Who’s to blame for the housing crash?

Alyssa Katz, author of "Our Lot," discusses the good intentions and mass delusion that led to the real estate boom

Topics: Nonfiction, Books,

Who's to blame for the housing crash?Alyssa Katz

To read “Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us” is to relive, in painful, anecdotal detail, the real estate bust that brought our economy low. Through Alyssa Katz, a journalism professor at New York University and the former editor of the magazine City Limits, we remeet the exploited homeowners and the naive investors, and we cringe again at the blundering politicians and opportunistic lenders.

But “Our Lot” is also a reminder that our memories are short, and that the same mix of hope, greed, good intentions and bad policy has been inflating and popping real estate bubbles since the days of LBJ. Behind it all is a conviction shared by nearly all Americans, be they Democrats or Republicans, Wall Streeters or the ARMed and desperate masses, that home ownership is a good thing — good for the neighborhood, the country and the average citizen holding the deed and the debt. “Our Lot’s” long view is perhaps most unnerving for the doubt it casts on that timeworn belief. Salon interviewed Katz by phone.

Isn’t homeownership actually good for you? I thought it was the panacea for almost all social ills, it drove the crime rate down, educational achievement up, and so on.

Yes, well, homeownership is only as good as the amount of home you actually own, and I think the big problem in the last generation or so is that Americans have turned to more and more and more debt to reach for the American dream.

There’s a lot of great examples out there — the Nehemiah homes that transformed East New York in Brooklyn from a really devastated and dangerous place to someplace that’s still really poor and has a high crime rate but has an opportunity to really grow and have a stable bunch of families really invested in building a home there. So all that’s great. Certainly there’s a lot of evidence that homeowners do tend to stay in one place for longer, their kids perform better in school. They tended to be more involved in local politics, community affairs, and block cleanups. The problem is, it’s very hard to separate out the effects of homeownership itself from the fact that people who have a certain economic or social standing are more likely statistically to be homeowners in the first place.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t actively encourage homeownership, using government money or government policy?

I think there’s nothing wrong with using government money, policy, pressure, all those tools to make homeownership more of a possibility than it would otherwise be in the marketplace, simply because the market left to its own devices discriminates aggressively. It rewards people who already have wealth, who have already had a leg up economically, and it’s great to give other people the opportunity as well.

The problem is that homeownership is the only housing policy that this country has ever shown any commitment to. Renters are treated miserably.

And that’s one big distinction you see between the U.S. and European countries that also had very loosely regulated mortgage-security markets and have had problems there. I think one reason you’re not seeing mass foreclosures on quite the scale that you had in the U.S. is that for large proportions of the population in many European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, renting is supported through government policies that, for instance, protect tenants so that they don’t have to worry about getting kicked out at the end of the year.

Whereas in the U.S., homeownership was always the only option. And anyone who can afford to, or thought they could afford to, would choose that option. So that’s really the problem here.

Whose fault is the mess that we’re in now? And how far back do we need to go to start tracing the blame?

I think the message of my book, unfortunately, is that it’s to some degree everybody’s fault, including, I should say, liberal activists, with whom I’m extremely sympathetic, and think were right.

But what we really had was a collision of ideologies over this question of: How do we make it possible for everyone to be a homeowner? How do we eradicate this horrible legacy of discrimination, which had left the homeownership rate for whites much, much higher than that for blacks and Latinos? There was real work that needed to be done there. So I think we really have to go back to the 1970s, when we started to see pretty aggressive policy measures on the part of the federal government to try to level the playing field.

You talk about another real estate bubble in the early ’70s, when everybody who wanted one could get a mortgage. The wreckage that was left behind looks totally familiar.

Yes. Rather infamously, the federal housing administration, which is the government agency that insures mortgages — it’s what built Levittown and all those 1950s suburbs after the war — discriminated very aggressively, on the basis of what was thought to be sound statistical evidence, that the insurance fund would only be safe if it were to insure suburban and overwhelmingly white areas.

So what happened in ’67 and ’68 was that federal housing officials reversed that entirely. They proclaimed, initially just in the riot areas and then more broadly across cities, that FHA, the Federal Housing Administration, would now be open everywhere! And in fact, as I note in the book, the only circumstances under which HUD did not insure mortgages is if the house is literally falling down.

Real estate agents and loan brokers descended on inner cities, trying to find borrowers who would be unlikely to pay their mortgages back, because the real-estate speculator would get paid in full by the federal government, and paid more quickly and more generously, because of forgone interest that they would get compensated for. The sooner that borrower went into foreclosure the more generously that entrepreneur would get paid.

When was that mess cleaned up?

About ’73, ’74. There were tens if not hundreds of thousands of abandoned houses all over the country as a result of the FHA debacle, and it got a lot of attention at the time and was almost forgotten to history after that.

And then we have the Reagan presidency and — correct me if I’m wrong — but that’s when the securities market for mortgages really blossoms, right?

Absolutely. Mortgage-backed securities had existed since about 1970. They existed in the ’20s too, and that was part of why the Depression happened — they had been made illegal after that. But they came back as a government product in 1970. As I recount in the book, Lewis Ranieri of Salomon Brothers, which was trading in government-backed securities, thought, “Couldn’t we just do this ourselves? Why do we need to have Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae in the middle, why don’t we create these securities?”

In order to do that, they needed to rewrite all those laws that had been passed following the crash in 1929 and thereafter, which was as much a housing and real estate bubble crash as it was a stock market crash. 

What did that do to the housing market?

It took a while for all the pieces to come into place. But once the tax laws changed in 1986 to allow the Wall Street mortgage-backed securities market to just explode, what you saw was the invention of subprime lending. Suddenly Wall Street banks were able to do their own thing, but they had to find their own niches. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac already had what were known as plain vanilla loans: You want a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, you’ve got great credit, you live in the suburbs.

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So the Wall Street banks started looking for niches at the bottom and at the top of the food chain: at the top, what were known as jumbo loans, loans that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were not allowed to buy, and then they created subprime. They created a loan product with high interest rates, high fees, adjustable interest rates, all these new features that would enable them to make money lending to people who never before would have qualified for a mortgage.

And then when Bill Clinton became president he did not shut that down?

That’s right. To the Clinton administration’s credit, his Federal Trade Commission, among other agencies, and the other banking regulators, did pretty aggressively go after some of the worst offenders, who would not just be putting out subprime loans but really engaging in predatory lending, setting up borrowers with loans they knew they could not pay.

But you had two, or three, or — one could keep counting — things that the Clinton administration did that really enabled the bubble. And I think it was with the best of intentions at the time, but a lot of sort of willful naiveté about what the consequences would be.

Number one, what it did was really just encourage homeownership very aggressively. This became a central theme of Clinton’s campaign for reelection in 1996, how almost every American can and should own their home. This was something that Clinton promoted out of a sense of his own political survival. You had Newt Gingrich and his Congress trying to eliminate HUD entirely. Homeownership was this apple pie issue that could help justify the agency’s existence.

Homeownership also became a way that Clinton pushed for a hotter economy. And what would happen as well, of course, is that he had Alan Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve, willfully ignoring pleas that came as early as the early ’90s from consumer advocates who started to see the damage being wrought by predatory lending. They were hearing from Congress in ’93 legislation that passed that was supposed to stop predatory lending but couldn’t because of the way the industry was growing and metastasizing too fast.

That law, the Homeowner or Equity Protection Act (or HOEPA), asked the Federal Reserve to set guidelines. Congress said to the Federal Reserve, “We want you to regulate the subprime industry, you’re the only entity that can do this.” And the Federal Reserve never acted on it. Once consumer advocates tried to go to court to fight predatory lenders through lawsuits, judges — often Republican-appointed judges — would say, “You know, I’d love to rule in favor of you, but the Federal Reserve was supposed to help define this question of law that’s central to your case, and they never did, so we really can’t rule that this was a violation of HOEPA.”

So that was really the problem in the ’90s: that Alan Greenspan and his absolutist free-market approach to the mortgage markets, and the financial markets more broadly, completely defined everything that went on.

You also had community organizers and activists pushing Bill Clinton or pushing the Democratic Party to make housing more available, right?

The calamity that came to happen was enabled by this explosive growth that sucked all the customers from the government-sponsored market into the private one where they just became sitting ducks for every toxic product imaginable. Remember that the loans that went bad were people who had bought their homes, often with the help of the government programs, then refinancing with a subprime loan or with an adjustable rate loan.

There are clearly two competing narratives. You have the right-wing critique that blames the homeowners and you have the other side largely placing the blame on Wall Street. What responsibility do homeowners actually bear for the state we’re in now?

I think homeowners bear a lot of responsibility for their own wishful thinking. What you have is essentially a mass social mania. And it was infectious — you have a homeowner seeing their neighbor moving up to a bigger, better house because their broker is offering them a loan. Yes, the interest rate will adjust, but they can refinance in two years when it does. People wanted to believe. I traveled across the country for this book and interviewed many many, many homeowners and people who sold them mortgages and homes. And Americans’ capacity in general for delusional thinking, wishful thinking, fantastic thinking really just flourished.

This isn’t to say every homeowner was in this position. There was no shortage of horrifically exploitative practices, lenders who preyed and continued to prey on people’s financial desperation. This is all happening at a time when real wages are stagnant or declining, where people’s other expenses are going up. Trying to maintain a good standard of living and finding what seems like an easy way to do it. So it just became the new normal.

The book has a great number of anecdotal illustrations about the development of the market and the damage wrought. Let’s talk about a specific case: a homeowner named Charity Stewart.

Charity Stewart had bought a house for about $100,000 in 2004 because it was cheaper than renting. She was a single mom, single grandmother, and was 33 years old when she bought the home. She said she was driving around a neighborhood, saw a sign, said there was no money down — actually I think it was $500 down. She was able to get into that home for less, she told me, than it would be to put down a rent deposit.

When you rent a place, often a landlord will want to check out your finances, make sure they can get paid every month. Well, her lender, which was Argent Mortgage, now defunct, a spinoff from Ameriquest Mortgage, they asked for financial documentation — and she was allowed to count income that really shouldn’t have been counted. You know, her mom was on SSI and didn’t live with her but they added her mom’s income to her household income. So she ended up qualifying for a mortgage at a high interest rate that was much higher than she could pay for.

But it wasn’t only that that really struck me about Charity’s story because that has, I think, become very ordinary in the past couple of years. It was also that Charity had really no idea of what was involved in homeownership and no one had bothered to tell her. And so when the house, as often happens with these older city homes that were getting sold to first-time home-buyers, had some problems — it had a leak. And she didn’t know what to do. She had always lived as a tenant and could call the super or the landlord. And she actually tried to call Ameriquest when the leak started to get it fixed — she didn’t know what else to do and nobody told her. So by the time I came, which was about a year later, this leak had turned into this waterfall down the side of her living room and she stopped making mortgage payments, sort of in protest of her house falling apart. And she went into foreclosure that week that I visited her. 

What about the story of Lehigh Acres?

Lehigh Acres is an area near Fort Myers in Florida, and Fort Myers/Cape Coral is one of the hottest foreclosure hot spots in the country. The area became a Mecca for speculators. Lehigh Acres and Cape Coral were created by infomercial kingpins of the 1950s, these product pitchmen who had spent time during the winter in Florida and saw an opportunity to sell real estate the way they had sold rat killer and cosmetics on their TV shows. They decided to start selling land on the installment plan. So what you had in these areas in Florida, and still have, are just tens of thousands of these little housing lots in the middle of swamp that were created to sell on TV.

There were these organized investor schemes, these seminars that would go on road shows all over the country, encouraging middle-class Americans to make it in real estate — to be like Donald Trump. Buyers would have to put almost no money down, because they were getting set up with these construction loans. The idea was that they would get tenants in the homes and the tenants would eventually qualify for a subprime loan and owners could sell to them — but of course this isn’t how it worked out. These homes never ended up getting sold for the most part.

What I found was entire towns — I visited a town in Pennsylvania just outside Philly — where you’d have nine or 10 families from this one town and another six from down the road, and more from the next town over, all of them had gone to a seminar at a hotel in King of Prussia and seen how they could make this 14 percent return on Florida real estate. And these families just lost everything. They were really hoping only to send their children to college and to just get that leg up and this was how they hoped to get it. And so we talk about real estate investors and speculators and there’s often this stereotype of someone in that show “Flip This House” who sits in his SUV and is on his cellphone all day. But a lot of these investors were in fact ordinary middle-class Americans who had never invested in real estate before.

Is there anybody in this whole saga who stands out as both well intentioned and well informed, who was prescient about what was going to happen and said, “Stop”?

Oh gosh, quite a few along the way. So many consumer advocates, community organizers, folks in Washington, they’ve been working on this stuff for years and never drank the Kool-Aid. They were fighting discrimination but also really knew when the policies and the industry were going too far and called them on it, too. The kind of conscience and hero in my book is a now-deceased activist named Gail Cincotta, who is really central to all these progressive policy changes to help fight discrimination in mortgage lending, get the Community Reinvestment Act passed, urge more lending to credit-worthy and qualified low- and moderate-income people. She would go and testify in Congress year after year about how these programs were going and she would just call them out on it constantly and say, What are you doing? These loans are not helping people, they’re proving really harmful and you have a responsibility to do something. But by that point, this monster had already taken on a life of its own.

Is there anybody in Congress whom we should listen to, who has the right prescription or has been consistently right in the past?

For better and for worse –I think almost entirely for the better — we have Barney Frank. He is a favorite whipping boy on the right; for the believers it’s all the Community Reinvestment Act’s fault, it’s all Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae’s fault, and he is their prime evidence of that. He had an ex-boyfriend who worked for Fannie Mae and that’s part of the conspiracy theory behind this. That’s all baloney as far as what drives his policy decisions, what he’s trying to do. Frank, I think, is somebody who cares deeply about housing and about having a sane and functional mortgage market and he’s trying to do the best he can within what’s really possible in Congress right now.

I think part of the problem is that the Obama administration has been trying to play a very evenhanded role in setting the agenda going forward. So, for instance, Frank has been trying to push legislation that would outright bar a lot of predatory lending practices, but it was just a non-starter, certainly in the Senate. It passed the House thanks to the efforts of Frank and others, but in the Senate, Chris Dodd particularly, and others there are just really refusing to confront these issues head-on. So we’re sort of left now with the Obama administration’s new plan to overhaul the financial industry and its proposal for a new consumer financial products safety commission to carry that load going forward.

Has what the Obama administration has done to date about housing and lending helped or hurt?

Neither, which I guess is to its credit. I mean, it is trying to — not that successfully — keep the banking industry afloat while also keeping homeowners afloat. And the problem is you’ve got a zero-sum game.

So have we hit bottom yet?

Ask Jim Cramer [laughs], he says we’ve hit bottom. I’m not Jim Cramer.

Should I invest in real estate now?

Actually, that’s a really great question. There’s a lot of really great buys around the country right now because a lot of players who, in the past, did have money to throw around in real estate, are staying on the sidelines. So what you have in fact are sort of private equity funds  coming in, I guess you could call them vulture funds, they’re just coming in and buying up whatever they can. And prices for foreclosures — you can pick up places, especially in cities, for very very little money right now. And what you see is actually some kind of half-crazy or half-enterprising young people investors, entrepreneurs, some with good intentions and some that just want to make a buck, coming and buying up stuff cheap and fixing it up. There’s both good and bad coming out of that right now.

Sounds like the beginning of the next bubble, right?

[laughs] Well, the bubble’s only going to inflate if we choose to put air into it again. And if you look at what the Obama administration is putting out there, as far as what they want to see happening going forward, it puts a lot of very almost excessively thoughtful constraints on how that market will work. They’ve called for all these Ph.D.s to roam around and study exactly who will run into trouble if they have a pre-payment penalty or an adjustable rate and then regulate the product accordingly. It’s very, very, very wonky. That’s no guarantee that it’ll work. So I remain kind of admiring of the effort to craft this plan, but very skeptical that it will actually work as advertised.

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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