Housing Crisis Is Absent From Debates

PHOTO: I didnt need to see the sign to know this house was in foreclosure. The front yard was brown, flowers dying. In a neighborhood with prices starting at $700,000 homes, its very sad.

Jeffery Turner/Flickr

What if the presidential candidates never debated one of the biggest reasons for the economic collapse?

The wave of home foreclosures that helped trigger the Great Recession affected people from all walks of life, and it had a particularly devastating effect on the Latino community. But so far the topic has hardly come up during the first two debates. The word "foreclosure" has been uttered only once during 180 minutes of combined discussion between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

So why haven't the candidates, or moderators, debated the topic? Both candidates have struggled to find their footing on the issue. And housing policy can tend to be less sexy than, for instance, Iran's singular quest to acquire nuclear weapons or the "47 percent."

"It's … a really complicated subject and neither candidate has a strong plan of how they would go forward, so they would prefer not to talk about it," said Janis Bowdler, director of the Wealth Building Policy Project at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation's largest Latino civil rights group.

But that's not to say that voters don't want to figuratively eat their broccoli and listen to the candidates discuss their plan to revive the housing market. NCLR helped sponsor an effort to drop off more than 30,000 postcards at the Obama and Romney campaign headquarters on Tuesday asking each to explain their housing plan.

Many young families and new immigrants to the U.S. consider owning a home as the ultimate symbol of success, as the Wall Street Journal eloquently put it. But after a home buying boom in the Latino community, more than 1.3 million Latino households lost their homes during the foreclosure crisis, according to a study by the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP). That directly led to Latinos losing two-thirds of their median household wealth during the last half of the previous decade, the largest drop among any racial or ethnic group.

States with the largest Latino populations like California, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada, were hit hardest by the housing collapse. And as a community that's largely made up of middle- and working-class families, most of Latinos' wealth was concentrated in their homes. When banks foreclosed on homes and home values begun to decline, Latino families saw their wealth disappear. And Latino families, along with other minorities, were often the target of predatory lending practices, taking on loans they could not afford.

With a rapidly-growing population and burgeoning purchasing power, Latinos could be poised to help the housing market rebound. And there are signs that the market could be beginning to turn the corner. But there are still hundreds of thousands of homes in foreclosure and Latinos have a lot of lost ground to make up. In addition, the housing problem remains one of the central roadblocks to a full economic recovery, according to experts.

Both Obama and Romney have grasped for answers on how to address the crisis.

Obama in February 2009 traveled to Arizona and announced a housing plan that would "help between 7 and 9 million families restructure or refinance their mortgages so they can afford -- avoid foreclosure."

That initial plan failed to meet its goal. Only around one million homeowners received permanent modifications on their mortgages under the Obama administration, about a quarter of those who have applied.

"My administration has already helped more [than]a million responsible homeowners refinance their mortgages, and I'm running to give more like them the chance to refinance and save $3,000 a year and maybe start building up some equity back," Obama said at a September campaign event in Las Vegas. "That will strengthen the housing market across the board in this state."

NCLR's Bowdler has certainly praised the Obama administration for aggressively pursuing financial institutions that pursued predatory lending practices. Over the summer the Justice Department reached a whopping $175 million settlement with Wells Fargo over allegations that independent brokers engaged in discriminatory practices with black and Latino borrowers, such as charging higher fees and directing them to take risky subprime loans.

But Bowdler called Obama's mortgage modification and refinancing program the administration's "Achilles Heel."

Two problems that plagued it were that it did not anticipate the historic job losses during the recession, which made it difficult for borrowers to repay loans. It also lacked tough enforcement mechanisms to compel banks and lending institutions to participate and prevent additional foreclosures.

"There are lots of carrots, no sticks," she said.

Romney has released a housing plan that includes broad policy prescriptions, including reform of government-backed mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, roll back some regulations, selling around 200,000 government-owned homes in foreclosure and "facilitate foreclosure alternatives for those who cannot afford to pay their mortgage."

But the plan has been criticized for lacking fundamental details describing how he would enact reforms of Fannie and Freddie and how his plan to ease foreclosures would be more effective than Obama's.

Democrats have also pounced on Romney's remark last year that the government should let the foreclosure process "hit the bottom" so that new investors could come in and rent out homes until the market rebounds.

Bowdler suggested that Romney should have drawn sharper contrasts with Obama, as well as past housing policy solutions, by proposing a comprehensive public-private collaboration to ease foreclosures.

But whatever their plans may be, voters deserve to hear about them before heading to the polls.

"The major question is: how do they envision housing as a part of our economic recovery and growth in the future. And if they do, then what are you going to do about it?" Bowdler said. "We haven't even gotten the candidates to say that much."

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