Bill Clinton's drive to increase homeownership went way too far

Add President Clinton to the long list of people who deserve a share of the blame for the housing bubble and bust. A recently re-exposed document shows that his administration went to ridiculous lengths to increase the national homeownership rate. It promoted paper-thin downpayments and pushed for ways to get lenders to give mortgage loans to first-time buyers with shaky financing and incomes. It’s clear now that the erosion of lending standards pushed prices up by increasing demand, and later led to waves of defaults by people who never should have bought a home in the first place.

President Bush continued the practices because they dovetailed with his Ownership Society goals, and of course Congress was strongly behind the push. But Clinton and his administration must shoulder some of the blame.

In writing this blog entry, I’m following the lead of Joseph R. Mason, who is a finance professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and a consultant at Criterion Economics. Here is a link to a piece that he wrote on Feb. 26.

The Clinton-era document that Mason cites—“The National Homeownership Strategy: Partners in the American Dream”—was hiding in plain sight

on the website of the Department of Housing & Urban Development until last year, when according to Mason it was removed (probably because the housing bust made it seem embarrassing to the department). Mason credits Joshua Rosner of Graham Fisher & Co. with saving a copy of it before it was expunged.

The National Homeownership Strategy began in 1994 when Clinton directed HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros to come up with a plan, and Cisneros convened what HUD called a "historic meeting" of private and public housing-industry organizations in August 1994. The group eventually produced a plan, of which Mason sent me a PDF of Chapter 4, the one that argues for creative measures to promote homeownership.

The very worst idea in the plan, which fortunately never gained approval, was to let first-time homebuyers freely tap their IRA and 401(k) retirement-savings plans with no penalty to scrounge up a downpayment. That, HUD estimated, would have "benefited" 600,000 families in the first five years.

Plenty of other ideas in the plan did become reality, though. Knowing what we know now about the housing bust, the earnest language in the document seems faintly ridiculous. Here's an excerpt. Read it closely and you can see the seeds of disaster being planted:

For many potential homebuyers, the lack of cash available to accumulate the required downpayment and closing costs is the major impediment to purchasing a home. Other households do not have sufficient available income to to make the monthly payments on mortgages financed at market interest rates for standard loan terms. Financing strategies, fueled by the creativity and resources of the private and public sectors, should address both of these financial barriers to homeownership.

Note the praise for "creativity." That kind of creativity in stretching boundaries we could use less of. Mason puts it well: "It strikes me as reckless to promote home sales to individuals in such constrained financial predicaments."