The New York Times
By: Joe Nocera
June 12, 2010
Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, began her week with a bit of honest heresy, the kind that only she, among all the bank regulators, seems willing to utter in the wake of the financial crisis.
Deep in a speech she delivered Monday before the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers -- a speech that got surprisingly little attention -- Ms. Bair listed her three main recommendations to "put the mortgage industry on a sounder footing." The first two were the usual suspects: better consumer education and protection, and a reformed securitization market. Her third proposal, however, was a shocker, taking dead aim at one of the most sacrosanct tenets of American politics: the lofty goal of homeownership.
"For 25 years federal policy has been primarily focused on promoting homeownership and promoting the availability of credit to home buyers," Ms. Bair said. She mentioned some of the many subsidies home buyers get, including the home mortgage interest deduction and the ability to deduct property taxes.
She tossed in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two "G.S.E.'s" (government-sponsored entities) whose role as a guarantor and securitizer of mortgages greatly expanded the ability of mortgage originators to make loans to home buyers -- and which are now, of course, in federal conservatorship, with taxpayers holding the bag for their gargantuan losses.
She also pointed out that during the bubble, when anyone with a pulse could get a mortgage, the percentage of Americans owning homes rose to an unprecedented 69 percent, a number that was greeted with bipartisan hurrahs, but which turned out to be "unsustainable," Ms. Bair said.
She concluded: "Sustainable homeownership is a worthy national goal. But it should not be pursued to excess when there are other, equally worthy solutions that help meet the needs of people for whom homeownership may not be the right answer." Like, you know, renting.
The point is: the financial crisis might well have been avoided if we as a culture hadn't invested so much political and psychological capital in the idea of owning a home. After all, the subprime mortgage business's supposed raison d'être was making homeownership possible for people who lacked the means -- or the credit scores -- to get a traditional mortgage. It's also why bank regulators and politicians were so willing to avert their eyes from the predations and excesses of the subprime companies.
Yet even now, it is difficult for the body politic to face this truth squarely, so intertwined is homeownership with the American Dream. Which is why Ms. Bair's comments were so heretical. Maybe, she seemed to be suggesting, it's time to break that link, painful though it would be. Maybe she's right.
The idealization of homeownership by both the public and the federal government is hardly a recent phenomenon, of course. The Federal Housing Authority has been around since 1934. Fannie Mae was founded in 1938. After World War II, the G.I. Bill included modest loans allowing veterans to buy their first homes, according to Michael D. Calhoun, the president of the Center for Responsible Lending. For decades, the savings and loan industry existed solely to make loans to home buyers. In return, the government gave savings and loans certain regulatory advantages over the banks. The mortgage-backed security itself -- which emerged in the 1980s, and made the securitization of mortgages possible -- required the passage of a handful of laws, which Congress happily provided.
And every president, Democrat and Republican alike, trumpeted the virtues of homeownership for all Americans. Bill Clinton put numerical goals on the percentage increase he wanted to see in homeownership, and greatly increased Fannie and Freddie's affordable housing goals. (Those goals had first been in put in place during the presidency of George H. W. Bush.) George W. Bush trumpeted his "ownership society"-- and increased those housing goals. Fannie Mae, for its part, explicitly wrapped itself in the American Dream; anyone who opposed Fannie Mae was quickly labeled "anti-homeownership" by the company's lobbyists.
Indeed, conservatives tend to view the affordable housing goals imposed on Fannie and Freddie as the central reason for the credit crisis. "In order to increase homeownership, Fannie and Freddie were required to decrease their standards," said Peter Wallison, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and perhaps the country's leading critic of the G.S.E.'s. "We made a big mistake in trying to force housing onto a population that couldn't afford housing."
But, to my mind, that view is only half-right. Yes, people got loans who had no hope of paying them back, and that was insane. But Fannie and Freddie's affordable housing goals -- which the G.S.E.'s easily gamed -- were not the main reason. Rather, it was the rise of the subprime lenders -- and their ability to get even their worst loans securitized by Wall Street --that was the main culprit. Fannie and Freddie lowered their standards mostly because they were losing market share to the subprime originators.
Did government policy make the rise of the subprime lenders possible? You betcha. Over time, the federal government gradually loosened regulations and interest rate caps that allowed the business to first become viable and then to explode. And it completely bought into the idea that the subprime industry was a force for good, because it was expanding homeownership. This, of course, is something the mortgage originators encouraged. Angelo Mozilo, the founder of Countrywide Financial, was as vocal about his company making the American Dream possible as any Fannie Mae lobbyist.
But it was a lie. Gary Rivlin, my former colleague at The New York Times, has just published a scathing, important book, "Broke, USA," which includes one shocking anecdote after another of people being conned into taking on mortgages, filled with hidden fees and adjustable rates, that they couldn't possibly afford. The companies that did these things were not the outliers -- they were the bulwarks of the industry: Household, Countrywide, New Century and a raft of others. And when state officials tried to crack down on these unseemly practices, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, instead of investigating, blocked their efforts. After all, homeownership was on the rise!
Somewhat to my surprise, the housing activists I spoke to -- people who had been in the forefront of trying to stop the subprime lenders -- generally didn't agree that homeownership should be de-emphasized. "Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater," said John Taylor, the chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "I think owning a home is the most common way for working-class people to join the middle class." Mainly, he said, that was because of a home's appreciation, which gave people the opportunity for wealth creation that would otherwise have remained out of reach. Others mentioned additional societal benefits of homeownership, like stable neighborhoods. And homeowners had every incentive to keep their homes up, precisely because of the equity in their homes.
The academics I spoke to, however, were not so convinced that homeownership offered benefits to society that were so important they demanded federal subsidies. Especially since those subsidies were so huge, and so distorting to the economy. For instance, in 2009, according to the Congressional Budget Office, government subsidies for housing amounted to a staggering $230 billion.
"You hear all this rhetoric about stability caused by homeownership," said Richard Florida, the author of "The Great Reset," and a professor at the University of Toronto. "But the communities that survived the housing bubble the best were the ones that had the highest percentage of renters."
Edward Glaeser, a professor at Harvard and a contributor to The Times's Economix blog, said that if homeownership had to be encouraged -- which he was not at all convinced of -- it should be through a "flat homeowners' tax credit" rather than a home mortgage deduction that essentially "bribes people to buy bigger houses." What he says he really believes, though, is that renters offer plenty of social good themselves, helping creating vibrant cities. "The idea that homeownership is always great and renting is un-American is an awful state of affairs," he said.
Obviously, the country is too psychologically invested in the idea of homeownership to ever abandon completely the homeownership ideal, or to put renting on a equal footing with owning. Which is why I found the most appealing idea to be Mr. Rivlin's.
Despite having spent the last two years of his life reporting on the destruction wrought, in part, by the government's unthinking push for ever more homeownership, he still wasn't willing to abandon it completely. Rather, he thought the big policy mistake we had made as a culture was in promoting policies that encourage all home purchases, under any circumstance. "Why should the government help me buy a second home? Why should it subsidize a refinancing?" he asked. (I was amazed to discover that, if you qualify, you can actually get an F.H.A. loan for a refinancing.) "We have missed the essential piece," he added. "The social good is in helping qualified first-time buyers own a home. That should be our goal. After that, people should be on their own."
Right now, more than two years after the fall of Bear Stearns, which represented the beginning of the financial crisis, the federal government is more involved in the mortgage industry than it has ever been in its history. As wards of the state, Fannie and Freddie are insuring three out of every four mortgages. Most of the remaining 25 percent are being guaranteed by the F.H.A. As much as you might resent the fact that the taxpayers now have to pick up behind new Fannie and Freddie, the sad truth is that without them, no one in America would be able to buy a home.
Surely, that's the logical culmination of decades of government policy promoting homeownership. Eventually, of course, the private market will return to the mortgage business, though it is hard to know when. Fannie and Freddie will be reconfigured in some way. But unless we change the way we think as a society about the virtues of homeownership, the fundamental fact will remain: the government will always be the backstop for the mortgage business, with the taxpayers always liable for the losses.
Is that really what we want?