Fed ignored community plea to crack down on predatory lending

Alan Greenspan says “The Fed Didn’t Cause the Housing Bubble” (or, presumably, the current financial crisis which would not have happened without the housing bubble). I’ve already discussed how the Fed kept interest rates ridiculously low and Greenspan personally talked up ARMs as great deals for home buyers because they carried lower interest rates than fixed-rate mortgages. Here’s another reason the Fed deserves blame… Failure to crack down on predatory bank lending, even when communities being destroyed by predatory lenders begged the Fed for help:

Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, posted a record number of foreclosure filings. The number of empty houses is so staggeringly high that no one has an accurate count. The city estimates that 10,000 houses, or 1 in 13, are vacant. The county treasurer says it’s more likely 15,000. Most of the vacant houses are owned by lenders who foreclosed on the properties and by the wholesalers who are now sweeping in to pick up houses in bulk…

Cleveland didn’t see housing prices rise through the stratosphere. But even moderately rising property values created the conditions for subprime lenders to exploit strapped homeowners. Cold-calling mortgage brokers offered refinancing deals that would let homeowners use the equity in their houses to pay off other debts. A neighbor of Brancatelli’s had medical problems and fell behind in her bills. She refinanced, then did it two more times, draining the equity in her house. “She used her house as an A.T.M.,” Brancatelli says. “In the end, they just walked away. The debt exceeded the value of the house.” In other instances, mortgage brokers would cruise neighborhoods, looking for houses with old windows or a leaning porch, something that needed fixing. They would then offer to arrange financing to pay for repairs. Many of those deals were too good to be true, and interest rates ballooned after a short period of low payments. Suddenly burdened with debt, people began to lose homes they had owned free and clear.

As early as 2000, a handful of public officials led by the county treasurer, Jim Rokakis, went to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and pleaded with it to take some action. In 2002, the city passed an ordinance meant to discourage predatory lending by, among other things, requiring prospective borrowers to get premortgage counseling. In response, the banking industry threatened to stop making loans in the city and then lobbied state legislators to prohibit cities in Ohio from imposing local antipredatory lending laws.

In the ensuing years, the city’s real estate was transformed into an Alice-in-Wonderland-like landscape. Local officials began keeping track of foreclosed homes by placing red dots on large wall maps. Some corners of the map, like Slavic Village, are now so packed with red dots they look like puddles of blood. The first question outsiders now ask is, Where has everyone gone? The homeless numbers have not increased much over the past couple of years, and it appears that most of the people who lost their homes have moved in with relatives, found a rental or moved out of the city altogether. The county has lost nearly 100,000 people over the past seven years.

Posted by James on Friday, March 13, 2009