Tag: Housing

Guess Who’s Behind the New Fire-Sprinkler Mandates

California just adopted effective next year a requirement that all new one- and two-family dwellings include indoor sprinkler systems. Other states are debating similar mandates, spurred by changes to national building code standards. Earlier legal mandates have required the inclusion of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms, but the cost of those devices is relatively minor, whereas full-blown sprinkler systems add measurably to the cost of a new home, as well as posing challenges in such areas as maintenance, aesthetics, and risk of property damage through accidental activation.

It will surprise not a single reader of these columns, I suspect, to learn that the fire sprinkler industry has been a major force in pushing the new mandate. As for the opposition, home builders have managed to mount a bit of resistance – New Jersey, for example, saw the current depressed state of the residential construction business as reason to postpone its mandate for a year. But the builders are pretty much on their own in the fight, since future buyers of new homes are a group with no organized political presence whatsoever.

Real estate blogger Christopher Fountain writes that he’s “never heard of a home buyer voluntarily ordering this equipment when building a house, so it sounds to me like one more instance of people who know better dictating to those who don’t.” Exactly. A South Carolina paper quotes a state official as saying if buyers feel priced out of the new home market by the cost of the mandate, they have other ways to save money “such as choosing less expensive flooring or countertops, or not installing yard sprinklers”. Easy to make someone else’s budget decisions for them, isn’t it? And shouldn’t the “affordable housing” community be taking more of an interest?

Obama’s Fannie and Freddie Amnesia

Peter Wallison calls attention to President Obama’s amnesia regarding events that precipitated Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s collapse. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Wallison points out that in 2005 then-Senator Obama joined with his Democratic colleagues in stopping legislation that would have helped rein in the government-sponsored housing duo’s risky behavior:

The bill would have established a new regulator for Fannie and Freddie and given it authority to ensure that they maintained adequate capital, properly managed their interest rate risk, had adequate liquidity and reserves, and controlled their asset and investment portfolio growth.

These authorities were necessary to control the GSEs’ risk-taking, but opposition by Fannie and Freddie—then the most politically powerful firms in the country—had consistently prevented reform.

The date of the Senate Banking Committee’s action is important. It was in 2005 that the GSEs—which had been acquiring increasing numbers of subprime and Alt-A loans for many years in order to meet their HUD-imposed affordable housing requirements—accelerated the purchases that led to their 2008 insolvency. If legislation along the lines of the Senate committee’s bill had been enacted in that year, many if not all the losses that Fannie and Freddie have suffered, and will suffer in the future, might have been avoided.

The president’s complicity in the housing collapse hasn’t stopped him from pinning the blame on Republicans, “special interests,” and Wall Street “fat cats.” As he does with other problems, the president blames everyone except himself and his party.

As I recounted in a Cato Policy Analysis, Fannie and Freddie epitomized the tawdry relationship between businesses that receive special federal breaks and policymakers. Democrats, including Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, played a key role in facilitating Fannie and Freddie’s destructive activities. Emanuel, a then recent senior adviser to President Clinton, was appointed by Clinton to Freddie Mac’s board of directors, where he earned $320,000 in compensation and sold company stock worth more than $100,000.

Then there’s the current Office of Management and Budget director, Peter Orszag. In 2002, Fannie Mae commissioned a paper authored by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Jonathan Orszag, and Peter Orszag, who was then at the Brookings Institution. The study concluded that “the probability of default by the GSEs is extremely small.” Oops.

Given the company Obama keeps, it’s not surprising that the administration still hasn’t come up for a plan on what to do with Fannie and Freddie.

The administration has intentionally not incorporated Fannie and Freddie into the federal budget in order to hide the cost to taxpayers. And on Christmas Eve the administration quietly announced that the government would cover all of Fannie and Freddie’s losses beyond the original $400 billion limit through 2012. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the final cost to taxpayers for bailing out Fannie and Freddie will approach that figure, although Wallison calls that projection “optimistic.”

See this essay for more on the problems the federal government causes in the housing market.

Obama to Increase FHA Risk

The Federal Housing Administration is heading toward a taxpayer bailout, yet the president’s latest mortgage modification plan would further increase the agency’s exposure to risky mortgages. Mark Calabria calls it a “Backdoor Bank Bailout.”

The administration’s plan would encourage borrowers who owe more than their house is worth to refinance into FHA-insured mortgages. Therefore, the risk of a future foreclosure on these mortgages would fall to the government and taxpayers instead of private lenders.

A recent study from economists at New York University found that the FHA is underestimating its risk exposure. One of the problems is that the FHA isn’t properly accounting for the risk to underwater FHA mortgages that have been refinanced into new FHA mortgages. So it’s hard to see how the president’s plan to refinance private underwater mortgages into FHA mortgages won’t further exacerbate the situation.

To get these mortgages in better shape so the FHA can insure them, $14 billion in TARP money is going to be used to pay private lenders to reduce the amount borrowers owe on their mortgages. Some of this money will also be used to cover eventual losses on these loans. As a taxpayer whose mortgage is underwater, and who would rather go bankrupt than accept a government handout, I find it infuriating that my tax dollars are being used to bail out others in a similar situation.

But with government housing programs, it’s standard practice for officials to cannonball into the pool and worry about who gets splashed by the water later. On Sunday, CNN.com reported on “FHA’s Florida Fiasco,” where the collapse of the heavily FHA-insured condo market has contributed to the possibility of a FHA bailout. The FHA has now tightened its condo standards, but once again it’s a day late and possibly more than few bucks short.

The new FHA initiative is the latest in a series of efforts to “stabilize” the housing market with more subsidies. Policymakers seem oblivious that it was government interventions that helped instigate the housing meltdown to begin with. The housing market would stabilize itself if the supply of and demand for housing was allowed to be brought back into equilibrium. There would be pain in the short-term, but in the long-term we would have a smoother functioning housing market. Unfortunately, for politicians the long-term means the next election.

Doubling Down on Failed Policies

Today in Las Vegas, President Obama will take another $1.5 billion in taxpayer money and let it ride another spin on the roulette wheel otherwise known as foreclosure assistance.  This time, however, he’s not even bothering to send the money to homeowners; its all going to state governments.  

That’s correct, he’s sending a huge check to select state governments to use in almost any manner they choose, as long as it offers some pretense at propping up the housing market.  

The assistance will be targeted at those states that have seen at least a 20% decline in home prices.  Subsidizing states because their housing markets are getting more affordable almost makes one yearn for the days when we subsidized states because their housing markets were too expensive.  What we are really subsidizing is those states whose destructive land-use policies contributed to the magnitude of the housing bubble.  Basic economics tells us that as supply becomes more inelastic (think growth boundaries), prices become more volatile.  It’s bad enough that most of our housing subsidies, both homeowner and renter, have ended up going to states that have crippled their housing markets, but now we are sending them a big check to reward such behavior.

Washington needs to end its constant attempts to prop up the housing market.  The only viable solution to an over-supply of housing is a further decline in prices.  Most of the worst-hit areas, such as California, do not lack for families wanting to buy homes.  They lack a supply of homes at affordable prices, which would be solved by letting prices fall.

Good News on Housing!

The Wall Street Journal reports that some mortgage insurers and lenders are beginning to relax their down-payment requirements, so that buyers in some parts of the country can now borrow 95% instead of 90% of a property’s value. Buyers who can’t come up with even a 5% down payment can turn to the Federal Housing Administration, which will make loans with as little as a 3.5% down payment. Unsurprisingly, the FHA is increasing its market share.

Meanwhile, the Treasury department is pressuring mortgage companies to reduce payments for many more troubled homeowners, averting foreclosures. So, good news: people who lack income and assets will be able to take out loans to buy houses, and if they can’t make the payments they signed up for, the government will pressure their lenders to accept lower monthly payments in return. We’re back on the road to easy, universal homeownership.

Oh, wait.

Thursday Links

  • Doug Bandow:  “Congress has spent the country blind, inflated a disastrous housing bubble, subsidized every special interest with a letterhead and lobbyist, and created a wasteful, incompetent bureaucracy that fills Washington. But now, legislators want to take a break from all their good work and save college football.”

Perpetuating Bad Housing Policy

Perhaps the worst feature of the bailouts and the stimulus has been that, whatever their merits as short terms fixes, they have done nothing to improve economic policy over the long haul; indeed, they compound past mistakes.

Here is a good example:

For months, troubled homeowners seeking to lower their mortgage payments under a federal plan have complained about bureaucratic bungling, ceaseless frustration and confusion. On Thursday, the Obama administration declared that the $75 billion program is finally providing broad relief after it pressured mortgage companies to move faster to modify more loans.

Five hundred thousand troubled homeowners have had their loan payments lowered on a trial basis under the Making Home Affordable Program.

The crucial words in the story are “$75 billion” and “pressured.”

No one should object if a lender, without subsidy and without pressure, renegotiates a mortgage loan. That can make sense for both lender and borrower because the foreclosure process is costly.

But Treasury’s attempt to subsidize and coerce loan modifications is fundamentally misguided. It means many homeowners will stay in homes, for now, that they cannot really afford, merely postponing the day of reckoning.

Treasury’s policy is also misguided because it presumes that everyone who owned a house before the meltdown should remain a homeowner. Likewise, Treasury’s view assumes that all the housing construction over the past decade made good economic sense.

Both presumptions are wrong. U.S. policy exerted enormous pressure for increased mortgage lending in the years leading up to the crisis, thereby generating too much housing construction, too much home ownership and inflated housing prices.

The right policy for the U.S. economy is to stop preventing foreclosures, to stop subsidizing mortgages, and to let the housing market adjust on its own. Otherwise, we will soon see a repeat of the fall of 2008.