase in household incomes (homeownership and income are also closely correlated).

Hopefully this will put to rest the myth that FDR and the New Deal gave homeownership to the masses.  The fact is that homeownership was fairly widespread long before the New Deal.  I await the next myth from the Fannie Mae apologists.   If they are wise, they will try one that isn’t so easily falsified.

Race and Homeownership: Historical Trends

A common rationale for federal policies to expand homeownership is the desire to reduce observed racial differences in homeownership.  Receiving the most attention has been the gap in homeownership rates between white households and African-American.  The current homeownership rate for whites is 76.5%  (2007), while that for African-Americans is 54%, leaving a gap of 22.5%.

Limitations on available data have made observations prior to 1940 difficult (1940 was the first “Census of Housing”).  A new working paper adds to our understanding by constructing a time series back to 1870, using previous Census data.  The findings are quite surprising.

In 1870 the gap between white and African-American homeownership rates stood at an astonishing 48.8 percent.  As mentioned, this gap in 2007 was 22.5%, representing a 26.3 percentage point decline.  However, of that 26.3 narrowing, 25.3 occurred before 1910.  That is correct, almost all of the decline in the racial homeownership gap occurred before we had any national policies targeting said gap.  Given all the massive resources that have been devoted to pushing homeownership, it is somewhat surprising that these policies have made almost no difference in the racial homeownership gap.

Obviously homeownership rates in general, and by race, have steadily increased (until the recent bursting of the housing bubble), but these rates largely increased the same across racial groups.  We should also note that the vast majority, if not all, of the racial homeownership gap is explained by factors such as age, income, family status, wealth and local housing costs (see Coulson and Dalton forthcoming).  Given what little impact these policies have had, and their significant costs, it should be clear that we, as a society, would be better off abandoning efforts to socially engineer a specific homeownership rate, either for the population in general or by racial group.

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.

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.

FHA’s New Stringent Standards

The Federal Housing Administration will reportedly announce more stringent lending requirements and higher borrowing fees. The move comes in response to growing concerns that rising losses on mortgages it insures will require a taxpayer bailout. Although any credit tightening is welcome, the agency will not propose an increase in the minimum downpayment, currently 3.5 percent. (Borrowers with credit scores below 580 will be required to put down a minimum of 10 percent, but most FHA lenders already require a 620 minimum score.)

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal noted that “home builders are worried” the FHA would propose raising the minimum downpayment. The CEO of a Texas builder said it would be a “game changer,” meaning that it would hinder the nascent housing recovery. However, other industry observers believe otherwise:

In markets where home values are still falling, buyers who put little money down could see their equity wiped out quickly. The FHA is “just manufacturing more upside-down homeowners by the truckload in Arizona, California, and Nevada,” says Brett Barry, a Phoenix real-estate agent who specializes in selling foreclosed homes.

FHA commissioner David Stevens counters that inhibiting lending by increasing downpayment requirements would “perpetuate” price declines. But falling prices are a painful, but necessary, correction needed to bring the housing market back into equilibrium. Government interventions in the wake of the housing bubble’s burst have created an artificial cushion. Thus, any alleged housing recovery could prove illusory when the cushion is removed. In addition, the longer the government tries to prop up the housing market, the greater the economic distortions and risk to taxpayers.

The article cites the example of a 42-year-old air-conditioning repairman who just bought a house with the FHA minimum 3.5 percent downpayment. To meet the requirement he had to borrow part of the money from his father-in-law, which he then repaid with the $8,000 first time homebuyer tax credit. He now has a $1,466 monthly mortgage payment on a $50,000 salary. Factoring in utilities and other homeownership costs, it’s not inconceivable that half of his pre-tax salary will be devoted to just his home. Is it any wonder the FHA is experiencing large default rates?

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week: