With President-elect Obama calling for Congress to stimulate the economy by passing the biggest public works bill in 50 years — and the Bush administration signaling likely agreement on a bailout for automakers — the real estate industry remains determined to get its own slice of the government assistance pie.
The National Association of Home Builders and about 100 other groups representing builders and manufacturers have formed a coalition, Fix Housing First, that’s put together a list of demands from Congress including more generous tax breaks for home buyers.
Also, real estate broker Lennox Scott of John L. Scott Real Estate has co-authored a housing stimulus position paper that calls for, among other things, ditching the $625,000 loan limits going into effect Jan. 1 for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Federal Housing Administration loan guarantee programs. Scott says the programs should be able to fund loans all the way up to 125 percent of the median home price, whatever that may be in a given market.
Scott’s proposal has the endorsement of Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, a U.S.-based real estate industry group formerly known as RELO that encompasses 700 real estate companies with 5,500 offices and 170,000 sales associates around the globe.
In a radio address over the weekend, President-elect Obama took a different tack, promising to create "millions of jobs" by "making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." The plan will provide states with money to invest in roads, bridges, schools and technology.
Obama’s plan sounds not unlike one put forward by New York University economist Nouriel Roubini this fall. Roubini — who’s taken more seriously these days than when he first foresaw a housing downturn that would have serious repercussions for the economy — has said the stimulus bill passed by Congress in February failed "miserably."
At a hearing in October, Roubini urged Senate lawmakers to get behind a $300 billion to $400 billion stimulus package that would ramp up government spending on roads, sewers and other infrastructure, green technologies, unemployment benefits and tax rebates for lower-income households. At the same hearing, Simon Johnson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, said a stimulus package of about $450 billion spread over three to four years is needed (see story).
Although Obama didn’t put a price tag on his plan, he did say that the measures he talked about Saturday were only "a few parts of the economic recovery plan" he will roll out in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, a Bush administration spokeswoman said Monday that legislation that would provide $15 billion for troubled automakers "is moving more towards what the president could support."
Some steps already taken in support of housing markets, such as placing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in conservatorship and new FHA programs intended to help troubled borrowers refinance into more affordable loans, could end up carrying a big price tag if housing markets continue to deteriorate.
In addition to promising up to $200 billion in support for Fannie and Freddie, the government is providing relief to mortgage markets by buying up $600 billion in debt and mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie, Freddie and Ginnie Mae. Congress has also approved a $700 billion troubled asset relief program, which the Treasury Department has so far used to prop up banks.
By comparison, some housing industry proposals sound relatively modest.
The National Association of Home Builders and other members of its "Fix Housing First" alliance say Congress should increase the current $7,500 tax credit for first-time homebuyers to 10 percent of a home’s sale price, and make it available for all purchases of primary residences through the end of next year.
By capping the credit at 3.5 percent of FHA loan limits for a given market, the credit wouldn’t exceed $10,000 to $22,000. But unlike the existing tax break, it would have to be repaid only if the home were sold within three years, and would be available at closing to put toward a down payment.
The Fix Housing First Alliance also wants a stimulus package to bring 30-year fixed-rate mortgages down to 2.99 percent on sales closed by June 30 and to 3.99 percent on closings between June 30 and Dec. 31.
The National Association of Realtors, which supports a temporary government interest-rate buy-down program, has estimated that each 1 percent reduction in interest rates gives buyers 10 percent additional purchasing power and can generate 500,000 or more sales.
Lennox Scott, in a position paper co-authored with Erik Hand of Response Mortgage (John L. Scott Real Estate’s mortgage partner), called on Congress to repeal limits going into effect Jan. 1 on mortgages purchased, guaranteed or insured by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA.
Congress in February temporarily raised the limit from $417,000 to a maximum of $729,750 in some high-cost markets; the limits are scheduled to return to no more than $625,500 on Jan. 1.
The secondary mortgage market collapsed in August 2007, and today 85 percent of all lending is done through Fannie, Freddie and FHA, Scott and Hand said. The only way to offset the loss of the private mortgage market, they said, is to expand the availability of government agency and FHA loans. Congress should allow loan limits to go all the way up to 125 percent of the median sales price, with no additional restrictions on borrowers, they urged.
High-cost areas "should not be denied access to mortgage products just because of the higher cost of housing in these areas," Scott and Hand said. Opponents of raising the loan limits say the ability of Fannie, Freddie and FHA to provide support to mortgage markets is not infinite, and that priority should be given to helping low- and moderate-income families purchase homes.
In their paper, Scott and Hand question whether a loan at the $417,000 conforming limit in a "normal" market like Dallas is any riskier than a bigger loan in a high-cost market, when the conforming loan limit is nearly three times the median sales price in Dallas.
Scott and Hand also advocate keeping the first-time homebuyer tax credit at $7,500, but say those who claim the credit shouldn’t have to pay it back — a gesture they estimate would cost the government $18 billion in lost revenue.
They also recommend establishing a federal down-payment assistance program similar to those available at the state and local level. The program would provide down-payment assistance of up to 3.5 percent of a home’s purchase price to borrowers who have not been homeowners in the last three years when purchasing a home with an FHA-insured loan.
Such a program is needed, they said, because many state and local housing agencies that normally would be able to provide down-payment assistance can’t obtain financing because of disruption in credit markets.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that Realogy Corp. is a part of the Fix Housing First alliance. While Fix Housing First listed Realogy among its supporters, a company spokeswoman said Realogy is not a part of this alliance.
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