Last year, forty-three states reported increased home foreclosure rates. Nevada led the way for eleven consecutive months; in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, nearly one in twenty homes is in foreclosure. Whole blocks have been foreclosed in Chicago. Nationwide, rates are nearing Depression-era highs–ravaging working- and middle-class neighborhoods that fell prey to the soft sell and outright chicanery of predatory lenders in the heyday of the housing boom. These lenders have targeted the most vulnerable–black and Latino borrowers have been twice as likely to receive subprime loans as whites; female homeowners, 30 percent more likely than male; black women, five times more likely than white men.
As the subprime mortgage debacle drives a recession that threatens financial markets around the world, the Democratic presidential candidates are pushing plans to address the crisis. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton are pledging substantial federal resources to stabilize the mortgage market and intervene on behalf of borrowers. Barack Obama’s proposal is tepid by comparison, short on aggressive government involvement and infused with conservative rhetoric about fiscal responsibility. As he has done on domestic issues like healthcare, job creation and energy policy, Obama is staking out a position to the right of not only populist Edwards but Clinton as well.
Edwards’s plan includes a mandatory moratorium on foreclosures, a freeze on rising interest rates for at least seven years, federal subsidies to help homeowners keep up with payments and restructure loans, and explicit measures to rein in predatory lenders and regulate the financial sector. Clinton’s plan is weaker–a voluntary moratorium, a shorter freeze, less commitment to new regulations–but she has promised $30 billion in federal aid to help reeling homeowners and communities.
Only Obama has not called for a moratorium and interest-rate freeze. Though he has been a proponent of mortgage fraud legislation in the Senate, he has remained silent on further financial regulations. And much like his broader economic stimulus package, Obama’s foreclosure plan mostly avoids direct government spending in favor of a tax credit for homeowners, which amounts to about $500 on average, beyond which only certain borrowers would be eligible for help from an additional fund.
“One advantage to the tax credit is that there’s no moral hazard involved,” one of Obama’s economic advisers explains. “There’s no sense in which you’re rewarding someone for taking too big a risk. If you lied about your income in order to get a bigger mortgage, then you’re not qualified. Do you really want to give a subsidy to the guy who wasn’t prudent?” Obama has used similar language on the campaign trail. “Innocent homeowners,” he has promised, those “responsible” borrowers “facing foreclosure through no fault of their own,” would get help restructuring their loans. But no such luck for those “claiming income they didn’t have” or “lying to get mortgages.”
“There’s been less emphasis from the Obama campaign on the really dysfunctional role of the financial industry in the subprime mess,” says Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute. “Edwards and Clinton talk much more about regulation of the financial industry going forward, and to the extent that blame is placed, they tend to place it on the lenders for steering people into loans they couldn’t afford.”