Another tough year is almost over. it’s good to have this one behind us. And though we have even harder times ahead, it seems as if we’ve at least identified most of the critical issues that make up the expanding universe of our global financial difficulties. Whether we can do anything about them, of course, is a different matter.
But we’re going to give it our best shot.
There are lots of differing opinions about which parts of the crisis should be addressed, ignored, shored up, bailed out, or bought out. A general consensus seems to be coalescing around one issue, though—that the crisis in the U.S. won’t end until the number of foreclosures declines. It’s clear that large numbers of foreclosures hurt all of us, affecting our property values, our communities, our businesses, and the health of our local and national economies.
At the end of June, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, more than four million homeowners, or 9 percent of all borrowers with a mortgage, were in arrears or already in the foreclosure process. There were 765,000 foreclosures in the third quarter alone. Because of growing job losses and the credit crunch, this number is likely to continue to increase.
If you’re like me, every time you pick up one of those news stories about people about to be foreclosed on, about to lose their homes, you skip ahead, hoping just once that the subjects will be blameless. Hoping that this time, the subjects will have done nothing to bring this nightmare on themselves, that they will be innocent victims who were just trying to secure a small piece of the American Dream for themselves and their families.
I know those people are out there, but for some reason they’re not the ones that get interviewed. Instead, the stories tell of people who refinanced to get in on the housing bonanza and buy another house for investment, losing both that one and the family home. Or of refinancing to pay off bills they’d accumulated, you know, just taking out enough to consolidate what they owe into one monthly payment, and maybe just a little extra. Sometimes you read about first-time borrowers that are going under, but even they seem to have made unwise choices, such as taking on an option ARM, paying the bare minimum, and owing a lot more now than when they closed on it. But more often, the examples are egregious, such as one stunning instance in which a family bought a house for $46,000 thirty-some years ago, now owe more than $600,000 on it, have nothing discernible to show for that money, and are unable to pay their mortgage. You have to wonder, where did the more than half a million dollars go?
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for these folks, especially when you are, like me, a person who tries to save, live within your means, and pay cash whenever possible. And it’s hard not to feel like the man quoted in a New York Times story who said, “I am beginning to think I would have rocks in my head if I keep paying my mortgage.” But I’m going to continue paying my bills and I bet you are, too.
Still, the temptation to get on that bandwagon is a strong one. Opponents of the mortgage modification plans from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citibank, J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and others cite the possibility of a huge moral hazard scenario here—that people who are underwater on their loans (estimated now at around 10 million), but can still afford to pay their mortgages, will stop paying so that they, too, can get better terms.
The plans have a variety of eligibility safeguards to keep people from intentionally defaulting—and should have more—but the time has passed for being able to micromanage this process on a case by case basis. There are simply too many cases.
But it has to be done. And yes, it will be unfair. And yes, some people will game the system. And people who were clueless, greedy, or irresponsible—and maybe all of the above—along with those who lost their jobs, had a serious illness, or were handed a bill of goods by a mortgage broker, will benefit from these programs.
But, ultimately, so will the rest of us.