The homeownership racket

The Detroit area has the dubious distinction of having lost more home value than any other large metropolitan area in the country.  Metro Detroiters are acutely aware of the consequences:

In metro Detroit home prices… are roughly 38% below their 2000 levels.

Other cities that have home prices below their 2000 levels when the index was set at 100 are Cleveland, which has an index of 98.88, and Las Vegas, which has a 95.6 level. Metro Detroit is at 62.

While other metros are slowly beginning to recover, we are not: “Home prices in metro Detroit were down 2.8% from April, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index. The only other city to see a drop in prices over April levels was Tampa with a 0.6% decline.” And there’s no end in sight:

Detroit home prices posted sharp declines during the first 6 months of 2011, according to a new report.  And the decline is expected to continue during the next 6 months.  Clear Capital reports Detroit’s home sale prices were down 19.8% during the first half of the year compared to the first six months of 2010… Alex Villacorta with Clear Capital… says Detroit’s home prices are expected to dip another 4% between now and end of December.

L. Brooks Patterson loves to crow about how sprawl has supposedly helped Oakland County, but you won’t hear him admitting how overbuilding helped to destroy the wealth of OC homeowners after the housing bubble popped.

It is no coincidence that Detroit’s rate of homeownership was the highest of the nation’s largest metros in the mid-20th century.  Detroit’s culture of homeownership is tied hand and foot to its high levels of segregation.  It has been amply documented how realtors exacerbated white flight from Detroit neighborhoods beginning in the 1950s;  they deliberately stoked fear among white homeowners with rumours that blacks were moving in and would bring down home prices.  They profited from the resulting turnover as entire neighborhoods flipped within the course of a decade.  Other aging industrial metropoli with large black populations, like Chicago and New York City, were protected from such rapid turnover partly by their lower rates of homeownership; renters simply did not have as much at stake financially in their neighborhood, and were less overcome by panic.

Federal housing policy was the catalyzing agent that allowed Detroit’s metropolitan area to sprawl uncontrollably after World War II; it was the Kevorkian that enabled the region’s economic suicide.  And federal housing policy, under both Democrats and Republicans, continues to wreak havoc on Detroit.

But what role exactly does the government play in homeownership?  “The United States spends more than $100 billion annually to subsidize homeowners,” explain NYU business professor Viral V. Acharya and a number of his colleagues in a New York Times op-ed. These expenditures, Acharya et al continue, are a significant driver of the federal deficit: “according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, these tax breaks add up to $700 billion in lost government revenue over the five-year period through 2014.”  Joshua Green, formerly of the Atlantic, elaborates:

Even before the 2008 financial crisis, the government assumed the credit risk on most loans, which allowed banks to offer better rates, but ultimately left taxpayers footing the bill when the housing market collapsed: $138 billion and counting.

During the crisis, the government became even more involved in the mortgage market by rescuing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and agreeing to backstop larger loans… Today, the government backs 95 percent of new loans, leaving taxpayers more exposed than ever.

Many Americans have come to regard cheap mortgages as an entitlement.

And yet it’s not clear this fire hose of money has done much to increase the total level of American homeownership, Acharya et al suggest:

According to data collected by Alex J. Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute, a comparison of homeownership among economically advanced countries shows that the United States is in the middle of the pack, which suggests that subsidizing housing with tax breaks is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a flourishing housing market. Rather, these subsidies enabled people to borrow more than they could afford so they could buy houses bigger than they needed…

Felix Salmon agrees that “there’s not even any real evidence that the deduction actually increases homeownership, rather than just artificially making houses more expensive to buy.”

Yet why is the deduction so popular?  One big problem is that a lot of Americans think they benefit from the tax treatment of mortgage interest more than they do, a belief perpetuated by misguided liberals who claim it helps low-income people attain the American dream. But  according to Adam S. Posen of  the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “This part of the tax code incentivizes speculation and borrowing, rather than investment and saving. It is very regressive.” Acharya et al write,

Renters get no breaks; homeowners get tons of them… homeownership policies and mortgage subsidies in the United States benefit the rich a lot more than the poor. For example, the economists James Poterba and Todd Sinai recently estimated that the benefits from the mortgage interest deduction for the average homeowning household that earns between $40,000 and $75,000 were about 10 times smaller than the benefits that accrue to the average household earning more than $250,000. These policies increase income inequality instead of reducing it.

Felix does a bit more of the math:

Households earning more than $200,000 a year account for less than 10% of the returns, but get 30% of all the benefits. And households earning more than $100,000 a year get 69% of all the benefit. The mortgage-interest deduction might be a middle-class tax break, but realistically it’s an upper-middle-class tax break…

He concludes, “Homeownership, especially during times of high unemployment, does more harm than good.”

If we capped federal loan limits for guaranteeing mortgages as well as the amount of interest that could be deducted, most homeowners would not be affected, only those that spend most lavishly on their homes.  As usual, the homebuilders  lobby for distortionary policy that encourages sprawl.

The banks do their bit to make a bad situation worse:

Lenders historically have treated residents of cities and rural areas as riskier than those who live in the suburbs… Poverty rates are higher in urban and rural areas. Potential borrowers tend to have lower credit scores and less money saved for down payments. In other words, lenders may charge higher rates on average because borrowers in these areas disproportionately pose greater risks.

Professor (Brent) Ambrose (of Penn State) said that determining the value of properties was also a challenge. Mortgage loans are secured by the value of the borrower’s home. The methods that lenders use to judge the value of a home, however, are best suited to the suburbs, where clusters of broadly similar houses allow easy comparisons… (I)n urban areas there can be too much noise in the data – large numbers of different kinds of homes in close proximity. The result is that lenders are less confident about the quality of their collateral…

Contrast our experience with that of Texas.  Slate’s Annie Lowrey cites one ingredient of the recipe for Texas’ economic resilience amidst the rest of the country’s recent contraction:

Texas kept its housing-finance regulations tight. As Alyssa Katz noted last year in The Big Money, Texas has had a longtime commitment to ensuring that homeowners make significant down payments and do not use their houses like piggy banks. The rules bar Texans from taking out home-equity lines of credit worth more than 80 percent of their mortgage. They also ban “cash-out refinancings,” which add to homeowners’ debt.

As a result, Texas never had a housing bubble.

Jonathan Chait echoes Lowrey’s account:

The best explanations for Texas’s success, other than its proximity to Mexico and resulting high levels of immigration, is (sic) genuinely good housing policies. Texas had tight lending requirements that prevented the inflation of a housing bubble, and it maintains loose zoning rules that allow for lots of cheap housing.

Adam Posen suggests other reforms:

Create a national tax leaning against land price swings: Local governments collect taxes already on all real estate transactions. The rates should increase when prices rise faster than population and income growth in an area (and decrease when prices rise slower). The revenue from the additional variable taxes should be transferred from booming markets to depressed communities. This would counteract large swings in housing prices and in local government spending…

Set a minimum mortgage loan-to-value ratio and have it vary over the business cycle: A simple rule that all mortgage lenders must require a minimum 20 percent down payment would restrict both speculation and exploitation of consumers. This ratio should automatically increase in boom times, but never go lower.

There’s arguably a silver lining to this catastrophe.  Kurt Metzger points out that, if nothing else, we now have some of the most affordable real estate in the nation.  What’s terrible for Metro Detroit’s homeowners is potentially enticing for those looking to buy a home here.

Full disclosure:  As I’ve previously noted on this blog, I own my home.

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2 responses to “The homeownership racket

  1. While I can understand the appeal of homeowner ship, it also seems hugely impractical (especially for me in the near future). It’s strange the extent to which our society values home ownership and how much we believe it’s key to solving our economic woes.

  2. As a new homeowner, the financial impact for me is positive. I truly am at a break even point in owning when calculating tax benefits and equity gain that I do feel confident I will achieve in the future (10 year ownership minimum) even with paying interest each month because my principle payment each month will remain constant whereas my rent would go up every year. I now have 1610 sq ft and a two car garage in the country club as opposed to 500 sq ft no garage in the ‘bad’ neighborhood. In my case, if I decided to relocate or cohabitate with my sweetie, my home would rent with positive cash flow, so I really can’t go wrong.

    Not only the dollars and cents should be calculated though…having room for my parents when they visit, being able to have pets, sunbathe in my own private yard, run on the treadmill at midnight if I want, play music just a little too loud, feel safe when I sleep, be able to park my car inside, painting any wall any color I want and nail picture hangers where ever I want… These things have contributed to my happiness, feeling of peace and well being. I was a good renter, the kind every landlord wants, but the pride of ownership I get when I stain the deck, paint the trim, clean the windows and pressure wash the driveway fills my soul with warm fuzzies.

    There are people, that it makes no sense to own a home for many reasons. My sister is one of them. They require a large home. They rent for half of what it would cost them to own the very house they do rent. My friends don’t have any idea where they want to be in a year, two or five, they should not own. People that don’t want to tied to home care should rent. And it is alot of work.

    I don’t believe it will solve our economic woes, but as a renter I was far more likely to spend my money on dinner out than new sheets or cookware or a lawn mower. So when you do own a home, I believe you do spend more money which should stimulate the economy, right? Now if we could just have more AMERICAN products to spend those dollars on, we could really increase the benefit of our spending.

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