Editor’s Note: Inman News is pleased to introduce "House Keys," a new weekly column about homeownership by veteran real estate writer Marcie Geffner. "House Keys" offers a fresh look at today’s changing images and perceptions of homeownership through current news events and personal stories. For information about publishing this column on your Web site or in print, contact Elaine Baker: (510) 658-9252 ext. 128.
Do you and the other homeowners in your neighborhood help one another?
Sure, you do. After all, you’re neighbors, right? And that’s what neighbors and homeowners do: We help one another.
Perhaps you let your neighbor borrow your lawn mower or snowblower when his was in the shop or maybe you came to the door when your neighbor realized she was one egg short in the middle of a favorite cookie recipe. Perhaps you brought in your neighbors’ mail and fed their cat while they visited their out-of-state relatives. Maybe you helped your neighbor’s son with a school project or hired your neighbor’s daughter to wash your car even though she left it covered in streak marks.
Maybe you volunteered in your neighborhood: You helped to plant trees on the median of the nearest boulevard. You raised money for the local school. You pitched in at the public library’s book sale. You served on the board of the homeowners’ association. You manned a polling place on Election Day. You circulated a petition to add more street lights or traffic-calming devices or whatever else your neighborhood needed. Maybe you were even a super neighbor: You did it all, and you did it willingly and gladly.
But suppose your neighbors knocked on your door and asked you to write a check to help them pay their mortgage. They were still employed and weren’t behind on their payments, but their income had dropped, their expenses had risen, their interest-only mortgage had reset and they felt that they might be in danger of foreclosure. They were a little short on cash, so they asked for your help: Could you kick in, say, a hundred dollars every month for the next few years? And could you add an extra $1,000 each year as an incentive for them not to walk away from their home?
If you think that scenario sounds insane, think again. Because in fact, the federal government’s new Making Home Affordable program works almost exactly that way. You pay your income taxes and the government subsidizes your neighbors’ mortgage payments. And if your neighbors make their payments, the government gives them an extra $1,000 to help them pay off the loan each year for the next five years that they own their home. Sweet, huh? …CONTINUED
Of course, we homeowners have heard the arguments in favor of government-subsidized loan modifications. And we agree that some of the arguments make a strange kind of sense: We know foreclosures hurt property values; we’ve watched in dismay as the values of our own homes have drifted downward — or plummeted off the side of a steep cliff; we don’t like the housing crisis, and we want it to stop.
We don’t want our neighbors to lose their homes. We don’t want our neighborhoods to turn into tracts of vacant or tenant-occupied bank-owned properties. We don’t want to write off our inflated equity even though it was only on paper.
We do want to help our neighbors — especially those who we believe have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. We might even be willing to include those wealthy people who own second homes or those investors who everyone knows are simply greedy. We’re sympathetic. We care. We get it. (Or we think we do.) We know the only real difference between ourselves and our neighbors is that we bought our homes before they did and we were more cautious about the fine print in our loan documents. But we still feel resentful, and when we write that check to the Internal Revenue Service we wonder: Couldn’t we just lend them our lawn mower?
Marcie Geffner is a freelance real estate reporter and former managing editor of Inman News.
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