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Is it really necessary for the federal government to introduce new market distortions?

September 5, 2009

For the reasons I just gave, I don’t believe that our past subsidies to suburban development justify maintaining those investments.  End them and let the chips fall where they may.

But even if reasonable people can disagree about that, I see no argument for creating new subsidies.  But that is exactly what our federal government is about to do.

The FHA is a major player in the mortgage business.  It insures mortgages for home buyers who otherwise would not be able to get credit or scrape together a down payment; this allows some to buy homes with as little as 3.5% down.  Without the FHA guarantees, the mortgage market would be much smaller.  A few years ago, its share of the market was 2.7%.  This seemingly small share had an outsized effect by scooping up the biggest credit risks and reducing the risk for private mortgage insurers.  In any event, its share of the market has ballooned recently:  according to Friday’s WSJ, its market share reached 23% in the second quarter of this year.

And now the FHA is about to adopt new rules explicitly encouraging home buyers to purchase single-family, detached housing in the suburbs rather than attached (condos) in urban cores:

Until now, almost any condo development could apply to FHA for “approved” status, therefore making FHA financing available in that development.  In addition, in developments that were not approved, “spot approvals” were sometimes available for individual units.  (The lender applied for an approval for the unit you wanted to buy, in spite of the development not being approved).

Following are the new guidelines:  (This is not pretty, so prepare yourself)

1. There will be NO more spot approvals.

2. All development not considered primarily residential are out.  For instance, a development with more than 25% of the total floor area dedicated to commercial business use is out.

3. Noise issues is a new concern, so any development within 1,000 feet of a highway, freeway, or heavily travelled road, 3,000 feet of a railroad, 1 mile of an airport, or 5 miles of a military airfield will become ineligible for approval.

4. If the property has an “unobstructed view , or is located within 2000 feet of any facility handling or storing explosive or fire prone materials, it is not insurable – we’re not talking just fireworks factories here.  A gas station 2 blocks away can disqualify this development.

5. Any property located within 3000 feet of a dump, landfill, or superfund site, is ineligible.

6. No more than 10% of the properties can be owned by a single investor, including builders or developers who are renting out or have not yet sold vacant units.  For 2-3 unit developments, no one can own more than one unit.

7. No more than 15% of the homeowners can be more than 30 days late on their homeowner dues.

8. For new developments, at least 50% of the units must be sold prior to applying for FHA approval (valid presales include those with purchase agreement and lender validation of an approved loan in process)

9. A minimum of 50% of the units must be owner occupied or sold to owners who intend to occupy as their principal residence.

10. Projects in designated wetland and flood zones will not qualify.

11. All current condominium project approvals will be invalid (with the exception of projects approved on or after October 1, 2008) and projects must be re-approved under the new options available.  Going forward, all projects will require recertification every two years.

Perhaps most insidiously, the FHA will no longer insure more than 30% of the units in a single condominium development.

I understand that the FHA has been taking large losses on its guarantees.  I also understand that condominiums are riskier to insure than single-family homes.  Some of these new regulations seem reasonable — it’s probably a bad idea to invest in a condominium when the condo association lacks the resources to pay for upkeep.  Higher risks justify higher premiums, too.

But these new regulations seem purposely designed to push new homeowners out of dense, urban areas to the suburbs.  They exclude many mixed-use developments (#2).  In a central city, it is hard to find a condominium not within 1,000 feet of a highway, freeway, or heavily travelled road, 3,000 feet of a railroad, or one mile from an airport (#3).  Allowing developers to tap into FHA guarantees for entire single-family subdivisions but only 30% of condominium units naturally will encourage developers to shift to single-family subdivisions.  These new regulations are fundamentally anti-urban.  

Even if it is somehow possible to defend our existing scheme of suburban subsidies, is it really possible to defend introducing new market distortions?   

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