Sep 9 9:00 PM

Feds accused of selling out neighborhoods to Wall St. firms

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In September 2010, the federal government got into the business of selling delinquent home mortgage loans, which are at least 90 days past due, to the highest bidder. The program was instituted to help the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) rebuild its cash reserves, which were wiped out by a wave of loan defaults.

In the first two years of the program, the FHA sold 2,000 loans in six national auctions. In September 2012, it expanded its loan pools under the newly named Distressed Asset Stabilization Program, or DASP, selling more than 3,000 loans in the first auction. The FHA also introduced a second stated objective of the program to help stabilize neighborhoods by creating a new category of loans tied to geographic areas hit hardest by foreclosures with mandates that purchasers service them in a manner that stabilizes surrounding communities.

Two critical new reports on DASP admit that the program is helping the FHA avoid having to hit up taxpayers for more money. But they question the sincerity of any efforts to protect neighborhoods plagued by foreclosures, pointing out that a whopping 97 percent of the loans have gone to private, for-profit investors, including hedge funds, mutual funds and private equity firms. And approximately just one out of 10 of the loans sold have achieved a neighborhood stabilization outcome.

“These are companies that put the financial gains of their shareholders first and community stabilization second—or I would say it's not even necessarily a priority for them,” says Connie Razza, co-author of a report by the Center for Popular Democracy and the Right To The City Alliance, which came out today.

Razza’s group sent a petition to Julian Castro, who recently took over the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the cabinet agency that houses the FHA, asking him to stop selling loans under the DASP until the program’s implementation could be strengthened and refocused on communities.

When the FHA was created in 1934 to stimulate a lifeless housing market buried in the depths of the Great Depression, the U.S. was a nation of renters—with only 40 percent of Americans owning their homes. The FHA was able to help boost that percentage by offering affordable mortgage insurance to approved lenders who made loans to high-risk borrowers with relatively low down payments. By 2004, nearly 70 percent of Americans were homeowners.

During the recent housing crash, with private lending drying up, the share of FHA-backed loans skyrocketed, rising from a reported 2 percent of all mortgages in 2006 to nearly a third in 2009. Those loans kept housing prices from going into free fall, but a wave of defaults plundered the FHA’s mortgage insurance fund. So, in 2013, it took a $1.7 billion taxpayer bailout to stay afloat.

So far, nearly 100,000 non-performing loans have been sold through DASP, netting the FHA $8.8 billion.

According to a report released last week by the Center for American Progress, only about 11 percent of the loans sold through DASP are now considered “re-performing.” Another 22 percent were either allowed to do a short sale or the home was surrendered in exchange for loan forgiveness. A third of the loans were turned around and sold to other buyers. The final third went into foreclosure.

Bidders who want to acquire neighborhood stabilization loans are required to achieve one of several outcomes that help homeowners and surrounding communities on at least half of the loans they purchase: getting the loans to re-perform, renting the home to the borrower, gifting the property to a land bank or paying off the loans in full. Through May of this year fewer than 18,000 of the FHA loans have been sold through neighborhood stabilization pools, compared to more than 73,000 that have no strings attached.

"In its current form, the DASP is unnecessarily undermining the very mission of HUD by selling loans to some of the same reckless actors who caused the financial crisis."

Connie Razza, Center for Popular Democracy

Instead of getting loans to re-perform, many of the companies buying up the loans may be looking to convert the distressed assets into rental properties. Since the housing crash, Wall Street-backed groups have bought up an estimated 200,000 single-family homes across the country to convert to rentals. As housing prices rise and foreclosures become less common, housing advocates worry that these firms have turned to non-performing loans as a way to increase their housing stock.

For instance, the private equity firm Blackstone, which has recently become the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the country, is a 46-percent owner of Bayview, the company that has won the second-highest number of DASP loans. According to one report, the delinquent notes are sold to the highest bidder without considering past performance metrics at getting the loans to reperform.

Further, allowing the vast majority of the loans to fall into the hands of high-bidding corporate investors—rather than defaulting—keeps many of the properties they’re tied to from going through the typical foreclosure process. As a result, the FHA might actually be diverting housing stock from first-time homebuyers, the very group it was formed to serve 80 years ago, said John Husing, chief economist at the Inland Empire Economic Partnership in San Bernardino, California.

"In its current form, the DASP is unnecessarily undermining the very mission of HUD by selling loans to some of the same reckless actors who caused the financial crisis," Razza and her co-authors write in their report.

The reports contend that HUD should be tracking bidders' track record for good outcomes and taking that performance into consideration. They also criticize HUD for a lack of transparency when it comes to making information about what happens to these loans available to the public. Further, they call for boosting the size and ratio of loans sold through the Neighborhood Stabilization Outcome pools and increasing access for non-profits in the bidding process.

“Community development financial institutions and other non-profits have been trying to participate,” Razza said. “They've only won 2.5 percent of the loans and are really shut out because HUD is running the program as a straight auction.”

Representatives for HUD did not respond to specific questions about the program, but offered this statement: “For purchasers, the program is an opportunity to acquire assets at competitive prices with the flexibility to service the assets while providing borrowers an opportunity to avoid costly foreclosures. The program is meeting financial goals as the amounts offered for these assets are steadily rising as volume has increased in recent years.”

Where investors used to pick up non-performing loans in the program for an average of 40 to 50 cents on the dollar, the most recent sale in June had an average of more than 77 cents. The bidding war was reportedly the most contested yet, with the entire pool going to one investor, private equity firm Lone Star Funds.

“I think that as demand for these loans grow, it builds a stronger case for FHA to ask buyers to do more for the communities they’re buying in,” said CAP report co-author Sarah Edelman. “We want to see loss-mitigation requirements on all of the loans sold.”

Additional reporting by Nicole Salazar



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