A smaller housing bubble: prices up, easier credit but homeownership down, fewer involved

Discussion of a looming housing bubble hints at similar factors to the problems of the 2000s:

The number of FHA-insured borrowers who are behind on mortgage payments has jumped, Wade wrote in her testimony. The use of down payment assistance is up. The frequency of FHA borrowers who are spending more than 50 percent of their income on debt payments has increased, too. And the number of borrowers refinancing their homes to take cash out for other uses has swelled…

After years of tight credit in the aftermath of the Great Recession, both conventional mortgage lenders and the FHA have been easing credit standards — allowing for low down payments, for example, or higher levels of borrower debt — to lure first-time and low- to moderate-income buyers back to the housing market, industry observers say. By making it easier for these groups to obtain mortgages, the observers argue, it is only natural to see a modest uptick in missed payments — especially by FHA borrowers — after almost seven years of steadily dropping delinquency rates.

Not all market observers are convinced that these changes are OK. As federally sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as the FHA, have introduced these easier credit requirements to promote more homeownership, some critics worry that the mortgage industry could be headed toward dangerous  territory if it continues to become easier to get a mortgage — especially amid what Edward Pinto, a fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, currently calls the “Housing Boom 2.0.” By allowing borrowers to take on more debt or put less money down on a house in today’s super-charged real estate market, observers such as Pinto argue, lenders could be setting themselves up for higher rates of borrower default in the event of a recession — something that Pinto believes is not too far off…

To be sure, observers such as Nothaft add, the current easing of today’s requirements is nowhere near where it was a decade ago. Leading up to the recession, lenders were allowing borrowers to provide no documentation of their finances and granting loans with no money down.

Given the fallout and long recovery time after the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s, few policymakers or lenders would want a repeat. Yet, there are some significant differences in the housing market right now:

  1. Prices may be up and demand may be high but fewer people are participating in buying and selling homes.
  2. Home construction is not at the same level as it was through the 1990s and early 2000s.
  3. Lenders are not quite providing mortgages with the same terms they had in the 2000s (as noted above).
  4. Homeownership in the United States is at relatively low levels: 64.2% in the first quarter of 2018 after even lower figures in previous years.

All together, this suggests that the scale of a new housing bubble would be smaller than the last one. Perhaps significantly smaller. Fewer buyers, sellers, and lenders got caught up in the rising housing values (and low interest rates) of recent years.

This does not mean that there would not be pain if housing prices and lending collapsed a bit. But, the consequences would simply exacerbate some of the issues various interested parties have discussed:

  1. If prices decrease, even fewer people might be willing to sell their homes. This drives supply even lower.
  2. How much lower could interest rates really go? How much profit could lenders generate?
  3. This could decrease motivation for builders and developers, particularly at the lower ends of the market where there is already significant demand.

The conditions and consequences of a housing bubble today or the next year or two could be very different than the economic crisis we now think we have some handle on from the late 2000s.

Living by “a week’s pay for a month’s rent” in the early suburbs

Within a set of observations in Harper’s in 1953 about the new way of life in six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses the financial situation of the new suburbanites:

Henderson1b

Henderson2

Three quick thoughts:

  1. If we still adhered to the guideline of one week’s pay to cover housing, a lot of suburbanites would be in trouble. That rule suggests 20-25% of earnings should be for housing, not 30% which was a more common guideline today. But, with the dearth of affordable housing in many metro areas plus a desire of many suburbanites to be in communities that will help them be successful (i.e. good housing values, high-performing school districts, middle- to upper-class neighbors, a community with a good reputation, etc.).
  2. The desire to achieve the American Dream of owning a home in the suburbs is a powerful one as these residents of mass suburbia were willing to stretch financially – taking on extra work, living with in-laws – to make it happen. I would guess that this is still the case today.
  3. The full article is both an interesting snapshot of suburban life at the beginning of mass suburbia as well as an odd read since it treats suburbia as the exotic. Henderson admits at the beginning that the notes are subjective but they both provide some interesting information as well as provide insights into how outsiders viewed these early suburbs.

Subprime mortgages still around

Although they do not appear to be anywhere near the common product as they were in the 2000s, subprime mortgages are still available:

Financial Times reports that subprime mortgage bond issuance doubled in the first quarter of 2018 compared to a year ago, going from $666 million to $1.3 billion. Furthermore, it quotes a financial analyst predicting that issuance for the year will hit $10 billion, which is more than double the $4.1 billion issued last year. For context, the value of American subprime mortgages was estimated at $1.3 trillion in March 2007.

Since the financial crisis, mortgage-backed securities have been almost entirely issued by government-sponsored mortgage facilitators Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Ginny Mae. And since the financial collapse, those organizations have refused to insure subprime mortgages. The Dodd-Frank regulation passed after the collapse put tight rules around subprime lending that for awhile effectively killed the practice.

But over the last couple years, specialty firms have jumped back into the subprime market, rebranding it as “noprime.” Investors hungry for bonds with higher yields have generated enough demand for those loans to be secularized, just as they were in the run-up to the financial collapse. The result is a rapidly expanding subprime mortgage market.

That subprime mortgages would seep back into the market right now is curious, given the current state of housing. The slow pace of new home construction and few existing homes for sale has led to an inventory shortage that has pushed home prices well out of reach for many low- and middle-income prospective homebuyers.

Subprime mortgages could be lucrative for some, even if it is now widely recognized that they are not a good idea in general for potential homeowners or the broader market and society.

I think the bigger question is whether subprime loans could once again become a mainstream product. What if the housing market continues to be sluggish or potential buyers have a difficult time securing conventional loans or the market suddenly heats up and lots of people want mortgages? Even with the fallout and the long recovery after the burst housing bubble of the 2000s, someone within the next decade will make a public plea for loosening regulations on subprime mortgages or will suggest subprimes are a necessity for serving certain portions of the market.

More evidence of discrimination in mortgages by race and ethnicity

The Center for Investigate Reporting went through 31 million records created by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and found disparities:

The analysis – independently reviewed and confirmed by The Associated Press – showed black applicants were turned away at significantly higher rates than whites in 48 cities, Latinos in 25, Asians in nine and Native Americans in three. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, Reveal found all four groups were significantly more likely to be denied a home loan than whites.

Reveal’s analysis included all records publicly available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, covering nearly every time an American tried to buy a home with a conventional mortgage in 2015 and 2016. It controlled for nine economic and social factors, including an applicant’s income, the amount of the loan, the ratio of the size of the loan to the applicant’s income and the type of lender, as well as the racial makeup and median income of the neighborhood where the person wanted to buy property.

Credit score was not included because that information is not publicly available. That’s because lenders have deflected attempts to force them to report that data to the government, arguing it would not be useful in identifying discrimination. 

This is an ongoing pattern. While I was in graduate school, I had a little experience working with the millions of HMDA records since my advisor, Rich Williams, had published on the topic. For example, see his 2005 article in Social Problems.

And lest we think that this is just about applicants of different races or ethnicities with equal standing receiving different treatment (generally the point of audit studies), it was even worse before the housing bubble burst:

In 2006, at the height of the boom, black and Hispanic families making more than $200,000 a year were more likely on average to be given a subprime loan than a white family making less than $30,000 a year…

Relative to comparable white applicants, and controlling for geographic factors, blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a loan, and Latinos were two times more likely. When they were approved, blacks and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants. The higher up the income ladder you compare white applicants and minorities, the wider this subprime disparity grows.

Or another study:

According to the study’s authors, the economists Patrick Bayer, Fernando Ferreira, and Stephen L. Ross, race and ethnicity were among two of the key factors that determined whether or not a borrower would end up with a high-cost loan, when all other variables were held equal. According to them, even after controlling for general risk considerations, such as credit score, loan-to-value ratio, subordinate liens, and debt-to-income ratios, Hispanic Americans are 78 percent more likely to be given a high-cost mortgage, and black Americans are 105 percent more likely.

Or see the $175 million fine leveled at Wells Fargo for steering minorities to worse loans.

This reminds of the conclusion of American Apartheid where the sociologists Doug Massey and Nancy Denton argue that Americans lack the will to enforce existing laws about housing discrimination. Even with a variety of laws and regulations intended to eliminate discrimination in housing, there is not a completely level playing level field.

Chicago’s 29 year old white flight reassurance program has paid 5 homeowners

A Chicago program to help protect homeowners on the Northwest side has collected millions of dollars since 1988 and only been used 5 times:

The Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program was enacted via public referendum in 1988 in a bid to prevent white flight in a handful of bungalow belt neighborhoods. A tax-based fund was created to guarantee homeowners within its boundaries they would at least get paid the assessed value of their houses when they sold them.

In the years since, every one of the roughly 48,000 homes within its boundaries has kicked in a few extra dollars each year on its property tax bills to the equity fund. As the Chicago Tribune reported in May, the program has paid just five claims by homeowners who couldn’t sell their houses for the assessed value while amassing $9.57 million in two accounts…

Bucaro, who like other board members receives no salary, cautioned against starting to make home loans. The organization has neither the expertise nor the staff to figure out how much money it’s appropriate to lend people or to assess the risk of such loans…

Bucaro said the Northwest Home Equity Assurance Program has somewhat been a victim of the housing success in the neighborhoods it covers, since most people simply get more than the assessed value of their homes when they sell. Maybe the program has outlived its usefulness as a bulwark against white flight, he said.

I do not know the details of this program but it sounds like the money was simply not necessary. Even as Chicago still feared white flight in the 1980s – and the decades after World War II led to a significant population decrease in the city – the home prices in these neighborhoods did not fall. Even as numerous Chicago neighborhoods changed from white to black after 1950, the Northwest side did not. The neighborhoods in this area are still primarily white (though the Latino population has grown).

One ongoing issue is what will happen to this money but another is when the city of Chicago will officially put an end to a white flight deterrence program.

Two new options for those aspiring to a mortgage: take on an investor or list on Airbnb

Axios highlights two businesses trying out some models that could help potential homeowners acquire a home:

James Riccitelli, CEO of Unison Home Ownership Investors, says in an interview with Axios that he is consistently surprised that nobody in the decades-long history of U.S. housing finance had thought of the company’s business model. Unison co-invests with prospective homebuyers—typically putting 10% down along with a bidder’s own 10%, helping them qualify for a standard 20%-down home loan. Depending on the lender Unison partners with, a homebuyer can end up putting as little as 5%:

  • Unison’s investors—who Riccitelli says are typically large pension funds with long investment time horizons—realize a profit only when the home is sold. The product is attractive to such investors because they need assets that match their liabilities, i.e. pension payments sometimes 30 or 40 years away.
  • Other than a few private equity funds that bought up cheap single family homes at the housing market’s bottom between 2010-2012, there are few ways for investors to own a diversified pool of residential real estate, a market that at $30 trillion is more valuable than the U.S. stock market
  • A homeowner can buy Unison out at any point after three years—as long it recoups its original investment. A homeowner can sell the home to another party at any point, however, even if it results in Unison taking a loss.
Loftium has an alternative strategy. It will will contribute $50,000 for a down payment, as long as the owner will continuously list an extra bedroom on Airbnb for one to three years and share most of the income with Loftium.

This strategy might be particularly appealing in booming markets like Seattle, where rent prices are rising even faster than home values themselves, and which are popular tourist destinations.

These present alternatives to the traditional mortgage market with one emphasizing long-term payoffs (and assuming that housing values continue to rise at investment-level rates) and the other trying to capitalize on rental opportunities in the next few years. It will be interesting to see if such options (1) become popular (and if so, how traditional lenders fight back) and (2) whether there are negative consequences to such alternatives (and reactions to them including regulation).

260,000 trees a year for mortgage documents

Mortgages are important documents given how much money they involve yet they also consume a lot of trees according to one estimate:

According to the report, those seeking a mortgage encounter scores of paperwork — in some cases, more than 50 loan documents — including everything from an appraisal report to the loan application, topping out at an estimated 252 pages. Add in another 28 pages, approximately, for documents borrowers must provide such as pay stubs and bank statements…

Multiply 280 pages per mortgage by an average of 7.8 million mortgages a year — a figure from a recent Federal Reserve Bulletin — and what have you got?

That’s right: almost 2.2 billion sheets of paper annually from mortgages alone. That equals more than 41,000 tons of wood and over 260,000 trees…

A FreeandClear survey conducted in February polled homeowners ages 22 to 49 who have a mortgage. In one question, on the most taxing part of the mortgage process, 56 percent of respondents pointed to excessive paperwork.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. Remember all those predictions that we would move away from the world of paper? Even with the disadvantages it may have, it is pretty useful to have paper documents in a number of situations.
  2. I assume “excessive paperwork” is relative to “typical” amounts of paperwork people have to fill out. Is it a bit unrealistic to expect that a mortgage – a significant contract for the average borrower – shouldn’t have little paperwork?
  3. The 260,000 trees figure is supposed to be shocking and help us think more about the social problem of tree removal. All those trees just for mortgages?!? But, how many trees are cut down each year for paper? One source from a few years suggests it is over 4 billion trees each year. Time says 15 billion trees – for all uses – are cut down each year but this is out of a base of roughly 4 trillion trees overall. How about a look at how many trees are used for newspapers each year in the United States? Is this a more acceptable use of paper?