FHA Bill: A Smart Move

By Kenneth R. Harney
Saturday, August 5, 2006

Moderate-income home buyers got a big boost from Congress at the end of July when the House voted 415 to 7 to approve a bill revitalizing the federal government's biggest mortgage program, the Federal Housing Administration.

The bill, which awaits Senate action, would allow the FHA to offer zero-down-payment loans for the first time, increase mortgage amounts substantially in high-cost markets, and provide low interest rates and consumer protections that are rarely available from "subprime" mortgage lenders that specialize in loans to those with imperfect credit.

The legislation would also effectively open the FHA marketplace to mortgage brokers, who are by far the largest source of home mortgages originated nationwide. With brokers able to offer both private-market subprime and FHA-insured mortgages, buyers with less-than-perfect credit will be able to directly compare the FHA's rates, fees and consumer protections with competing subprime loan offerings.

For example, rather than paying 9 percent for a low- or no-down-payment mortgage with a hefty prepayment penalty from a subprime lender, a buyer might be able to obtain a low- or no-down-payment FHA mortgage for 6 1/2 percent or 7 percent with no prepayment penalties. FHA mortgages also come with guaranteed "loss-mitigation" protections requiring lenders to pursue remedial steps whenever borrowers fall behind on payments, rather than rushing to foreclose. Private subprime lenders, by contrast, often have no mandatory remedial responsibilities -- miss a few payments and you are toast.

The House bill, the Expanding American Homeownership Act of 2006 (H.R. 5121), would reopen the FHA program to consumers in large parts of the country where home prices far outstrip statutory limits on maximum FHA mortgage amounts.

In high-cost areas, the FHA maximums would increase to the median home price level, but not beyond the loan limits of congressionally chartered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, set at $417,000. The Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac limits move up annually as home prices increase.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), one of many liberal Democrats who joined with Republicans in support of the bill, estimates that more than 120,000 California residents lost the opportunity to apply for consumer-friendly FHA mortgages in the past six years solely because home prices exceeded FHA limits.

Similar squeezes occurred in the high-cost Washington area, New England, New York and Florida markets, which under the bill would track the Fannie-Freddie limits. Nationwide, the FHA's share of the total market declined from approximately 11 percent in the mid-1990s to just above 3 percent last year, primarily because of statutory limitations on the agency that allowed subprime lenders to siphon off many of the FHA's best customers.

Another key change: The FHA would join the rest of the mortgage market in underwriting home buyers based on their risks of default as measured by credit scores, down-payment amounts and financial profiles. The bill would authorize the agency to charge lower insurance premiums to applicants with lower risks of default -- a standard operating procedure in the private marketplace. By the same token, borrowers presenting high risks -- low credit scores and histories of prior defaults -- could be charged higher premiums than they are today.

Though the bill enjoyed almost unprecedented bipartisan support in the House and carries the strong endorsement of the White House, it faces tougher sledding in the Senate. The housing subcommittee, which has immediate jurisdiction over the bill, is chaired by Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who is skeptical about the FHA's capacity to handle risk assessments on credit-challenged home buyers. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) agrees on a go-slow approach. Both are considered allies of the private mortgage insurance industry on the issue, some of whose members are lobbying aggressively behind the scenes to block any FHA revival.

But the legislation has strong backers in the Senate, including Jim Talent (R-Mo.), prime sponsor of the Senate version (S. 3535); John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, both Texas Republicans; Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both Republicans from Georgia; and former federal housing secretary Mel Martinez, now a Republican senator from Florida.

FHA Commissioner Brian D. Montgomery says he has full confidence in his agency's ability to assess credit risks -- something it has done for decades at no cost to the Treasury. In fact, the FHA makes money for the government every year. Montgomery thinks passage of the bill before Congress heads home for elections is "essential" in a market where financially stretched home buyers need the lowest rates and best consumer protections available.

"We think we are on the side of the consumers," Montgomery said in an interview following the House vote.

The only question left is whether the Senate -- like the overwhelming majority of members in the House -- will let the FHA serve more of those consumers.

Kenneth R. Harney's e-mail address isKenHarney@earthlink.net.


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