College Times

Real estate industry fears loss of 'American Dream'

By Al Heavens, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Thursday, June 28, 2012

Updated: Thursday, June 28, 2012


PHILADELPHIA - During the National Association of Realtors' midyear meeting in the nation's capital last month, 15,000 of them gathered in front of the Washington Monument to rally for "the American Dream of Homeownership."

Supported "virtually" by 11,000 more members, the Realtors were advocating "better access to affordable financing, reform of the secondary mortgage market, improved liquidity in residential and commercial lending, and preservation of the tax benefits associated with homeownership."

The precepts they were advancing were not new, but were expressions of concerns shared with others in the housing industry.

Realtors, builders and others have continually decried what they consider "overtightening" of credit in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, saying it has pushed creditworthy borrowers into the ranks of those for whom mortgages are out of the question.

In addition, builders say, they have found the credit needed to finance even modest residential-construction efforts impossible to secure.

Among other worries:

_Mortgage-interest tax deductions. Although no formal challenge has been crafted, "many lawmakers have expressed a willingness to eliminate or curtail the mortgage-interest deduction," the National Association of Home Builders says.

In an April speech in Florida, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, said he would eliminate or limit for high earners the mortgage-interest deduction for second homes if he is nominated and elected.

_Appraisal standards. Both the National Associations of Realtors and Home Builders accuse appraisers of using distressed housing, as NAHB put it, to measure the value of "well-kept existing or brand-new homes without accounting for major differences in condition or quality."

The Appraisal Institute denies the accusation. Sara W. Stephens, president of the Chicago-based organization, has called the finger-pointing by real estate agents and builders "nonsense."

"Appraisers don't set the real estate market; they reflect what's happening in the market," she said. "Obviously, the market is depressed, home prices have fallen far below the values of a few years ago. Many homes simply aren't worth what their owners think they are."

Another sticking point for the housing industry is something called the "qualified residential mortgage."

The Dodd-Frank financial-reform act mandates establishment of a rule that would require lenders to assume some of the risk of loans packaged for the secondary market.

The rule, proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, generally would require sponsors of asset-backed securities to retain at least 5 percent of the credit risk of the assets underlying the securities. Sponsors would not be allowed to transfer or hedge that risk, according to federal regulators.

The proposal would define qualified residential mortgages as a class of loans that would be exempt from the risk-retention requirement. Criteria for those loans would include borrowers' credit histories, payment terms and loan-to-value ratios "designed to ensure they are of very high credit quality."

Housing and consumer groups, however, contend that the rule would require most buyers to put down a minimum of 20 percent to have their loans considered.

That, of course, would reduce the number of buyers substantially.

And that, housing-industry officials say, would put the final nail in the coffin of the American Dream of Homeownership.


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