WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development today awarded $20 million in technical assistance funding to 12 organizations that will, in turn, help local communities across this country stabilize neighborhoods hard-hit by foreclosure through HUD’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP).

FHA Stepping up Bulk Sales Volume

Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHA) Commissioner Carol Galante and Housing and
Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shawn Donovan announced late Friday afternoon
a new bulk sale program to liquidate some of the reported 700,000 delinquent loans
backed by FHA insurance
.  The Distressed Asset Stabilization Program is an outgrown of a pilot program that
allows private investors to purchase pools of mortgages headed for foreclosure.  The pilot has resulted in sales of more than
2,100 single family loans to date.

Beginning with the September 2012
scheduled sale, FHA will increase the number of loans available for purchase
from approximately 1,800 each year to a quarterly rate of up to 5,000, and add
a new neighborhood stabilization pool to encourage investment in communities
hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal published before the sale was officially announced, FHA is undertaking
bulk sales in an effort to reduce its growing portfolio of distressed loans and
to avoid the costly process of foreclosure, but also because its own rules
limit ways in which the mortgages can be modified, leaving little room for aggressive
loan modifications like those done by Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and proprietary
lenders.  Once sold these strictures
disappear, the new servicer can take more drastic steps to bring the loans back
on line.

Under the new program, the current servicer
can place a loan into the bulk sale loan pool if the borrower is at least six
months delinquent on his mortgage and has exhausted all steps in the FHA loss
mitigation process.  The servicer must
also have initiated foreclosure proceedings and the borrower cannot be in bankruptcy.

accepted from the servicers, the notes are sold competitively at a
market-determined price generally below the outstanding principal balance. To
minimize the chance “vulture investors” will take advantage of the program, potential
investors must agree to hold off foreclosure for a minimum of six months and
work with the borrowers to help find an affordable solution to keep them in
their homes. FHA also seeks to provide some protection to the market by
requiring purchasers to hold back from sale at least 50 percent of the homes
backing the loans for at least three years.

“The Distressed Asset Stabilization
Program offers a better shot for the struggling homeowner and lower losses to
the FHA,” Galante said. “By addressing the growing back log of distressed
mortgages, FHA is helping to mitigate the negative effects of the foreclosure
process as part of the Administration’s broader commitment to community

“While our housing market has
momentum we haven’t seen since before the crisis, there are still thousands of
FHA borrowers who are severely delinquent today – who have exhausted their
options and could lose their homes in a matter of months,” said HUD Secretary
Shaun Donovan. “With this program, we will increase by as much as ten times the
number of loans available for purchase while making it easier for borrowers to
avoid foreclosure. Finding ways to bring these loans out of default not only
helps the borrower, but helps the entire neighborhood avoid the disinvestment
and decline in value that accompanies a distressed property.”

 “Currently, FHA’s inventory of REO properties
available for sale is at its lowest level since FY 2009,” added Galante. “At
the same time, the inventory of seriously delinquent loans is near an all time
high. With many neighborhoods still fighting to recover from the housing
crisis, going upstream will allow us to help more borrowers before they go
through foreclosure and their homes ever come into the REO portfolio.” 

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Ending Uncertainty is Prescription for Housing Recovery

Federal Reserve Governor Elizabeth A. Duke told attendees at a break-out session of the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) Midyear Legislative Meetings that she wished she had, as the session title suggested a “Prescription for Housing Recovery.”  “I do see policies that I believe will help reduce the shadow inventory of houses in the foreclosure pipeline,” she said.  “I also see policy actions that could be taken to improve credit availability for potential homebuyers and, in turn, demand for houses.”

Duke briefly recounted the toll that the housing market had taken on homeowners and the nation’s housing stock and some of the signs of recovery such as improving delinquency rates, and declining inventories of unsold and foreclosed homes. 

She said there have also been signs that home prices are stabilizing and even improving.  These modest improvements, she said, can only continue if the demand for homes strengthens or the supply fails to meet the weak demand.  “My Realtor friends,” she said, “have taught me that when inventories of houses for sale reach a level equal to six months of sales, then markets are usually in rough balance. And, indeed, just as the inventory of existing homes for sale nationally has approached six months of sales, we have seen a leveling of prices suggesting that some equilibrium is being achieved, albeit at low levels.”

The national data, of course, masks differences in regional markets.  She pointed to Miami and Phoenix where there is actually an undersupply of homes while delinquencies and foreclosures are still high.  “For me, this calls into question the notion that housing prices cannot stabilize until the foreclosure pipeline is worked off. I believe that this reduction in inventory, even in the face of a steady supply of foreclosed homes, is a result of a sharp contraction in normal homeowner activity and an equally sharp expansion of investor activity”. This could mean that discouraged homeowners have pulled homes off the market or that a significant portion of inventory has been absorbed by investors.

Despite some signs of improvement, demand for owner-occupied housing remains what Duke called “stubbornly tepid.”  One driver of demand is household formation which typically falls during economic downturns but has been especially weak in this cycle, running at three-quarters of the normal rate since 2007.  At the same time some homebuyers are delaying home purchases because of uncertainty, others because they expect prices might fall even further.

Some who would like to buy cannot because they are unable to obtain a mortgage.  She pointed to the Feds most recent Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices (SLOOS)  showing that underwriting standards for residential mortgages tightened steadily from 2007 to 2009, “and they do not appear to have eased much since then.” 

Obviously lenders are trying to correct for the lax and problematic lending standards in the years leading up to the crash, but Duke listed other factors causing the problem.

Lenders apparently lack adequate capacity. Some lenders have gone out of business and others have cut staff at the same time that requirements for documentation have increased and lenders have become more cautious over fear they might have to repurchase loans.  This has increased the processing time for mortgages from about 4 weeks in 20008 to around 6 weeks in 2010.   Of course if lenders were eager to originate mortgages they could increase staff and invest in systems but Duke believes uncertainty is inhibiting these investments.

Uncertainty is impacting lenders in other ways. Turning first to macroeconomic uncertainty, Duke said so long as unemployment remains elevated and further house price declines remain possible, lenders will be cautious in setting their requirements for credit.  The continuing effects on house prices of the large number of underwater mortgages and of the mortgages still in the foreclosure pipeline remain unclear. In one recent survey, house price forecasts for 2012 ranged from a decline of 8 percent to an increase of 5 percent.

House price uncertainty and the high volume of distressed sales make the job of residential appraisers and lenders more difficult.  Appraisers may lean toward the conservative in setting a home’s value and, as long a house prices continue to decline lenders may lean toward more conservative underwriting which, taken together could discourage or even disrupt sales and Duke said she hears of that happening.  

Lenders have tended to be conservative in making some mortgages that are guaranteed by government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs)–loans in which lenders do not bear the credit risk in the event of borrower default–which suggests that issues other than macroeconomic risk are affecting lending decisions.

In the April SLOOS  lenders said they are less likely today to originate loans to borrowers in several different categories than several years ago and when asked why about 80 percent cited the difficulty of obtaining affordable private mortgage insurance.  More than half the respondents cited risks associated with loans becoming delinquent as being at least somewhat important–in particular, higher servicing costs of past due loans or the risk that GSEs would require banks to repurchase or putback delinquent loans, their right when lenders are thought to have misrepresented their riskiness. If lenders perceive that minor errors can result in significant losses from putback loans, they may respond by being more conservative in originating those loans. If technology and data standardization can be used to enhance quality control reviews at the time of purchase rather than after the loans became delinquent, it would allow errors to be corrected much earlier, resulting in better outcomes for taxpayers, borrowers, investors, and lenders.

There is also uncertainty about future standards for delinquency servicing and the associated costs.  This was partially resolved by the $25 billion servicing settlement and the consent orders entered into by 14 large servicers. However these agreements cover only about two-thirds of all mortgages and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has declared it will develop servicing rules for all mortgage loans, The conservator of the GSEs are developing a set of servicing protocols for GSE loans and federal regulators are doing the same for banks they regulate.  Also affecting decisions about investing in servicing are new approaches to servicer compensation under consideration by the FHFA and new international capital standards that change the capital treatment of mortgage servicing rights

Two major areas of uncertainty arise out of regulations being written under the Dodd-Frank Act;  rules that will set requirements for establishing a borrower’s ability to repay a mortgage including a definition of a “qualified mortgage” or QM. Mortgages that meet the definition would be presumed to meet the standards regarding the ability of the borrower to repay.  Regulators are also developing a definition for “qualified residential mortgages,” or QRMs, a subset of QM that would be exempt from risk retention requirements in mortgage loan securitizations. Each one of these rules will affect the costs and liabilities associated with mortgage lending and thus the attractiveness of the mortgage lending business.

Other big uncertainty is the potential role of the government in the mortgage market, especially the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still unreserved more than three years after they were put into conservatorship.  Private capital might be reluctant to enter the market until their future is settled.  

Duke concluded by returning to the theme of the session, writing a prescription for housing recovery which she said would include resolving uncertainty about the strength of the economic recovery, especially the labor market which is affecting both homeowners’ willingness to buy and lenders willingness to lend. The Federal Reserve remains committed to fostering maximum employment consistent with price stability, which should help reduce some of the macroeconomic uncertainty.

The efforts underway to reduce foreclosures and distressed sales will stabilize home prices and mortgage loan modifications and short sales will cut the homes in the foreclosure pipeline as will reallocating some properties to rental use.  Policy changes that increase opportunities to refinance and neighborhood stabilization efforts are other solutions.   

But, she said, perhaps the most important solution is that policymakers move forward with the difficult decisions that will affect the future of the mortgage market.  She listed the future of the GSEs, how to promote a robust secondary market, the form of crucial regulations, “and it is unlikely that anyone will fully agree with the final decisions that are made. Nevertheless, until these tough decisions are made, uncertainties will continue to hinder access to credit, the evolution of the mortgage finance system, and the ultimate recovery in the housing market. I don’t want to diminish the importance of any individual policy decision, but I do believe that the most important prescription for the housing market is for these decisions to be made and the path for the future of housing finance to be set. It’s time to start choosing that path.

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February Housing Scorecard Spotlights Chicago

The Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Treasury released the February edition of the Obama Administration’s Housing Scorecard on Friday.  The Scorecard is essentially a summary of data on housing and housing finance released by public and private sources over the previous month and/or quarter.  Most of the data such as new and existing home sales, permits and starts, mortgage originations, and various house price evaluations have been previously covered by MND. 

As an overview, the report says that the data for February shows “some promising signs of stability” although the overall outlook is mixed and there is continued fragility in home prices.  Mortgage delinquencies are still declining and are well below the levels of a year ago.  Sales of existing homes have started out the year at the strongest levels since 2007.

There has been some progress with the housing overhang.  The supply of homes on the market continued to decline in February and there is now a 6.1 month supply at the current rate of sales.  The inventory of new homes is even lower at 5.6 months, the lowest since 2006.  However, despite existing home sales reaching the highest level since May 2010, home prices changed little from the previous month, marking a fifth month of seasonal lows. 

HUD Assistant Secretary Raphael Bostic said of the scorecard, “The data this month show that we’re making important progress in providing relief to homeowners under the Obama Administration’s programs. With fewer borrowers falling behind on their mortgages and some 425,000 families taking advantage of our enhanced Home Affordable Refinance Program – standing to save on average $2,500 per year – it’s clear that the Administration’s efforts continue to provide significant positive benefits.  But 1 in 5 Americans still owes more than their home is worth. That’s why the Administration’s recent proposals are critical to promoting healing in the market. Our efforts to ramp up economic development in fragile neighborhoods and to expand homeowner access to low-interest refinance options reflect our commitment to turning these markets towards growth. That is why we are asking the Congress to approve the President’s housing proposals so that more homeowners can receive assistance.”

Each month the Scorecard spotlights a different housing market and the current edition focuses on market strength in Chicago, Illinois and its surrounding communities. The Chicago metro area was one of the hardest hit areas in the nation following the housing market downturn and HUD says the Administration has been active in trying to stabilize the market.  Its efforts, the Scorecard says, have helped more than 220,000 families in the area avoid foreclosure. 

Sales of bank-owned properties and short sales remain high at 35 percent of sales in the market compared to 29 percent nationally which leads to continued weakness in local prices.  Foreclosure processing takes an average of 575 days so properties stay in the pipeline 50 percent longer on average than in other cities.

Illinois has received more than $400 million through the Hardest Hit Fund and approximately $265 million has been awarded to 12 jurisdictions through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to help purchase or redevelop residential properties and address the effects of abandoned and foreclosed housing. Both programs have helped provide stability to the Chicago housing market.

The Housing Scorecard usually incorporates by reference the monthly report of the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and related remediation programs.  That report however is now issued bi-monthly and not yet available for February.  

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