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Another Street Where Credit Needs to Keep Flowing

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By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, October 16, 2008

While the federal government is making gigantic efforts to keep credit flowing to Wall Street, we'd better make sure we don't shut off access to mortgage money for those who live on Main Street.

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And to make sure that doesn't happen, it's important to keep pointing out that it was loosely regulated, risky mortgage lenders -- not risky borrowers -- who were at fault for the housing crash, according to a new study by the Center for Community Capital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The researchers, looking at affordable mortgage programs for low- and moderate-income consumers, found that home-loan borrowers with similar risk characteristics defaulted at much higher rates when they used subprime mortgages not made for Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) purposes.

For many Americans, it is their homes that have provided them with financial stability. But now the efforts of qualified low- to middle-income borrowers to buy homes are being viciously blamed for the crushing economic crisis we're experiencing.

The North Carolina study compared the default rates on home mortgages for one group of borrowers who received loans through the Community Advantage Program, an affordable home-mortgage plan. The program was designed to expand homeownership among lower-income and minority home buyers. These loans typically were fixed for 30 years.

The other group received subprime mortgage loans -- the kind of loans at the core of this crisis. The loans put borrowers in adjustable-rate mortgages or loans that didn't require much, if any, documentation.

The center's analysis found that mortgage default risk was four times higher for borrowers who took the riskier subprime loans than it was for borrowers who did not.

Center researchers explained that loans in a targeted community-lending program typically have a lower default risk than subprime loans because they don't have features such as prepayment penalties or carry high interest rates.

Let's look at the success of properly implemented homeownership programs. The federal government has used homeownership programs to lift the economic status of veterans. The GI Bill, for instance, made homeownership a reality for many veterans who could not otherwise afford a home.

It's not just those who served in the military who deserve a hand up. And be careful how you read that last sentence. I said a hand up, not a handout. CRA did for low- and moderate-income families what the original GI Bill did for veterans. CRA provided a means for many people to do more than just dream about owning a home one day.

CRA gave banking regulators the authority to hold financial institutions accountable for failing to make prudent mortgages to borrowers in communities they served.

President Bush and many previous administrations understood that putting the right people in homes they could afford was good for the entire economy. In 2002, Bush announced efforts to increase homeownership rates among African Americans and Hispanics by 5.5 million by 2010.

I became a first-time homeowner two years out of college because of a program aimed at increasing homeownership among minorities. I went through a rigorous screening process, as many do who get these types of loans. I had to prove my income and show that I could afford to pay back the loan. I got help with a down payment but my loan was an old-fashioned, fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage.

Many people angry about the financial losses in their investment portfolios or the loss of equity in their homes probably won't be appeased by the study findings. They will likely dismiss the report because they need somebody or something to blame for their losses.

"Instead of having a healthy debate on policy issues to avert future problems, those disseminating the weapons of mass deception are launching attacks," Marc H. Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. "Now more than ever, America needs unity and real solutions to fix the economic mess that has engulfed our country."

Morial was writing to Paulson to implore him to discredit the criticism of CRA and "extinguish the flames of hatred."

Becoming a homeowner allowed me to help lift the economic status of some of my siblings. I was able to pass the home on to my disabled brother, who lived there for several years before his death. Because I had an affordable mortgage, I was able to save and help another brother come up with a down payment for his first home.

Certainly our government leaders have to concentrate on finding a way out of this economic mess. But when this crisis clears, it would be even more damaging to our economy if they didn't fight to maintain affordable homeownership programs for qualified and responsible low- to middle-income families.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.


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