Foreclosure rescues may deter correction

Doug Gylfe still can't afford to buy a home in Torrance, Calif., despite a 23percent drop in prices. And Congress isn't helping.

That's the dilemma this week for the nation's lawmakers and millions of Americans who are priced out of homeownership: Any rescue policy to stem foreclosures could artificially prop up home prices and perpetuate the affordability crisis in many major cities coast to coast.

“In spite of the downturn in the housing market…affordability continues to be the No. 1 housing challenge,” said Rachel Drew, research analyst at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

In Torrance, the coastal city 16 miles south of Los Angeles where Gylfe lives, the median home price in his ZIP code has fallen from a peak of $830,000 two years ago to $636,000. But that's still twice what Gylfe can afford on his salary as a real estate appraiser.

“I've lived here since I was about 10 years old, so I really like it,” said Gylfe, 53. “I would stay here in a heartbeat if I could afford something.”

But many issues are conspiring to make the housing market tough: declining home prices, rising foreclosures, tighter lending standards, higher interest rates, and industry layoffs.

“It's very difficult, from a practical perspective, to implement policy prescriptions that are (metro) focused,” said Sam Chandan, chief economist for Reis Inc., a New York-based real estate research firm.

And while most economists agree the imminent threat to the economy and financial system are great, Edward Leamer says, “The folks who sat on the sidelines, they should feel legitimately annoyed that the more speculative folks who bought homes they couldn't afford are going to be bailed out or helped by the federal government.”

Leamer, a senior economist at the University of California, added, “And these other folks (who) acted responsibly and didn't get in over their heads and decided they didn't want to buy the home, they're not getting any benefit.”

This week, the House and Senate are patching together a bill for President George Bush's signature that would let the Federal Housing Administration insure up to $300 billion in new loans to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure, among other initiatives.

Lawmakers also are considering earmarking $3.9 billion in funding to help buy and rehabilitate foreclosed properties, giving first-time buyers a tax credit up to $8,000, and propping up mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The initiatives could help thousand of homeowners refinance their mortgages and avoid foreclosure, and sop up some of the bank-owned properties that are driving down home prices in some neighborhoods.

But by supporting home prices, the government is also short-circuiting a correction in home values that some say is necessary to bring prices closer in line with incomes for most working-class families.

The median price of an existing home peaked two years ago at $230,100. As of May, it had fallen about 9 percent to $208,600, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The lower prices have helped make many real estate markets more affordable, but experts say they're not deep enough in many major metro areas to narrow the affordability gap for police officers, teachers, nurses, restaurant, retail workers, and many other vital service jobs.

“In many metropolitan markets, certainly in California, you can earn 120 percent of the median (income) and still not be able to find anything affordable or that's in a reasonable commute distance,” said Barbara Lipman, research director of the Center for Housing Policy in Washington. “There just isn't a sufficient supply of housing for moderate-income people.”

A report published by Homes for Working Families this month forecast home prices could hit bottom in less than a year, ending up around 2004 levels.

But “even after the market bottoms, you're still not going to have quite the affordability that you had before the housing bubble took place,” said Andres Carbacho-Burgos, an economist with Moody's and co-author of the report.