Will Foreclosures Translate into Votes?

Posted by Peter Dreier on May 12, 2008

What are the political consequences of the mortgage meltdown? Will the spiraling wave of foreclosures translate into votes in November’s election? And, if so, who will benefit? Democrats? Republicans? Or both?

A piece of that question was answered last Thursday, when the House voted 266-154 for two bills – H.R. 5818 and H.R. H830 — sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, that would help homeowners at risk.

The bills allow homeowners to shift from subprime mortgages they can no longer afford to federally backed mortgages. It would provide $300 billion in federal loan guarantees to lenders who agree to reduce the outstanding principal on loans. In exchange for a new mortgage, backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), homeowners must share profits on a subsequent sale of their home with the government. The Frank plan also includes a one-time $7,500 tax credit for new homeowners to be paid back over 15 years, and $15 billion for states and localities to buy and rehabilitate foreclosed properties.

In 2007, 405,000 households lost their homes, an increase of 51 percent over the more than 268,000 that were repossessed in 2006. The Center for Responsible Lending projects that two million families are likely to lose their homes in the next few years due to the current subprime lending crisis. More than 80 mostly subprime mortgage lenders went bankrupt by the end of last year.

But it is not just borrowers and lenders who are losing. Standard and Poor’s reported that home prices dropped by more than 12 percent over a one-year period beginning in February 2007. As a result, property values and property-tax revenues have declined. The U.S Joint Economic Committee has projected a loss of $71 billion in housing wealth as a result of the mortgage meltdown. The U.S. Conference of Mayors projected that 10 states alone would lose $6.6 billion in local tax revenue.

The Democrats, including Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, want to provide a lifeline to troubled homeowners — those who have already lost their homes and those on the brink of foreclosure — and to toughen regulations on banks, lenders, brokers, and investors who participated in the subprime rip-offs.

It’s fascinating to watch President George W. Bush try walking the political tightrope between ideology and political reality. Instinctively, Bush, like most Republicans (including Sen. John McCain) has balked at using tax dollars to rescue homeowners and gasped at the idea of holding businesses accountable to be socially and economically responsible. They prefer to blame the victim — the borrowers who got snookered by predatory lenders and brokers — but feel no hesitation at bailing out Wall Street banks like Bear Stearns. (For a full explanation of the origins of and solutions to the foreclosure crisis, see Stemming the Red Tide in the Spring 2008 issue of Shelterforce)

But Bush, whose favorability ratings are already at an all-time low for presidents, isn’t running for re-election, while McCain is trying to reach the White House and lots of other Republican incumbents in Congress are trying to keep their seats. So what’s a Republican congressperson to do when his or her district is reeling from escalating foreclosures but the party leaders — including President Bush — don’t want any real meaningful reform?

Some Republicans aren’t waiting to get the signal from the higher-ups in their party. The vote on the Frank bill was mostly along partisan lines. All 227 Democrats voted “yes” and 154 Republicans voted “no.” But 39 Republicans bucked enormous pressure from their party leaders and from the White House to vote “yes.” (Thirteen members didn’t vote).

Bush has threatened to veto the bill, claiming that it subsidizes speculators. But The New York Times reported on Saturday that most of the people put at risk are homeowners, not investors. And, contrary to urban myths, there’s little evidence that owners are walking away from their homes that are now worth less than their mortgages.

Frank practically dared Bush to veto the measure, saying that doing so would mean that “he’s stopped trying to govern.” If Bush does veto Frank’s bill, it would give Democrats another talking point to use against McCain and Republicans running for re-election to Congress.

In fact, the Bush administration looks like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. While Bush hurumphs against the Frank legislation, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, in a speech on May 5, seemed to endorse the legislation, according to the Washington Post. And Bush’s Treasury Secretary, Henry M. Paulson, Jr. has also spoken favorably about Frank’s bill.

Most of the 39 Republicans who supported the Frank legislation represent districts that have been particularly hard-hit by the mortgage meltdown. Seven of them are from Florida, five from Michigan, four from Pennsylvania, three each from New York and Ohio, and two each from Illinois, North Carolina, and Nevada.

One of Republicans who voted yes was Gary Miller, an arch-conservative from California’s 42nd congressional district that covers parts of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino counties in Southern California. According to RealtyTrac, the sprawling suburbs east and south of Los Angeles rank second among the nation’s metro areas in the rate of foreclosures.
Miller told the LA Times, “I really wish I could support my Republican colleagues. But I’m very concerned about the marketplace. A lot of people are losing their homes. “That not only hurts them, but the neighbors around them because of foreclosure. Their home value drops.”

The very ideological Miller, a developer, was being politically pragmatic. He faces a potentially tough challenge in November — he is already politically vulnerable. Nationwide, one in every 194 households received a foreclosure filing — default notices, auction sale notices, and bank repossessions — during the first quarter of this year, according to RealtyTrac. This is more than double the figure from a year earlier. But some states and metropolitan areas have been harder hit than others. In Nevada, one out of every 54 households faced a foreclosure filing. California ranked second (one out of 78), Arizona third (one out of 95), and Florida fourth (one out of 97). Of the 30 hardest hit metro areas, 11 are in California and 7 are in Florida.

The RealtyTrac list and map of metro areas with the highest foreclosure rates could be a roadmap for Democratic strategists. Overlay that map with congressional districts where Republicans voted no on the Frank bill, and you have a list of GOP incumbents who could be vulnerable to the charge that they put party loyalty or close ties to powerful banking interests over the needs of their constituents. The Democrats should be able to hang the foreclosure crisis around Republicans’ necks and use it to show how out-of-touch McCain and congressional Republicans are with the daily lives of ordinary Americans.
For example, in Ohio — hard hit by economic troubles and mounting foreclosures and where George Bush beat John Kerry but a slim 51-49 percent margin in 2004 — six of the state’s 18 congressional seats are considered up for grabs. Five of them are currently held by Republicans.

Republican incumbent Steve LaTourette, facing a tough challenge from Democrat Bill O’Neill, voted in favor of the Frank bill. (In fact, his vote for the bill and the funds it will bring to Ohio is the centerpiece of his congressional Web page). In contrast, Republicans Steve Chabot and Jean Schmidt, who also face strong Democratic challengers and represent districts with many foreclosed homes, voted ‘nay.’ (In 2006, Schmidt beat Victoria Wulsin, who is running against her again this year, by only 2,500 votes).

In Ohio’s 15th District, Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, a Franklin County commissioner, is running against Republican state Sen. Steve Stivers, an Iraqi war veteran, to replace the retiring Deborah Pryce, a Republican. Two years ago Kilroy — who helped create the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Corporation — lost to Pryce by only 1,062 votes. The district is centered in Columbus, where the foreclosure rate (one out of 144 households — a 55-percent increase in one year) ranked 34th in the country. In the state’s 16th congressional district—based in the Canton area, which has been rocked by the mortgage meltdown. Democratic state Sen. John Boccieri, an Iraq veteran, is facing another state senator, Republican Kirk Schuring, to fill the seat vacated by Ralph Regula, a retiring Republican.

ACORN, the community organizing group, is targeting Sen. Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican, who faces a tough challenge from Al Franken, the author and humorist. Last February, Coleman joined his fellow Senate Republicans in voting to block the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Banking Committee, was an early effort to address the mounting foreclosure crisis by providing federal funds for homeowner counseling programs and allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce the terms of a mortgage for people about to lose their houses through foreclosure. The vote was strictly along party lines, with only one Republican (Gordon Smith of Oregon) and one Democrat (Harry Reid of Nevada) voting against their party.

ACORN, which has been at the forefront of the fight against predatory lending for many years, sponsored A recent report, “Senator Coleman in the Pockets of Mortgage Bankers,” documenting Coleman’s campaign contributions from the banking and real-estate industry and his several votes against bills that would help homeowners facing foreclosure and strengthen regulations on these industries.

Minnesota’s foreclosure problem is not among the nation’s most severe, but the number of foreclosures is steadily growing. A recent study commissioned by the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund predicts that 28,000 homes will be foreclosed on in 2008, a 39-percent increase from last year. “If those projections are accurate,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported, “that means that one in every 31 households statewide will have gone through the foreclosure process from 2005 to the end of 2008.” The Housing Fund report, based on actual sheriffs’ sales occurring in Minnesota, is over 50 percent higher than the number of foreclosures reported by RealtyTrac).

According to ACORN and other consumer-advocacy groups — including the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the Center for Responsible Lending, the Greenlining Institute, the Consumer Federation of America, and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition — both the Frank measures in the House and the Dodd bill in Senate had flaws, the result of efforts by the two sponsors to forge compromises that could garner some Republican votes.

Frank was more successful in winning over some Republicans, in large measure because House members are typically more sensitive than senators to constituent concerns. To gain some Republican support, Frank — a brilliant legislative strategist — did not include some provisions that housing advocates wanted. One would have protected renters from immediate eviction when their landlords are foreclosed on. The other would have provided $300 million to prevent families from becoming homeless due to foreclosure. Advocates are also concerned that few banks will voluntarily agree to refinance mortgages for imperiled homeowners, even with the carrot of FHA backing.

And some housing activists, such as the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, worry that the Democrats’ efforts to stem the decline in home values, a key goal of the FHA refinancing provision, may simply be propping up housing prices that were already inflated.

Despite these caveats, the housing advocates, along with Frank and Dodd, recognize that as the foreclosure crisis worsens — families are currently slipping into foreclosure at a rate of 7,000 to 8,000 a day, according to the Pew Center on the States — it will become a clear symbol of the ideological and partisan divide that separates most Democrats and most Republicans.

About the author more »

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy program at Occidental College. He is a member of the boards of the National Housing Institute and the Southern California Assn. for Nonprofit Housing, and chair of the board of the Horizon Institute, a progressive think tank in Los Angeles.

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