As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Now With Obama, It's Time To Fix The Foreclosure Crisis In California

Democratic legislative leaders are in Washington today arguing for increased stimulus money for California. I've been arguing that this is required for some time, and hopefully it will be done in such a way that a) it can be applied to the General Fund deficit (so far Arnold has not asked for budget relief in that way) and b) it can be used without up-front money that will be matched, because the cash crisis limits our ability to do that.

However, there is something else that the Obama Administration can do right away to help the bottom line of the state and its citizens, and that is deal with the crisis in the housing market here. It's no secret that California is one of the hardest-hit states by foreclosures; in Stanislaus County, for example, 9 percent of all houses and condos in the county have been foreclosed upon, a staggering figure. That's almost $4 billion dollars worth of foreclosures in Stanislaus alone. In larger counties like San Bernardino and Riverside, you can see how this foreclosure crisis affects new housing starts (there are a glut of cheaper foreclosed homes on the market) and thusly unemployment figures.

Only four years ago, Riverside and nearby San Bernardino, often called the Inland Empire, were California’s economic powerhouse, accounting for more than a fifth of the state’s new jobs. Today, unemployment reigns in the sprawling region east of Los Angeles. The 9.5 percent jobless rate in the two counties matches Detroit’s as the highest of any major metropolitan area in the U.S.

Although there was a surge in construction employment in the U.S., and about a 50% increase in California (as a percent of total employment), construction employment doubled (as a percent of total employment) in the Inland Empire [...]

With the housing bust, the percent construction employment has declined sharply and the unemployment rate has risen to almost 10%. Is it any surprise that jobless rate in the Inland Empire matches Detroit’s as the highest of any major metropolitan area in the U.S.?

Nobody is calling on the federal government to prop up a sick housing market that will not see a broad recovery for a while. But foreclosures have a disruptive effect on the greater economy. They hurt property values, they hurt banks, and they hurt employment. The crisis is only slated to grow if nothing is done, with homeowners of every income class affected. And so foreclosure aid would be a major boost to California, and it can be done both quickly and effectively. By pledging that $100 billion from the TARP program will go to limit foreclosures, Obama has already begun this effort. Ted Lieu thinks that the Obama Administration understands the nature of the problem.

Time is of the essence. I commend the incoming Obama Administration for pledging up to $100 billion from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) to help distressed homeowners stay in their homes. In California, which has the highest number of foreclosures in the nation, we experience one foreclosure filing every 30 seconds to 1 minute. The TARP funds, which the U.S. Senate recently released, should be immediately put to use to rescue homeowners from foreclosure. Our economic recovery will not begin until we slow down the astronomical rate of foreclosures and stabilize the housing market.

Strategic direction is of the essence. The haphazard strategy of the Bush Administration’s use of the initial $350 billion in TARP funds resulted in the following: more foreclosures, less market confidence, and zero benefits for the ordinary citizen. How does giving yet another $20 billion to Bank of America so it can complete its purchase of Merrill Lynch’s brokerage arm help anyone on Main Street? Answer: it doesn’t. The only people this TARP money under the Bush Administration has been helping have been Wall Street firms. It is time for change and January 20th cannot come soon enough.

However, more needs to be done. Earlier this month, Democratic Senators got Citigroup on board for what is known as "cramdown" legislation, which would allow bankruptcy judges to restructure mortgages that would give homeowners the ability to pay them. The lenders take a haircut but it's a better situation for them than foreclosure, and those who get to keep their homes can continue to contribute to the economy. It's a great idea and a major step toward reforming the hideous 2005 bankruptcy bill. Yet despite supporting it, Obama's team doesn't want to include this reform in the economic recovery package, which I think is a mistake.

President-elect Obama and his advisers are resisting attempts to include a provision in the economic stimulus bill backed by congressional Democrats that would allow bankruptcy judges to shrink mortgages.

In a hastily convened Democratic Caucus meeting last week, Obama economics adviser Jason Furman made it clear to lawmakers that Obama thinks the so-called “cramdown” provision would cost GOP votes and endanger bipartisan support in the Senate.

He committed to dealing with the issue after the bill passes, as did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Lead supporters of the cramdown provision say the time to deal with the issue is now. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said it’s worth losing some Republican support to help homeowners.

“I would take that risk,” Nadler said. “I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of Republican votes anyway.”

This is absolutely correct by Nadler, and risking a few votes on the margins is no reason not to limit foreclosures now. There is an urgency here, because each foreclosure hurts the housing market more and makes it less liable to recover quickly. We cannot wait a few months for the sake of political expediency. Cramdown needs to happen fast, particularly for us in California.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,