2012 is going to be a big political year for housing – and not just due to the presidential elections. The Federal Reserve has already kicked off the year by stepping into delicate political territory with its letter and white paper outlining U.S. housing problems to the congressional committees in charge of banking and financial services.
The move was quite surprising, given that the Fed was not given a formal request. The actual letter begins with: “Restoring the health of the housing market is a necessary part of a broader strategy for economic recovery.” The Fed’s opening argument is that the ongoing problems in the U.S. housing market continue to impede the nation’s economic recovery.
It’s clear the Fed wants to make housing the centerpiece of the national economic debate in 2012.
The white paper then goes on to outline a framework for possible policy changes that could help boost the housing economy and help struggling homeowners. Four of the possibilities outlined are:
Help more underwater homeowners refinance at lower rates. This policy is an old idea that was already poorly implemented under HARP in 2009. It was meant to help holders of the 8 million mortgages owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that carry an interest rate above 6%. It hopes to extend refinance possibilities to those who’ve not been able to take advantage due to inadequate or no equity, spotty credit or tightened lending rules.
New rules for HARP, however, could open it up to millions more households in need.
Large-scale principal reduction initiative. Lowering the amount of money that mortgage holders owe on their loan principal would drastically change the financial landscape for millions of families. The Fed notes in its paper that 12 million mortgages are underwater now, adding to about $700 billion in negative home equity.
Tackling this deficit would put many homeowners back in an ownership situation that makes financial sense given the current market condition and economy.
Convert vacant government-owned foreclosed homes into affordable rentals. This makes a ton of sense. The two housing finance agencies Fannie and Freddie own more than 230,000 foreclosed homes. Why not set up government programs that turn this unsold inventory into much-needed rental housing (a market that’s seen a rise in demand in the wake of the housing slowdown)?
Establish fair consumer protections for mortgage servicing. The Fed and others want to add a layer of consumer protection into the mortgage servicing market that previously was not there. Mortgage services currently have no fiduciary duty to protect consumers from errors and omissions in the servicing process. This initiative would add protections and potentially even change the compensation model to better protect consumers.
There’s a lot more detail in the Fed’s letter and white paper, which is available online. I suspect this is the first of many politically charged moves we’ll see this year. I just hope that some of these policies get it right and pull more families up from the depths of the housing collapse, helping to push economic recovery a bit harder and faster.