Housing Push for Hispanics Spawns Wave of Foreclosures

Susan Schmidt and Maurice Tamman, Wall Street Journal, January 5, 2009

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For years, immigrants to the U.S. have viewed buying a home as the ultimate benchmark of success. Between 2000 and 2007, as the Hispanic population increased, Hispanic homeownership grew even faster, increasing by 47%, to 6.1 million from 4.1 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Over that same period, homeownership nationally grew by 8%. In 2005 alone, mortgages to Hispanics jumped by 29%, with expensive nonprime mortgages soaring 169%, according to the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council.

An examination of that borrowing spree by The Wall Street Journal reveals that it wasn’t simply the mortgage market at work. It was fueled by a campaign by low-income housing groups, Hispanic lawmakers, a congressional Hispanic housing initiative, mortgage lenders and brokers, who all were pushing to increase homeownership among Latinos.

The network included Mr. Baca [Rep. Joe Backa, D-Calif.], chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose district is 58% Hispanic and ranks No. 5 among all congressional districts in percentage of home loans not tailored for prime borrowers. The caucus launched a housing initiative called Hogar—Spanish for home—to work with industry and community groups to increase mortgage lending to Latinos. Mortgage companies provided funding to that group, and to the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, which fielded an army to make the loans.

In years past, minority borrowers seeking loans were often stopped cold by a practice called red-lining, in which lenders were reluctant to lend within particular geographical areas, often, it appeared, on the basis of race. But combined efforts to open the mortgage pipeline to Latinos proved successful.

“We saw what we refer to in the advocacy community as reverse red-lining,” says Aracely Panameno, director of Latino affairs for the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group. “Lenders were seeking out those borrowers and charging them through the roof,” she says.

Ms. Panameno says that during the height of the housing boom she sought to present the Hispanic Caucus with data showing how many Latinos were being steered into risky and expensive subprime loans. Hogar declined her requests, she says.

When the national housing market began unraveling, so did the fortunes of many of the new homeowners. National foreclosure statistics don’t break out data by ethnicity or race. But there is evidence that Hispanic borrowers have been hard hit. In part, that’s because of large Hispanic populations in areas where the housing bubble was pronounced, such as Southern California, Nevada and Florida.

In U.S. counties where Hispanics account for more than 25% of the population, banks have taken back 6.7 homes per 1,000 residents since Jan. 1, 2006, compared with 4.6 per 1,000 residents in all counties, according to a Journal analysis of U.S. Census and RealtyTrac data.

Hispanic lawmakers and community groups have blamed subprime lenders, who specialize in making loans to customers with spotty credit histories. They complain that even solid borrowers were steered to those loans, which carry higher interest rates.

In a written statement, Mr. Baca blamed the foreclosure crisis among Hispanics on borrowers’ lack of “financial literacy” and on “lenders and brokers eager to make a bigger profit.” He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Easy Credit

But a close look at the network of organizations pushing for increased mortgage lending reveals a more complicated picture. Subprime-industry executives were advisers to the Hogar housing initiative, and bankrolled more than $2 million of its research. Lawmakers and advocacy groups pushed hard for the easy credit that fueled the subprime phenomenon among Latinos. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who received donations from the lending industry and saw their constituents moving into new homes, pushed for eased lending standards, which led to problems.

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The Congressional Hispanic Caucus created Hogar in 2003 to work with industry and community groups to increase mortgage lending to Latinos. At that time, the national Latino homeownership rate was 47%, compared with 68% for the overall population. Hogar called the figure “alarming,” and said a concerted effort was required to ensure that “by the end of the decade Latinos will share equally in the American Dream of homeownership.”

Hogar’s backers included many companies that ran into trouble in mortgage markets: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both now under federal control; Countrywide Financial Corp., sold last year to Bank of America Corp.; Washington Mutual Inc., taken over by the government and sold to J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.; and New Century Financial Corp. and Ameriquest Mortgage Corp., both now defunct.

Hogar’s ties to the subprime industry were substantial. A Washington Mutual vice president served as chairman of its advisory committee. Companies that donated $150,000 a year got the right to place a research fellow who would conduct Hogar’s studies, which were used by industry lobbyists. For donations of $100,000 a year, Hogar offered to provide news releases from the Hispanic Caucus promoting a lender’s commercial products for the Latino market, according to the group’s literature.

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The National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, one of Hogar’s sponsors, advised the group, shared research data and built a large membership to market loans to Latinos. By 2005, its ranks had grown to 16,000 agents and mortgage brokers.

The association, called Nahrep, received funding from some of the same players that funded Hogar. Some 22 corporate sponsors, including Countrywide and Washington Mutual, together paid the association $2 million a year to attend conferences and forums where lenders could pitch their loan products to loan brokers.

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Lenders’ Contributions

Countrywide and other sponsors contracted with Nahrep to set up regional events where they could present loan products to loan brokers and their customers. Mr. Sandos says his organization doesn’t get paid to promote particular lenders.

At the height of the subprime lending boom, in 2005, banking and finance companies gave at least $2.3 million in campaign contributions to members of the Hispanic Caucus, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

In October 2008, a charitable foundation set up by Mr. Baca received $25,000 from AmeriDream Inc., a nonprofit housing company and Hogar sponsor. Mr. Baca has long backed AmeriDream’s controversial seller-financed down-payment assistance program. AmeriDream provided down-payment money to buyers, a cost that was covered by home builders in the form of donations to the nonprofit.

New housing legislation last fall outlawed the program. Mr. Baca is cosponsoring a bill that would allow AmeriDream and similar nonprofits to resume arranging seller-financed down-payment assistance to low-income Federal Housing Administration borrowers.

Such seller-financed loans comprise one-third of the loans backed by the FHA, and have defaulted at nearly triple the rate of other FHA-insured loans, according to agency spokesman William Glavin.

In a news release, AmeriDream said the donation to Mr. Baca’s foundation was intended to fund the purchase of gear for firefighters in his district. Local news reports say the foundation gave away $36,000 in scholarships this year.

Internal Revenue Service records indicate that Mr. Baca’s son, Joe Baca Jr., has an annual salary of $51,800 as executive director of the Joe Baca Foundation, which is run out of the congressman’s home. Joe Baca Jr. says he currently is taking only about half that listed salary.

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Mortgage lending to Hispanics took off between 2004 and 2007, powered by nonprime loans. The biggest jump occurred in 2005. The 169% increase in nonprime mortgages to Hispanics that year outpaced a 122% gain for blacks, and a 110% increase for whites, according to a Journal analysis of mortgage-industry and federal-housing data. Nonprime mortgages carry high interest rates and are tailored to borrowers with low credit scores or few assets.

Between 2004 and 2007, black borrowers were offered nonprime loans at a slightly higher rate than Hispanics, but the overall number of Hispanic borrowers was much larger. From 2004 to 2005, total nonprime home loans to Hispanics more than tripled to $69 billion from $19 billion, and peaked in 2006 at $73 billion.

Tricks of the Trade

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Representatives of subprime lenders passed on “little tricks of the trade” to get borrowers qualified, he says, such as adding a borrower’s name to a relative’s bank account, an illegal maneuver. Mr. Nguygn says he’s now volunteering time to help borrowers facing foreclosure negotiate with banks.

Many loans to Hispanic borrowers were based not on actual income histories but on a borrower’s “stated income.” These so-called no-doc loans yielded higher commissions and involved less paperwork.

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By late 2008, one in every nine households in San Joaquin County, Calif., was in default or foreclosure—24,049 of them, according to Federal Reserve data. Banks have already taken back 55 of every 1,000 homes. In Riverside, Calif., 66,838 houses are owned by banks or were headed in that direction as of October. In Prince William County, Va., a Washington suburb, 11,685 homes, or one in 11, was in default or foreclosure.

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