In Pursuit of a Responsible Homeownership Policy

Despite current economic woes, families continue to aspire to own their own homes. For many, homeownership represents a path to stability, community, and long-term wealth building. But achieving these social and economic goals requires a new policy regime and regulatory framework that mitigates the inherent risks of the process. If done right -- by matching buyers with appropriate mortgage products in a transparent and fair manner -- we can make homeownership work for a broad range of American families, even those with low incomes and few resources.

The search for a responsible housing policy is likely to take us back to the future. Two of the greatest innovations in American finance are the 30-year fixed mortgage and the creation of mortgage markets with a high degree of liquidity. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were initially created to ensure that banks had access to sufficient capital to lend to home buyers. Their subsequent overreach has left them under government conservatorship. They will need to be replaced or reinvented to serve their original purpose. On his way out the door, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson proposed replacing Fannie and Freddie with highly regulated utilities. In exchange for a fee, these firms would purchase and bundle mortgages that would be backed by the federal government in case of default. Like other utilities, they would be governed by a public commission that would set the rules for operation, including establishing a fee structure to limit returns and standards to ensure only creditworthy mortgages are guaranteed.

In some respects, this would be consistent with President Obama’s view of the essential role credit plays in our economy. In his first address to a joint session of Congress, he argued that “the flow of credit is the lifeblood of our economy.” This makes finance a public good that has large benefits for society as a whole. We certainly have seen the positive externalities that are created when people have access to responsible credit and are able to access the loans that finance the purchase of homes, education, and other goods and investments. What we need to avoid is a repeat of the scenario where too many bad home loans make their way on the books of too many banks. And if finance is a public good, we will need to take steps to protect it, just like we protect the air we breathe and the food we eat.

A first step will be to recognize that the future housing finance system will necessarily be nested within broader reforms to the financial sector. When the administration’s initial plans to do this were released in June by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House Economic Advisor Lawrence Summers, they sought to identify a series of principles that could drive future policy. At the top of the list was to more effectively manage systemic risk. This makes sense since we have learned the hard way that our concern should be both with the safety and soundness of particular institutions, as well as that of the entire interconnected system. This will necessarily entail stronger oversight, higher capital requirements, and other rules to increase transparency and accountability. But Geithner and Summers also argued that a new round of consumer protections was needed, taking into account how consumers make decisions and how they behave. The time seems right for this type of increased regulation of financial services. In fact, I would argue that it will be required as a necessary step to restore integrity and trust back into our financial system. These are basic human values that we have allowed to be driven from the marketplace. We should demand a new set of rules that help usher them back in. The administration’s blueprint for a new consumer financial protection agency seems to move in this direction by identifying a set of principles that will drive future product regulations, include transparency, simplicity, and fairness. What would fairness in mortgage lending entail? Let’s start by banning the practice of “yield spread premiums” where side payments are made when borrowers are steered toward higher-priced loans than lower-priced loans that they would otherwise qualify for.

Consumer protections should be at the heart of the system and not an afterthought. Making the transition from a rule-based regulatory regime to a principles-based framework will have real ramifications for developing a sustainable homeownership policy. If this means the housing finance system becomes a low margin business, with limited profit opportunities, so be it. In the near future, we should expect that the housing finance system provides fewer incentives for “innovation” but delivers more “value.” There is no shame in getting back to basics and relying heavily on the old standard 30-year fixed FHA mortgage. Even on a hot summer day, plain vanilla ice cream can taste mighty good.

Shoring up the housing finance system is a necessary step, but so is the recognition that homeownership is not for everyone. Accordingly, we need to ensure that there is a sufficient stock of affordable rental housing and consider alternative ownership models, such as shared equity homeownership. In exchange for a public subsidy, families give up a portion of the home appreciation. This makes buying the home easier for the family and preserves affordability for the community over the long term. At the same time, the owner is placed within a community-based support system, such as a land trust or limited equity cooperative, which can mitigate the risks of homeownership. Shared equity housing has the potential to provide an attractive balance of affordability, access, and the opportunity to build up home equity. It has been modeled in a number of the communities across the country and is ready for prime time. In recent years, even as successful experiences were accruing, it lacks a funding source that could be tapped at the community level. But the influx of stimulus dollars flowing to localities from the federal government in the guise of increased CDBG allocations has boosted resources. Local decision-makers should be taking a good look at the potential of shared-equity projects to stabilize their housing markets and offer increased opportunity to their residents.

But even if alternative ownership models proliferate, mortgages should not be available on demand. Savings and a reasonable down payment must be part of the equation, along with checks to verify steady or sufficient income. This does not mean that families with low incomes and few resources should be shut out of the American dream. It turns out that there are responsible ways to make homeownership work for a wide range of families.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina have studied the outcomes of an initiative of the Center for Community Self-Help, which began partnering in 2004 with Fannie Mae and the Ford Foundation to deliver nearly 50,000 loans to lower-income borrowers. They found that when compared to a similar cohort of borrowers who obtained subprime mortgages, the Self-Help borrowers had a much better track record for staying current on their payments. The subprime borrowers were nearly four times more likely to be delinquent on their loans. The impressive results of this program can serve as a how-to guide for policymakers looking to stabilize future housing markets. The Self-Help model works because it recognizes that home buying is a complex process that works best if it includes consumer safeguards, accountability, and well-tailored financial products — not to mention considerable support to homeowners when they get into trouble.

Finally, responsible homeownership should be considered in the context of a national strategy for housing policy. This means boosting rental housing in tandem with homeownership and exploring alternative ownership strategies. As the country recovers from a debilitating recession, brought on in part by excesses in the housing market, it is exactly the right moment to make sure housing policy is at least two-sided (if not three-sided to allow for greater exploration of shared-equity models). The time is also right to revisit the effectiveness of the mortgage interest deduction. In a time of scarce resources, isn’t subsidizing second homes and mortgages of up to a million dollars a bit much? A more responsible policy, as proposed by Barack Obama during the campaign, may be to replace the mortgage interest deduction with a refundable tax credit available to homeowners who do not itemize on their tax return. This credit will be equal to 10 percent of mortgage interest and it will be capped at $800 ($8,000 of interest). While the first budget produced by the Obama White House did not include this provision, it did propose capping itemized deductions (including mortgage interest) at 28 percent. While this proposal is unlikely to make much progress this year, perhaps it is a signal that they are serious about tax reform. If they are, they should be expected to revisit the inequitable manner in which the benefits of the mortgage interest deduction are distributed.

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