That cover isn’t the only problem with Businessweek’s housing story

March 1, 2013

Bloomberg Businessweek's bold adventures in cover art took a regrettable turn this week.

The image suggests that greedy minority homebuyers are trying to cash in on America's housing recovery—as some had accused them of doing the first time around. The actual story is far tamer: There are no racial insinuations and it suggests that it's just the natural search for profit — not untrammeled greed — that's driving the housing rebound. But the story also fails to answer the question that its controversial cover so blatantly raises in the first place: What caused the housing meltdown, and what should we be concerned about this time around?

The story paints a portrait of the housing recovery in Phoenix, which it describes as ground zero for the original meltdown. Nowadays, "homebuilders are rushing to buy land for new subdivisions or resume construction in ones they had abandoned," author Susan Berfield writes, noting that home prices in the Phoenix metro area "climbed 22.9 percent in 2012, the highest in the nation." The piece then profiles various players in Phoenix's newly revived housing market, including a home flipper who's "bought and flipped about 60 houses a year and has made some $4 million" and who's "sold 14,000 lots in the past eight months, a billion dollars’ worth of deals."

One question the story subtly raises — and the cover loudly shouts — is whether this is a sustainable recovery or whether profit-minded developers, flippers, brokers and so forth could be blowing up another bubble waiting to pop. "Knowing Arizona, we’ll probably build too much at some point," the story quotes one analyst as saying.

Jed Kolko, the chief economist of real estate Web site Trulia, says that Phoenix is among the U.S. areas where housing prices have rebounded—but vacancy rates are still high and job growth is low. As such, the growth is likely to be less sustainable, making it a poor bet to expect home prices to keep rising apace. That said, Kolko believes, "concerns about overbuilding are still a long way away."

What the story doesn't address is how mortgage fraudpredatory lending and other abusive practices also fueled the original housing bubble and subsequent crisis, particularly in Arizona. In the lead-up to the crash, Arizona was among the states with the highest number of subprime mortgages — and the weakest anti-predatory lending laws -- as many researchers have pointed out since then.

In 2009, Arizona had the country's fourth-highest mortgage fraud rate, and it rose to No. 2 in 2011. Some of that was homeowner application fraud, but it also included predatory lending practices, "collusion by industry insiders, such as bank officers, appraisers, mortgage brokers, attorneys, loan originators and other professionals engaged in the industry," according to the 2012 LexisNexis Mortgage Fraud Report. Last summer, 10 people were indicted for a mortgage fraud scheme in Phoenix that allegedly ran for 11 years.

The Businessweek story doesn't touch upon these broad structural problems and systemic wrongdoing or whether regulatory reform efforts, such as the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, have helped monitor the housing market in Arizona and elsewhere more effectively to ensure a more stable, secure market.

Instead, it paints a mostly hopeful portrait of a boom akin to "a dot-com on the stock market," as one person is quoted as saying — referring to investors who've dusted themselves off and are getting back into the game to make big bucks. But by leaving out what was behind the country's devastating mortgage meltdown —and whether those factors have been fixed or eliminated since — the story can't answer the question printed at the very bottom of its incendiary cover: "What could possibly go wrong?"

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Evan Soltas · March 1, 2013