The dark side of home subsidies
Home ownership in the United States ranks up there with motherhood and apple pie. The government has championed it for decades through tax breaks, mortgage guarantees and, most recently, the herculean task of keeping Americans in their homes after the housing market collapse. But government subsidies of the American Dream also have a darker side: when things head south, taxpayers end up stuck with the costs. The government-run mortgage finance agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac owned more than 131,000 properties between them at the end of 2009, according to recent annual filings. That’s roughly the equivalent of San Francisco’s owner-occupied housing stock. The two companies sold off nearly 200,000 units last year that they took over after owners defaulted. But despite those efforts, Fannie and Freddie owned substantially more units at the end of 2009 than they did a year earlier. And things are set to get worse. Barclays Capital estimates the pipeline of severely troubled loans at around five million across the United States. Modification programs, which should help some borrowers stay in their homes, have also delayed the inevitable forfeiture of many others. Fannie and Freddie end up owning properties because they provided guarantees for the benefit of mortgage investors. Between them, they back around $5trn of American home loans. Such support — once implicitly and now explicitly backstopped by the Treasury — has handed borrowers relatively low financing costs for years. Now, though, the result is that aside from the huge financial burden they place on taxpayers, the two companies have been amassing foreclosed properties and, in a few cases, have become landlords. It’s a tiny part of their operations for now. But if the housing market doesn’t turn around soon, the companies could find themselves reluctantly managing more properties. And no one expected, or wanted, Fannie and Freddie to become giant public-sector landlords. The immediate task is to clean up the mess, but policy makers need to think about the longer term. That means recognizing that the policy benefit of subsidizing home ownership has reached its limit, and starting to take the government out of the mortgage guarantee business altogether.