The Obama administration plans to work closely with federal regulators, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to start a pilot program to sell government-owned foreclosures in bulk to investors as rentals, according to administration officials.
There currently are approximately 250,000 foreclosed properties on the books of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and millions more are expected. Last year’s foreclosure processing delays created an enormous backlog of properties yet to be processed and are just now being restarted. One of the program’s initiatives is for the federal government to mitigate and manage new foreclosures. Late-stage delinquencies still number close to two million, according to a report from Lending Processing Services (LPS). Foreclosure starts are double foreclosure sales and “the trend toward fewer loans becoming delinquent, which dominated 2010 and the 1st quarter of 2011, appears to have halted,” according to LPS.
“I think there is a fair amount of money in the wings waiting to buy, investors doing cash raises to buy properties on a large scale,” said Laurie Goodman of Amherst Securities. “But that means they have to build out a rental organization; it means they build out a management company, because if you’re accumulating a hundred homes in Dallas that’s very different than running a multifamily building.”
This is good advice. The recession began with housing, and is one of the main things holding back the recovery. The most recent unemployment numbers — which showed that non-farm payrolls grew by 200,000 in December, and the jobless rate declined to 8.5 percent from 8.7 percent — join other cautious signs of an improving economy, although the housing situation is worsening. There’s still a serious risk it might put a halt to and not just delay expansion.
“Foreclosed homes are a complex problem. We need some creative thinking and new processes to solve the problem of so many distressed homeowners. I would love to see the market handle it on its own but what makes sense for a single home is likely to destroy confidence in the housing market in aggregate,” said Jafer Hasnain, Partner at Lifeline Assets. “Housing distress needs a Michael Dell to think about streamlining process details, and a Steve Jobs to make it elegant and human.”
House prices fell again in October, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index. The pipeline of delinquencies and future foreclosures is full, which continues to dim the prospects of a quick recovery. Efforts so far, such as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), have helped, but less than hoped.
According to the Federal Reserve, there are no simple answers, but it makes several suggestions that Congress should examine. One is to encourage conversions from owner-occupied to rental because that market has strengthened in recent months: Rents have risen and vacancies have declined. A faster conversion rate would hold down rents and ease the pressure of unsold homes on house prices. Fannie, Freddie and the Federal Housing Administration account for about 50 percent of the inventory of foreclosed properties. Many of these are viable as rentals. A government-sponsored foreclosure-to-rental program to clear away regulatory hurdles would make a big difference.
A second suggestion is to encourage refinancings. The administration tweaked the existing HAMP program in October, easing some of the earlier restrictions on eligibility. Even more could be done, according to the Fed. One possibility involves the fees that lenders pay to Fannie and Freddie for assuming new risks when loans to distressed borrowers are refinanced. These charges could be cut or eliminated, even though Congress just voted to increase them to help pay for the payroll-tax extension.
Some institutional investors have shown interest in bulk REO deals, but the plan has to incorporate ways to help facilitate financing. That has been one of the biggest barriers to deals already in the works between hedge funds and the major banks. There is plenty of cash to buy properties, but creating a management structure for the rentals is costly, and some investors are finding the math doesn’t add up to make it worth their while.
Larger investors want to get real scale in any government program, in the range of 50, 100, 500 properties per deal, or $1 billion-plus in assets. That’s why the government is looking to test several different approaches. Fannie Mae did a $50 million sale in June, although that was on the small side. Officials are evaluating what larger asset sales would look like.
“We expect several pilots that will involve both local investors and institutional investors. The goal here is to reduce supply by converting foreclosed homes into rental units,” says Jaret Seiberg of Guggenheim Securities. “Less supply – even less fear about a flood of foreclosed homes hitting the market – could stabilize (home) prices.”