While the rate of foreclosures may have finally peaked, it is not going to come down quickly. We are virtually certain to see at least a million foreclosures in 2011 and comparable numbers in 2012 and 2013. Many more homeowners will lose their homes through distressed sales.
This is a crisis for both the homeowners themselves and also for the communities where these foreclosures are concentrated. There is considerable research showing that foreclosed properties are a blight on neighborhoods, bringing down property values and creating eyesores and safety risks. For these reasons, there is a strong argument for taking measures to reduce the pace of foreclosures.
However, few would argue for yet another round of the federal Home Affordable Modification Program. HAMP has proven bureaucratic and ineffective. Only a small share of threatened homeowners have received permanent modifications and a large portion of this select group is expected to re-default.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: There is a simple alternative that involves no government money and no new bureaucracy. We could temporarily change the rules on foreclosure to allow homeowners the right to stay in their home as renters for a substantial period of time (e.g., 5 years) following a foreclosure.
During this period, they would pay the market rent as determined by an independent appraiser. They would have the same rights and responsibilities as other tenants, with the exception that they could not be evicted without cause. The lender would own the property and would be free to sell it, although the former homeowner would still have the right to remain as a tenant even if the home is sold.
This policy accomplishes several important goals. First and foremost it provides housing security for homeowners who got caught up in the middle of the bubble. These people can be blamed for having made a mistake by buying homes at bubble-inflated prices. But this mistake is small compared with the mistakes made by the banks that made hundreds of billions of dollars of bad and often deceptive loans.
We were willing to give these banks trillions of dollars of loans at below market rates. Allowing foreclosed homeowners to stay in their homes as renters seems a rather small concession in comparison. This right-to-rent provision can also be narrowly structured so that it only applies to owner-occupied homes of less than the median value that were bought during the bubble years. This will ensure that it is not exploited by wealthy homeowners or investors.
By changing the balance of power between lenders and homeowners, the right to rent provision would give lenders more incentive to voluntarily arrange modifications that allow homeowners to stay in their house as owners. This would be the best possible outcome.
The fact that foreclosed homes remain occupied will prevent the sort of neighborhood blight that has devastated many communities across the country. Tenants with security in their home will have an incentive to keep the property looking respectable.
Finally, the right to rent could free up money that is currently going to mortgage payments on homes where owners never accrue any equity. In some of the former bubble markets the difference between mortgage payments on a house purchased near the peak of the bubble and the market rent can be more than $1,000 a month. The money saved by former homeowners is money they will spend in the communities where they live.
So there you have it: A simple policy that requires no taxpayer dollars and no new bureaucracy.
This post originally appeard on the Wall Street Journal's Developments blog.