October 5, 2011 - Discussions on the need to restore the nation's languishing housing market in order to rouse job creation from anemic levels and boost economic growth have been prominent this week in congressional testimony from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and in newspapers across the country, leaving many wondering when leaders in Washington will take action to address this problem.
"How many more articles need to appear on the front pages of major newspapers and how many officials need to sound the alarm before federal policymakers reverse anti-housing policies that are dampening demand and preventing a housing and economic recovery from taking hold?" asked Bob Nielsen, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and a home builder from Reno, Nev.
Testifying before the Joint Economic Committee yesterday, Bernanke said: "The housing sector has been a significant driver of recovery from most recessions in the United States since World War II. This time, however, a number of factors -- including the overhang of distressed and foreclosed properties, tight credit conditions for builders and potential home buyers, and the large number of 'underwater' mortgages (on which home owners owe more than their homes are worth) -- have left the rate of new home construction at only about one-third of its average level in recent decades."
With inventories of new homes nearly depleted in many markets, builders should be gearing up to meet demand, create new jobs and help the economy move forward. Unfortunately, production remains stymied because builders in these locations cannot get credit from lending institutions to begin work on new homes.
"National unemployment flatlined in August, more than 1.4 million residential construction jobs have been lost since April 2006 and yet there is demand for housing in markets that are on the mend," said Nielsen. "Home builders have plenty of shovel-ready jobs set to go but they can't keep their doors open and create jobs in their communities if federal regulators continue to shut off the credit spigot."
During the past few months, seven different national surveys conducted by prominent polling organizations including the New York Times/CBS News, the Pew Research Center, the AllState/National Journal Heartland Monitor and Hanley-Wood have looked at homeownership from every possible angle.
"One thing is always crystal clear in all these polls," said Nielsen. "The American people still strongly believe that homeownership provides security, stability and a solid long-term investment. Yet, policymakers are doing their best to put policies in place that reduce the American people's ability to purchase a home. Why? How long do we want to stay in a recession?"
While prudent underwriting and other safeguards are needed to prevent another housing collapse in the future, he said, current proposals to correct shortcomings in the home finance system are far more stringent than necessary and threaten to price many creditworthy borrowers out of the housing market.
Six federal agencies are proposing a national Qualified Residential Mortgage standard that would require a minimum 20 percent downpayment and other stricter qualifications, which would keep homeownership out of reach for most first-time home buyers and middle-class households. NAHB estimates that it would take 12 years for a typical family to save enough money for a 20 percent downpayment on a median-priced single-family home and other research has found it would take even longer.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress are actively pushing to abolish Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and end the federal backstop for housing. A strong federal role is essential to help absorb market risk, ensure a stable and reliable flow of credit for home buyers and to maintain a liquid secondary market. Diminishing or ending government support for housing would make the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, the major housing finance tool for most Americans, increasingly scarce and much more costly.
Further complicating the situation, this week's reduction in the conforming loan limits means that many prospective buyers who are seeking a home loan will now have to pay higher interest rates, fees and downpayments and face more stringent credit standards.
Noting that housing normally accounts for more than 17 percent of the nation's total economic output, Nielsen said policymakers need to take steps to spur housing, create jobs and bolster the economy.
"Home building can be the key engine of job growth that this country needs," he said. "Constructing 100 single-family homes generates more than 300 jobs and $8.9 million in taxes and revenue for state, local and federal governments that helps to fund local school systems and build strong communities."