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Obama's Fuzzy Housing Numbers

5:16 PM, Feb 23, 2009 • By JIM PREVOR
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More broadly, the study was not a controlled study in which half the houses in distress were foreclosed on and the other half saved by the government. It is just an analysis of what happened to neighborhood prices when a home got foreclosed on. The study does not even touch on the issue the president and Secretary Donovan attempt to draw from it: What would happen if foreclosures were stopped?

Foreclosures typically occur when real estate prices have not been rising sufficiently to enable someone to sell their house and pay the mortgage off. This happens for a reason. If an auto maker in a small town closes a factory and lays off a lot of workers, the real estate market in that company town will be weak. This means that laid-off factory workers who can't afford their mortgages will be foreclosed on.

Yet the problem in the community is the closing of the auto plant and the subsequent loss of jobs and income. This is the cause of the decline in housing prices. Foreclosures are just a symptom. It simply doesn't follow that when the auto plant closes, if we just don't foreclose, the neighboring houses will stay at their old value. Indeed, the very knowledge that so many people are continuing to live in houses they can't afford might depress the market further due to fear that the homeowners may not be able to keep up the homes or that they may be hesitant to invest in local schools or amenities. Plus the fact that they may be sellers at the first positive move in the market implies a limit to the upward potential of property in that community.

Foreclosures often serve to broadcast clearing market prices. When prices decline in a community, many simply won't sell if they don't have to. Typically the number of transactions goes way down. Foreclosures are one of the situations where the house has to be sold. But the researchers did not establish or even attempt to establish that the pre-foreclosure market price they used to measure price declines was, in fact, a liquid market at which people could actually sell their homes. It is highly likely that the researchers discovered not so much a causal link -- foreclosures cause houses nearby to go down in value -- but a publicizing function -- foreclosures communicate what the values of homes in the area actually are and thus encourage the market to become liquid at a new, lower, price point.

In addition, the study -- all the data is from the Chicago area -- does not distinguish between foreclosures, per se, and the rules of different jurisdictions to require maintenance of vacant properties. There is a national movement, as evidenced in Boston and Miami-Dade County, to make sure that the owners of foreclosed or vacant properties maintain the properties, often using municipal authority under nuisance abatement laws. One suspects that whatever negative effects foreclosures may entail, relate not to the foreclosure itself but, rather, to the negligence of local authorities in enforcing local laws requiring properties be properly maintained.

The president, the administration, and its advocates can promote any mortgage relief plan they choose on whatever basis they wish. But any claims that there is evidence that bailing out the mortgages of particular individuals helps all property owners is simply not supported by any real research and should be viewed with great skepticism.