Administration proposals to overhaul federal housing role draw fire from left

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Obama administration's plan to overhaul the U.S. housing market drew fire Friday from some of the president's traditional allies, who argued that proposals in the newly released report could make it too costly for many Americans to buy a home.

But while consumer and civil rights groups broke with President Obama over the long-awaited white paper, the plan met with little objection - and even praise - from Republicans, who have pilloried the administration over its housing policies.

Senior administration officials offered a series of suggestions for scaling back the federal role in the housing market, which has been on government life-support since the mortgage meltdown three years ago. In the near term, the administration wants to require larger down payments and higher fees for home loans and reduce the number of borrowers getting government-backed loans. Beyond that, the plan calls for eliminating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and putting private financial firms at the center of the mortgage market.

The housing initiative is the latest example of the administration tacking to the political center, even at the expense of alienating Democratic constituencies that had provided crucial backing for Obama's economic policies earlier in his term. Dissent has been mounting on his left flank since he reached a tax deal with Republicans in December that, in part, kept the rich from facing higher levies. Obama's appointment of William M. Daley, a former J.P. Morgan Chase executive, as White House chief of staff further fueled those concerns.

The objections raised by some liberal groups offered a preview of the coming battle over the housing plan, which will be joined by an array of interest groups, including bankers, builders and the real estate brokers, that have a stake in how the nation's $11 trillion housing finance system is reshaped.

Real estate agents and home builders oppose policies that would shrink the federal subsidy for housing. Small banks don't want to see the government overly reduce its role in the housing market, for fear that the largest banks could then dominate the arena.

But the most vocal concerns Friday were raised by some of the same groups that had cheered Obama last year for overhauling the nation's financial regulations and establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

"The administration today has laid out a series of options that could lead to the abandonment of a nearly 70-year commitment to affordable homeownership by working American families," said Barry Zigas, director of housing policy for the Consumer Federation of America.

Fannie and Freddie's role

Since 2008, the government has insured more than 90 percent of new home loans through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration, which targets first-time home buyers. These measures have helped keep mortgage rates low at a time of extreme stresses in the housing market.

But the administration's proposals would scale back this support. Over the next year or so, officials are seeking to reduce the size of mortgages that Fannie, Freddie and the FHA can insure and increase the fees the agencies charge.

The administration declined to provide a vision for the longer-term changes in the housing market, but it offered three potential options.

One is identical to the plan put forward by Republicans: Replace Fannie and Freddie with nothing and keep the mortgage market almost totally in the hands of banks. The second option is to create a new federal program that would insure mortgages in times of crisis but otherwise eliminate the government role. The third is to set up a federal program to insure mortgages at all times.

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