Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson had a bit of a rough day on Tuesday.
Carson appeared on Capitol Hill to testify before the House Financial Services Committee, and during questioning from the committee member with the most housing knowledge, turned himself into a punchline by confusing a common housing industry term with a cookie.
Yep. You read that right.
During the hearing, Carson was questioned by Rep. Katie Porter, D-CA, who served as California’s independent monitor in the nationwide $25 billion National Mortgage Settlement from 2012 to 2014 and spent a great deal of time speaking directly to the mortgage industry before running for Congress.
Porter asked Carson about the disparity between the REO rates of the Federal Housing Administration and those of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but before moving to the meat of her question, asked Carson if he knew what an REO was.
Carson’s response: “An Oreo?”
No, Secretary Carson, not the sandwich cookie.
@RepKatiePorter: "Do you know what an REO is?"
cooke@SecretaryCarson: "An Oreo?"
Porter: "No, not an OREO. An REO. R-E-O."
Carson: "Real estate…?"
Porter: "What’s the “O” stand for?" pic.twitter.com/vAd1kIls9y
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 21, 2019
As Porter would explain, REO stands for “real estate owned.” Basically, it’s a home that’s been foreclosed on. It’s one of those terms that you learn pretty early on when you start working in the housing business.
I’m pretty sure I learned what REO meant on about day three of my time at HousingWire.
Carson has been the secretary of HUD for more than two years and apparently doesn’t know what REO means.
“No, not an Oreo,” Porter replied to Carson’s cookie query. “An R-E-O. REO.”
Carson then offered up: “Real estate…?” getting the first two letters of the acronym correct.
But then replied “organization” when asked by Porter what the “O” stands for.
Now, as my colleague KK Howley pointed out in our HousingWire Slack chat, it’s possible that Carson is familiar with the term OREO, as in “other real estate owned,” the term that the Federal Reserve uses for REO properties. Because of that, OREO is also the term that many bankers use when referring to REO properties.
Regardless, the last “O” in that term does not stand for “organization,” and it was fairly clear in the remainder of Porter’s questioning of Carson that the HUD secretary was not familiar with REO, OREO, or any other similar acronym.
“Real estate owned – that’s what happens when a property goes into foreclosure, we call it an REO,” Porter explained to Carson, adopting the college professor persona she learned while studying under Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, at Harvard. After serving as California mortgage monitor, Porter became a professor of law at the University of California-Irvine.
“FHA loans have much higher REOs, that is, they go into foreclosure rather than into loss mitigation or to non-foreclosure alternatives like short sales, than comparable loans at the GSEs,” Porter continued. “So I’d like to know why we’re having more foreclosures that end in people losing their homes, with stains to their credit and disruption to their communities and their neighborhoods at FHA than we are at the GSEs.”
Carson then offered to have Porter “work with the people who do that” at the FHA. But Porter had an answer for that.
“Well, Mr. Carson, respectfully, that was my day job before I came to Congress. So now, it’s my job to ask you to work with the people,” Porter said.
And that’s really the bottom line here. It’s Carson’s job to lead HUD. That means he’s one of the most powerful and important people in all of housing. And that means he should know the industry terms and what they stand for.
QM, DTI, LTV, TRID, REO, GSE, ARM, PMI, just to name a few. The Secretary of Housing should know what they all mean. Regardless of your politics, I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.
If Carson needs some help learning those acronyms or a bunch of other housing industry terms, he need look no further than his own department’s website.
On HUD.gov, there is literally a page that explains all those little housing industry acronyms: https://www.hud.gov/about/acronyms. The page is titled “COMMON HUD TERMS AND ACRONYMS.”
And there, about three quarters of the way down the page is “REO,” with the definition: “real estate owned (in reference to defaulted FHA-insured properties).”
Carson, for his part, tried to turn the faux pas around and embrace the Oreo flub.
After finishing his testimony, Carson tweeted out: "OH, REO! Thanks, @RepKatiePorter. Enjoying a few post-hearing snacks. Sending some your way!"
— Ben Carson (@SecretaryCarson) May 21, 2019
The tweet was accompanied by a picture of Carson holding up a package of Oreos.
And as brands are wont to do these days, Oreo even tried to get in on the "fun," before quickly seeing the error of its ways.
With "Oreos" trending on Twitter, the Oreo Twitter account tweeted out: "REO stands for 'Really Excellent OREO (cookie).' Everyone knows that."
The tweet was deleted after about an hour (but not before we captured a screen capture of it), probably after someone told the social media team that joking about foreclosures wasn't the best idea.
With all due respect to Oreos (they're delicious, after all), maybe it's best to sit this one out, pal.