Warren wants ‘short-sales’ cleared by fed agency

Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Jun. 12, 2013

Senator Elizabeth WarrenSenator Elizabeth WarrenSome struggling homeowners in Massachusetts are being forced out of their homes due to a federal agency’s obstinate policy on so-called “short sales,” activists and housing experts say. The agency in question, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-supported organizations that handle mortgages.

Elizabeth Warren, a consumer advocate before she was elected to the US Senate in 2012, last week wrote an opinion piece for the Reporter, laying out the problem: “In some of those short sales, friends, families, or nonprofit organizations are willing to buy the home at fair market value, then work out a rental or re-sale to the family living in it,” she wrote. “The mortgage company gets the same amount as in a sale to strangers, but the homeowner has a last-chance to save the family home… But the FHFA flatly refuses these deals. The agency’s so-called ‘arm’s-length’ policy means that it will instead demand that the family be moved out and the home be sold at a lower-priced foreclosure sale.”

Warren ended her piece with some optimism, noting that President Obama has nominated Congressman Mel Watt (D-North Carolina) as the FHFA’s new director.

Aaron Gornstein, Gov. Deval Patrick’s undersecretary for housing and community development, said the Patrick administration has been seeking more flexibility with short sales and echoed Warren’s hope.

“We look forward to some policy changes going forward,” he said.

The housing market has improved in Massachusetts, Gornstein argued, speaking after an unrelated press conference to highlight funds and programs aimed at first-time homebuyers.

“We have a better chance at increasing the number of short sales, keeping people in their homes,” he said. “Any flexibility we could get from Fannie and Freddie would be welcome in that regard. So this is a good time to try and put that into effect, now that we’re seeing housing values returning in many neighborhoods, and I think it gives us more opportunity to be able to keep people in their homes as the economy and the housing market is recovering.”

The FHFA did not respond to a request for comment.

Warren hasn’t been the only elected official to launch blistering critiques of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. In February, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office wrote a letter to the agency’s general counsel, Alfred Pollard, saying their policies appear to be in violation of Massachusetts foreclosure law.

A provision in the law allows for the transfer of housing stock to buyers like nonprofits that can help out homeowners repurchase their homes.

Coakley’s office noted that the FHFA raised concerns about the possibility of “sham nonprofits” taking advantage of the provision. “However, you provide no information, evidence or statistics to support this speculation,” wrote M. Claire Masinton, assistant attorney general. “We, of course, must all guard against any form of mortgage fraud and avoid creating adverse incentives that hurt the housing market and investors. However, based on our actual experience in Massachusetts, the buybacks facilitated by area non-profit groups have helped stabilize neighborhoods and keep qualified homeowners in their homes, at no additional cost to the creditor or its investors (who receive the fair market price).”

Elyse Cherry, who heads the nonprofit lender Boston Community Capital, said dozens of homeowners are affected by the FHFA’s policy, though the numbers understate its impact.

“It makes no economic sense,” Cherry said. “Instead, it really seems to be a mean-spirited moral position which isn’t backed up by any evidence.”