There’s another problem with trying to deal with the foreclosure problem – the most obvious solution, mortgage cramdowns, are very unpopular. They failed to pass last spring, and are probably even less likely to pass now. People don’t like thinking that they are rewarding those who made bad mortgage decisions. Very few people have ever come close to trading a credit default swap – every adult has had to make a choice about mortgages over the past 10 years, and rewarding, in the words of CNBC, “the losers” is a political no-go in the United States.
What is another choice? How about “Right To Rent”? Here’s Simon Johnson back in November of 2008 calling what would happen over the next 10 months and then suggesting a version of Right To Rent:
Washington is beginning to turn its attention to housing, and there is progress on plans to make it easier to modify delinquent mortgages where there is a win-win solution for the borrower and the lender.
At best, though, this is only a partial solution. Many homeowners will be unable to afford any mortgage that lenders will accept. Complicated relationships between servicers and secondary-market investors will make it difficult, impossible or illegal to restructure many mortgages…
In addition to limiting the number of foreclosures, it will be critical to manage the flow of foreclosed properties onto the market. Otherwise, the mounting wave of foreclosed condos and single-family homes threatens to push housing prices far below long-term sustainable levels, inflicting unneeded pain on homeowners and the economy…. Here are some ways to facilitate an orderly unwinding of real estate…
The borrower turns over the deed to the servicer and rents the property back from the mortgage investor for some period of time. At the end of the period, the renter can get a new mortgage from the investor at prevailing market rates if the borrower qualifies; if not, the property goes on the market.
I want to take that idea and flesh it out further. I think the best approach is the version suggested by Dean Baker’s, who also originated the idea, described here:
There is an easier route. In recognition of the extraordinary situation created by the housing bubble and its collapse, Congress could approve a temporary change to the rules governing the foreclosure process. This change would give homeowners facing foreclosure the right to stay in their homes, paying the market rent for a substantial period of time (eg seven to 10 years).
This change would have two effects. First, it would immediately give housing security to the millions of families facing foreclosure. If they like the house, the neighbourhood, the schools for their kids, they would have the option to remain there for a substantial period of time.
Also by keeping homes occupied, this rule change can help prevent the blight of foreclosures that has depressed property values in many areas. Vacant homes are often not maintained and can become havens for drug use and crime.
Dean Baker has had this proposal out there for a while, since at least 2007. Felix Salmon had it as one of his Fixing The World Ideas in The Atlantic Monthly. Some conservative economists, including Andrew Samwick have signed on, and there’s a version of a bill floating out there.
So what are the advantages? The foreclosure is avoided, keeping pressure off the community and not displacing a family. The rent is set by an appraiser to the neighborhood renting value, and reassessed whenever either the lender or borrower requests it at their cost. This prevents it from becoming a de facto form of rent control, while the externality effect of people losing the value of being able to sell their home because of foreclosures down the block has gone away, not to mention the more general social cost of abandoned housing.
Now is this a gift to those who made terrible decisions? No. As opposed to a normal foreclosure in most states, it is purposely designed so that any equity built up in the loan isn’t transferred over to the consumer. Normally if the bank sells your house for more than the loan outstanding plus fees in a foreclosure, you get the remainder. Not so with Right to Rent, the bank gets all that upside and the other party gets their equity wiped out.
Some versions of similar plans are designed so the bank is required to sell back to the renter first at a later date; I see no reason for this, as the bank will almost certainly offer it first to the people at the property if they can afford it. If they sell it to someone else however, the person still gets to rent their home. Personally I’d like to see the timeframe for the home rental to be on the order of 3-5 years, though that is debatable. Ideally it would also have accelerated eviction rules, so that people who couldn’t even afford the rent aren’t still living in said property.
This requires no taxpayer funding, and can be done in our very efficient bankruptcy courts. How great of a deal is that?
What are the downsides? It is an intrusion onto the property rights of the lender. The lender can still sell, but will sell with a tenant attached to the property. For the time being, the social costs being accumulated by neighborhoods as properties sit vacant is devastating, enough so that we need to take action. Lendors will become landlords, though there are a lot number of civic groups, third parties, businesses, etc. who can contract that labor out if it can’t be done in-house.
What are your critiques? Thoughts? Personally, in terms of our current political dialogue, I wonder if the type of social conservative who is willing to lock up large segments of the population to prevent a “broken window” from forming would be willing to ask a lender to take a small haircut to save the entire house from rotting in foreclosure, windows included. Nothing increases the “disorder” of a neighborhood than having foreclosed houses rotting away on them…