May 30, 2012

Las Vegas Review Journal Op-Ed: A path forward for Nevada on housing

Ed note:  This op-ed original appeared in the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Today, housing counselors, real estate professionals and others who work in Nevada’s housing sector will travel to the White House to talk with me and other senior Obama administration officials about how we can help them continue rebuilding in the wake of a historic housing crisis – one that devastated families and communities alike.

Too many homeowners in Nevada are still underwater or struggling to meet their mortgage, but the state has made real progress. Thanks to tools this administration has provided, foreclosure filings throughout the state have fallen 67 percent since last April.

In October, President Obama announced – in Nevada – changes that cleared barriers preventing people with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from taking advantage of today’s historically low interest rates. Thanks to those changes, refinancing applications in Nevada have increased by a staggering 237 percent since November.

And through the historic, $25 billion settlement the administration and 49 state attorneys general struck with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers, Nevada’s homeowners will receive nearly $1.5 billion in direct relief. I was proud to join Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto earlier this month to discuss how we can ensure Nevadan families get the help they need from that settlement.

But with nearly two-thirds of all Nevada homeowners underwater on their mortgages, and neighborhoods in communities such as Las Vegas still struggling with concentrated foreclosures, our work isn’t done.

That’s why President Obama is pushing Congress to act on a “to-do list” of proposals that includes ensuring every responsible homeowner has the opportunity to refinance and rebuild equity.

Right now, millions of responsible homeowners still can’t take advantage of interest rates that are at record low levels – preventing families from saving thousands of dollars per year and preventing our economy from receiving the lift that low interest rates typically provide.

That’s why the president is asking Congress to ensure all homeowners have access to simple, low-cost refinancing – because there is no reason families with government-backed loans should be the only ones to get help. And to make it easier for more homeowners with loans backed by Fannie and Freddie to refinance, the administration also proposes reforms that would create competition between lenders and remove other hurdles like unnecessary appraisals.

Of course, while refinancing is critical to reducing costs to homeowners, we also need to ensure families can rebuild the equity they lost during the crisis – equity families can use to send their kids to college, start a small business or save for their retirements.

That’s why the Obama administration wants to ensure that underwater homeowners who choose to refinance have the opportunity to apply the savings from refinancing to rebuild equity in their homes.

Finally, to further stabilize home prices in hard-hit places such as Las Vegas, where home prices have dropped the most, the Obama administration has proposed Project Rebuild. Building on the Neighborhood Stabilization Program’s success in halting the slide in home values by rehabbing vacant and abandoned properties, Project Rebuild would create nearly 7,500 jobs in Nevada – investing not only in hard-hit neighborhoods, but in the neighbors who live there.

And that is who this work is about: the millions of families playing by the rules and doing their fair share – in many cases, more than their fair share.

As I will tell Nevada leaders later today, these families haven’t walked away from their obligations – and we can’t walk away from ours.

Ensuring we don’t means making sure every responsible family in America, regardless of what kind of loan they have, has the opportunity to refinance – and rebuild equity not only in their homes but in the American Dream.

That’s what it’s going to take to give Nevada the help it needs. It’s why Congress needs to pass President Obama’s plan. And it’s what we need to create an economy built to last.

Shaun Donovan is U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary.

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