Renting Your House Back: A Solution to Foreclosures?

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Mark Wilson / Getty

Fannie Mae headquarters in Washington

What if people who lost their homes to foreclosure could rent them back from the lenders that repossessed them? That idea, which has lingered on the outskirts of the housing-crisis debate, got a boost last week when the federal housing agency Fannie Mae said it would start offering leases of up to 12 months when other avenues to keeping families in their homes, like loan modification, dead-end. "It's a big step forward," says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a longtime proponent of rent-back programs.

At first blush, the notion seems like a win-win-win. Former homeowners get to stay in their houses; even if a mortgage payment isn't affordable, market rent may be. Neighborhoods ostensibly benefit too, since it's safer — and better for property prices — when blocks aren't full of foreclosure-related vacancies. And lenders? Turning properties into rentals until the market rebounds may sound like an appealing alternative to selling assets at cut-rate prices. "This is another tool to use, and it doesn't cost the government anything," says Representative Gary Miller of California, who has sponsored a bill to make it easier for banks to enter into long-term leases with tenants.

Yet there is little reason to believe that Fannie's move is going to immediately spark a wave of me-too programs. Cheryl Lang, CEO of Integrated Mortgage Solutions, a firm that helps manage repossessed houses, says she's seen some interest in the concept, but companies are hesitant to implement it for fear of the legal consequences. "Once a lender takes possession, if there's a mold issue or Chinese drywall, whatever the problem is with that house, whether or not the lender is aware of it, that's a liability," says Lang. She recalls being on a panel sponsored by the Mortgage Bankers Association a few months ago and watching as the attorneys in the room went round and round on the issue.

Many of the nation's largest lenders, including Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, have meager interest in converting homes into rentals. "We're in the lending business," says Chase spokesman Tom Kelly. "We're not really equipped to be landlords." Lenders are sitting on nearly half a million repossessed houses nationwide, but getting rid of them quickly, even if that means taking a hit on price, seems to be the preferred response. A recent presentation by the head of Chase's retail-financial-services division showed that the company's servicing portfolio went from having about 52,000 repossessed homes in September 2008 to some 30,000 in September 2009. Over that period, the average price at which the firm sold houses from that stock dropped from $175,000 to $150,000.

Fannie Mae has brought in a property-management company to run its rental program, but even with that imported expertise, the number of people who wind up as tenants probably won't be large. There are many alternatives that must be pursued first, including loan modification and trying to sell the house for less than it's worth. Only people who exhaust other options and are eligible for a deed in lieu of foreclosure — a process of handing over the deed in exchange for loan forgiveness — will have the option to rent. In the first nine months of 2009, Fannie Mae executed just under 2,000 deed-in-lieu transactions — the pool from which renters will come. Freddie Mac, another federal housing agency, has been offering leases to former owners on a month-to-month basis since March but hasn't said how many people have taken advantage of the offer.

Now, none of that means rent-backs won't eventually take off. There are plenty of examples in the recent past of housing policies starting at the federal housing agencies and later expanding industry-wide thanks to strong-arming from some combination of the Obama Administration and Congress. Loan modifications are the quintessential example. Perhaps one more relevant bit here is the law that was passed earlier this year requiring banks that repossess houses to honor the terms of existing leases (i.e., to not immediately kick out any existing renters). Fannie Mae already had such a policy in place. Over the summer, an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department told a Senate panel that the Administration was considering rent-backs, but the idea hasn't gained traction since then.

After all, the big Administration push has been loan modifications. Earlier this week, Treasury reported that through October more than 650,000 homeowners have received trial modifications under the government's Making Home Affordable plan. How long lasting that help will be, though, is a different question: as of Sept. 1, only 1,711 borrowers had successfully completed the trial phase and received permanent changes to their loan terms, according to a report by the Congressional Oversight Panel.

If loan modifications aren't the long-term success the Administration is banking on, people will wind up losing their homes to foreclosure anyway, and the number of repossessed properties owned by banks will again swell. According to foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac, the number of foreclosure notices nationwide has been ticking down past three months, but the number of notices are still running about 19% higher than last year. Considering high unemployment and how many people still owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth, there might be a chance yet for attention to turn to the idea of renting houses back to former owners.