Treasury Undersecretary Robert R. Glauber, pressed by increasingly testy members of the House Banking Committee to put a high-end figure on the cost of the savings and loan bailout last week, finally became testy himself.
"It's going to cost what it will cost," he said.
It was an underestimate. Whatever the taxpayers' bill for the S&L scandal -- at least $100 billion in the next fiscal year, with final estimates ranging from a third of a billion dollars to more than a trillion -- it will cost more. The additional cost is in the failure of the Resolution Trust Corp., the agency charged with overseeing the bailout, to use the disaster to relieve the housing problems of the poor.
The law creating the RTC authorizes it to sell low-priced homes in its inventory at reduced prices and financing. But advocacy groups say the agency has refused to make available the information necessary to implement that provision of the law.
One of these groups, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), is suing the RTC in an attempt to force compliance with the affordable-housing provision.
"Congress intended that the bailout be used to begin to solve the housing crisis," ACORN's national president Maude Hurd said yesterday at a Chicago press conference announcing the suit. "The RTC has turned a deaf ear to our pleas to be included in that process, as the law allows. It will have to listen to the court."
Under the bailout legislation, certain of the foreclosed properties are reserved for purchase by low- and moderate-income families. It further requires that access to those properties be limited to low-income families and nonprofit organizations -- like ACORN -- for 90 days and specifies that information on the properties be disseminated through nonprofits.
"Despite ACORN's repeated efforts to ensure compliance," ACORN said at its press conference, "the RTC is disposing of eligible properties without following the procedures of the law. In addition, the RTC has continued to do nothing about appointing ACORN or other organizations as clearinghouses, and the agency seems unwilling or unable to provide ACORN with the information it needs to bring affordable housing to low- and moderate-income people."
It's probably true, as Glauber said, that it is impossible to come up with a reliable figure for the final cost of the bailout. Not only are the thrifts, lured into shaky loans by the higher interest rates made possible by deregulation, continuing to fail, but it is impossible to know how much money will be produced by sale of the foreclosed real estate, or how much additional money will have to be provided to cover unpaid real estate taxes on many of the properties. That will "cost what it will cost."
But the additional cost of failing to use the provisions of the law to assist low-income families is avoidable -- at least in the case of those properties remaining in the RTC inventory. ACORN hopes its suit will force the RTC to do the right thing.
ACORN, a nationwide organization that has been in the forefront of the fight for affordable housing, is seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the sale of eligible houses until the suit is settled.
Yesterday's announcement was made at a house seized by ACORN activists in a repetition of a tactic that already has landed four members in jail. The members had squatted in three RTC-owned houses last month in an attempt to force the RTC's hand. Later the agency announced that one of the homes had been sold to an investor.
Which makes ACORN's point. The organization and other advocacy groups, including the Financial Democracy Campaign, have argued that it was principally the rich who benefited from the deregulation that brought on the S&L crisis in the first place. And now, they say, the rich are benefiting from the crisis, as investors snap up foreclosed properties at fire-sale prices.
The law, which ACORN worked to pass, anticipated that wealthy investors could reap windfall profits from the resale of foreclosed houses and for that reason included the low- and moderate-income provision as a way of gaining some social good from an economic disaster.
For example, an estimated 70 percent of the RTC holdings in hard-hit Texas could be offered to low-income buyers. "There's tremendous opportunity here, but the program is being set up to fail," said Thomas Smith, director of Texas Public Citizen. They are not providing that concessionary financing or discounting housing, but they are providing those benefits for people who want to buy commercial real estate."
ACORN is demanding not only that it be given timely access to RTC's residential listings but also that damages be paid for homes RTC sold to speculators without first offering them to low-income buyers and nonprofits.