Who says bipartisanship is dead? From President Bush to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, to Mitt Romney and John McCain, virtually everyone in Washington agrees: The government must Do Something to stop home foreclosures across the country. These leaders agree on the total presumption of homeowner innocence. The borrower-as-victim and lender-as-predator storylines are etched in stone. Can’t let reality get in the way of election-year pander-monium.
Special guests at the State of the Union address are usually extraordinary heroes, entrepreneurs or citizens who’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty. On Monday night, one of those guests was an Indiana woman whose claim to fame is that she called a 1-800 number and was assisted by the “Hope Now Alliance,” a group Bush convened, which, according to him, “is helping many struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.”
Subprime victims are the new heroes. Welcome to the politics of foreclosure.
Housing Czarina Hillary immediately jumped on the president’s address and on news that foreclosure rates skyrocketed 79 percent over the last year. She reiterated her call for “a 90-day foreclosure moratorium on subprime mortgages and a 5-year freeze in rates on subprime loans.” Borrowers who knowingly bought more house than they could pay for have no place in Hillary’s world. “It is indisputable that brokers and mortgage companies lured families into mortgages that were designed to end in foreclosure,” she stated in a Denver Post questionnaire this week.
Continuing the theme of duped borrowers, Sen. Chuck Schumer is crusading for more federally subsidized “mortgage counseling.” He wants $200 million more, in addition to the $180 million for “Housing Counseling Assistance” that he helped stick into the omnibus spending bill last year. A significant portion of that will go to government-approved counselors affiliated with left-wing activist groups such as La Raza and ACORN.
I certainly have sympathy for borrowers who may have been misled. But for every “predatory lender” out there, you can find a predatory borrower. For every fraud-minded loan officer or mortgage broker, you can find a homeowner who secured financing and bought a home he knew he couldn’t afford with little money down and bogus or no income verification. Washington is silent about this reckless behavior, which it is encouraging both tacitly and explicitly.
Now comes word from California that some of these homeowners Washington is rushing to rescue are simply walking away — abandoning their mortgage commitments and contractual obligations. Poof: “Foreclose me. … I’ll live in the house for free for 12 months, and I’ll save my money and I’ll move on,” one homeowner blithely told the Los Angeles Times this week.
The stigma of default is gone. Political rhetoric absolving borrowers of their responsibilities — and encouraging them to spend, spend, spend even more — has made it possible. And so has federal legislation intended to “help.” The omnibus spending bill passed last year prevents the IRS from taxing mortgage forgiveness as income up to $1 million for a two-year period.
Finance blog Calculated Risk reported last week that increasing numbers of homeowners are walking away from their homes by choice. A Wachovia executive noted during a conference call that they are “people that have otherwise had the capacity to pay, but have basically just decided not to because they feel like they’ve lost equity, value in their properties…” Some are bailing for cheaper homes in the same neighborhoods. There’s even a term that’s become popular over the last couple of years — “Jingle Mail” — that describes when homeowners cut loose and mail in the keys to the bank. Ho, ho, ho.
The true victims in this “crisis” are those who paid for homes within their means and those who waited to enter the housing market. A reader in New York City wrote me last week:
“My husband and I patiently sat back and watched while our friends made a killing in real estate over the past six years. … Now, after several years, we are ready to move to the ‘burbs, and we feel it is responsible people like us who are going to get hurt by this mortgage mess. We’re the ones who have to sit back and wait for housing prices to fall, while our government, looking to protect only the homeowners, keeps prices artificially high with bailout programs and artificially low interest rates.
“What about programs to help out renters who didn’t make any money in this bubble because we were responsible? What about government intervention to lower the still-high housing prices so we aren’t locked out of the market? A natural correction in the housing market is in order, but the government seems hellbent to prevent it from taking place. In the meantime, we are priced out of the market because we aren’t willing to get in over our heads financially (unlike some of these revered homeowners).”
Sorry, responsible Americans. There’s no seat at the next State of the Union address, or the next Hillary Rescue roundtable, for you.