Imagine my surprise at how quickly the attention paid to mortgage borrowers suffering through foreclosures, short-sales and default notices is quickly abandoned as good news continues to arrive in the form of rising home prices and sales. As with wars, famines, natural disasters and celebrity meltdowns, issue fatigue is finally sweeping the mortgage foreclosure crisis into a neverland of footnotes and asterisks.
It’s fine to celebrate positive housing news. Sales of new single family homes surged 5.7 percent in September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 390,000, the highest level in 2 ½ years. September year-over-year increases were 27 percent. Census figures earlier in the month reported a 15 percent increase in new housing starts during September and an 11 percent increase in building permits.
Nearly all the numbers focusing on housing show improvement. But the experience of the 21st Century’s most significant economic recession ought to remind us that numbers are inherently selective. By the time this housing debacle finally ends nearly 5 million Americans will have lost a home and be left with credit so badly damaged they won’t qualify for a mortgage until well after the next Presidential election. And if rules are adopted that demand larger down payments and smaller debt-to-income ratios, the Millennials won’t be buying houses until they reach their 40’s.
Arguably, the “crisis” has abated and it’s hard to focus on housing when confronted with World Series baseball, Dancing with the Stars and a new Tom Hanks-Halle Berry movie. Fatigue is real and if we get tired of floods and wildfires and famine, the plight of the “dislocated homeowner” hardly warrants any greater attention.
But while fatigue may be understandable, the out and out thieving actions by state governments of the funds dedicated to housing from the National Mortgage Settlement is not only intolerable but possibly criminal. In a report from Enterprise Community Partners researchers discovered that nearly half of state governments are bleeding off portions of the funds allocated to help states pay for housing counseling, mortgage mediation, legal aid and other housing programs to instead address shortfalls in state general fund budgets.
Among the worst offenders are Alabama and Georgia, the latter which sent its entire $99 million share of funds to economic development programs. Missouri used its $39 million to prevent higher education cuts. California used $410 million from its share to fill budget holes for its $15 billion deficit which did include some old debt service on affordable housing bonds. The South Carolina legislature, over the veto of Governor Nikki Haley, and sent its $31 million share to business attraction programs and to the general fund.
The mortgage settlement intended that a modest $2.5 billion, out of $25 billion overall, go to help distressed homeowners facing the calamity of losing a home. In the absence of more federal money to stabilize neighborhoods and preserve communities this sum offered a considerable level of assistance. If the well of sympathy as indeed gone dry, the very least that can be expected is that those who have been provided for in the mortgage settlement get what is due to them without any interference by revenue-hungry states.