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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fed's Dudley: 3 million excess vacant housing units

by Calculated Risk on 10/19/2010 10:09:00 AM

From NY Fed President William Dudley: Regional Economy and Housing Update

[L]et's consider the slow housing recovery. Housing market activity—both new construction and sales—remains depressed. On the construction side, total housing starts are running at just 600,000 units per year (seasonally-adjusted) in recent months. This is up from 530,000 units at the trough in the first quarter of 2009 but it is still extremely low by the standards of the last 50 years. In fact, the rate of new construction is so low that there is barely any net growth in the U.S. housing stock these days.

One reason why so little housing is being built is that many existing homes stand vacant. We estimate that there are roughly 3 million vacant housing units more than usual. And more vacancies are added daily as the foreclosure process moves homes from families to mortgage lenders. This stock of vacant homes will shrink when fewer are foreclosed upon and more of these homes are sold or rented out.

On the sales side, even though low mortgage interest rates and falling home prices have together boosted housing affordability to its highest level in 40 years, the current pace of sales is quite sluggish. Impediments to home sales include tight lending standards, a weak job market and continued uncertainty regarding the future path of home prices. The large decline in home prices that occurred between 2006 and 2008 is also important. This decline reduced the amount of equity that owners have in their homes, making it difficult for people to come up with the funds needed to "trade-up" and move into better homes.

In addition, the steep decline in home prices put many families at risk of mortgage delinquency and, ultimately, losing their homes to foreclosure. With lower home prices, many families now owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. This means that they cannot refinance or sell their homes easily if they experience a financial crisis, such as a job loss or a serious illness. Recent developments on foreclosures have been mixed. While RealtyTrac reports that foreclosure completions in the United States exceeded 100,000 for the first time in September, it is important to remember that foreclosure is a lengthy process in most states. Our data indicate that, in recent quarters, borrowers are becoming less likely to fall behind on their mortgages, so fewer households are now entering the foreclosure process. At the same time, though, major lenders have acknowledged serious problems in the processes they have used to repossess homes and announced moratoria on new foreclosures. Taken together, these developments suggest that the situation in housing remains uncertain for the foreseeable future.

The Federal Reserve actively encourages efforts to find viable alternatives to foreclosure, like loan modifications, or deeds in lieu. We also support due process and access to legal counsel for homeowners facing foreclosure, for instance through legal aid programs. At the same time, it is important that foreclosures that properly comply with state and federal law can ultimately take place, as this is a necessary part of the adjustment that will eventually return us to more normal conditions in the housing market.

At present, the extent of the documentation problem and its wider ramifications are still uncertain. In conjunction with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve is therefore seeking to establish the facts through a review of the foreclosure practices, governance and documentation at the major bank mortgage servicers. We want to ensure that the housing finance business is supported by robust back-office operations—for processing of new mortgages as well as foreclosures— so that buyers of homes and investors in mortgage securities have full confidence in the process. We are monitoring developments closely in order to evaluate any potential impact on the housing market, financial institutions and the overall economy.
For those in the New York / New Jersey area, much of Dudley speech is on the regional economy and housing market.