Truthout, November 17, 2008
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Politicians often prefer complex solutions to simple problems. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the long list of complicated and convoluted proposals to address the country’s foreclosure crisis.
Millions of people face the loss of their homes over the next few years. While the politicians in Congress have developed a wide variety of complex schemes in order to hold back this flood of foreclosures, including one passed into law last summer that provided up to $300 billion in guarantees for new mortgages on homes facing foreclosure, none have had much impact thus far.
The unavoidable problem with these schemes is that it is difficult to design a plan that aids families facing foreclosure without giving an incentive to other homeowners to also default on their mortgage. In addition, it is hard to justify taxing the people who are struggling to keep up with their own mortgages in order to help those who default. It is even harder to justify taxing ordinary people to help out the bank executives who issued hundreds of billions of dollars of bad loans.
As a result, to date these programs have not prevented a tidal wave of foreclosures and evictions. The number of foreclosure filings (there are typically two or more filings for every actual foreclosure) is now approaching 300,000 per month.
For those not offended by simplicity, there is an easy solution. Congress can temporarily modify the rules on foreclosure to give families facing foreclosure the right to rent their homes at the market rate for a substantial period of time. Representative Raul Grijalva proposed such a change in the Saving Family Homes Act, which would allow homeowners the option to remain as renters for up to 20 years following a foreclosure.
This bill would immediately give families security in their home, so that if they like the home, the neighborhood, the school for their kids, they would have the option to stay in the house for a substantial period of time. This also has the great benefit for the neighborhood in that homes will remain occupied.
Perhaps more importantly, this change in foreclosure rules will give banks a real incentive to negotiate conditions under which homeowners can stay in their homes as owners. Banks do not want to become landlords. The bank will own the house after a foreclosure, but a house with a renter is worth much less to them than a house over which it has complete control.
Giving the homeowner the right to stay as a renter hugely increases their bargaining power with the bank. The result of this change in foreclosure rules is that far more homeowners are likely to remain in their homes as owners.
The beauty of this sort of proposal is that it is simple, can take effect immediately, it requires no taxpayer dollars, and no new bureaucracy. It also is not giving anyone a big bonanza. Homeowners are not likely to line up for a process that could end up with them being renters. And the banks will obviously not be thrilled about a rule change that will leave them worse off in trying to squeeze money out of homeowners.
While the basic point of the right to rent is simple, it can be extended in various ways to further aid homeowners. Bernard Wasow at the Century Foundation has proposed some additional measures to facilitate the transition to rental status or possibly a return to ownership. Daniel Alpert of Westwood Capital has a somewhat different version that creates a mechanism for homeowners to buy back their homes after five years.
In short, if people want to add bells and whistles it is easy to do so. But the key to stopping people from being thrown out of their homes is simply to change the law that allows people to be thrown out of their homes. That one is so simple that even a policy wonk should be able to understand it.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.