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Magic trickNational housing price declines and foreclosures have not been as severe as some analyses have indicated, and they are not as important as financial manipulations in bringing on the global recession, according to a new analysis of foreclosures in 50 states, 35 metropolitan areas and 236 counties by University of Virginia professor William Lucy and graduate student Jeff Herlitz.

Foreclosures Concentrated in Four States

Their analysis shows that most foreclosures have been concentrated in California, Florida, Nevada, Arizona and a modest number of metropolitan counties in other states. In fact, they claim that “66 percent of potential housing value losses in 2008 and subsequent years may be in California, with another 21 percent in Florida, Nevada and Arizona, for a total of 87 percent of national declines.”

“California had only 10 percent of the nation’s housing units, but it had 34 percent of foreclosures in 2008,” Lucy and Herlitz reported.

California was vulnerable to foreclosures because the median value of owner-occupied housing in 2007 was 8.3 times the median family income, while the 2007 national average was only 3.2 times higher than median family income (and in 2000, it was lower still at 2.4).

Another vulnerability to foreclosures was seen in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, where more than 20 percent of mortgage-holders in each county were paying at least 50 percent of their income in housing-related costs.

“But even in California, enormous variations existed among jurisdictions, such as in the San Francisco area, where Solano County had 3.69 percent of housing units in foreclosure in November 2008, while only 0.24 percent of housing units were in foreclosure in the City of San Francisco ” a 15 to 1 difference,” according to Lucy and Herlitz.

Bailout Funds Outweigh Housing Losses

Across the country, the run-up in housing prices from 2000 to the national peak in 2006 has contributed to a 10-months’ supply of houses for sale, nearly six months more than the norm from 1998 through 2005, they concluded. But most of the excess supply is either foreclosed properties for sale in declining areas ” which constituted 45 percent of total sales in some months of 2008 ” or “opportunity” sale offerings by owners seeking to take profits on the price escalation of previous years, which often happens when the price of existing homes rise appreciably. Only a small portion of the excess supply is from current construction of new houses, they said.

Potential losses in housing values from 2008 foreclosures in all 50 states ” if values decline to 2000 levels ” were less than one-third of the $350 billion provided to banks and insurance companies to cope with losses in mortgage-backed securities, Lucy and Herlitz estimated.

“Damage to the balance sheets of large banks and AIG occurred not mainly from losses on foreclosed residential mortgages, but because of borrowing short-range to buy long-range derivatives and from selling credit default swaps insuring derivatives backed by mortgage payments,” Lucy and Herlitz said.

“These financial manipulations had high-speed forward gears, but when the housing bubble burst, the banks and AIG discovered they had neglected to create a reverse gear with which they could separate foreclosed properties from some forms of mortgage-backed securities.”

Although there are pockets of substantial declines, claims that overall housing values have tanked nationwide are exaggerated, they said. “In the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, for example, prices have barely changed in the District of Columbia, Alexandria and Arlington County, and parts of Fairfax County in Virginia. The largest price declines (more than 30 percent in 2008) have been in Prince William County, Va., but even there, the range of price declines in its six zip codes ranged from 49 percent to only 6 percent.”

The number of foreclosures usually were lower in central cities than in some suburban counties, probably due to less demand in those suburbs, according to Lucy and Herlitz.

Other Factors Contribute to Declines Part of this loss of demand can be accounted for by shifts in the age distribution in the population. The population segment from age 30 to 44, when the biggest increase in home ownership occurs, has been declining in recent years. Those are prime child-rearing years for families, so demand for houses with four or more bedrooms has declined and led to an excess of large houses in some counties.

The Obama administration’s proposed foreclosure prevention program sets a target of households spending between 31 percent and 38 percent of their income on housing-related expenses. The program will try to prevent foreclosures in residences where Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have purchased the mortgages by permitting downward adjustments to mortgage rates, to where the value of mortgages is not more than 105 percent of the houses’ value, they said.

“This policy will help homeowners where price declines have been modest, as they have been in most states, most metropolitan areas and most counties,” Lucy and Herlitz said.

This study includes foreclosure, house value and income data for 2007 or 2008 for 50 states, the 35 largest metropolitan areas and 236 counties in the 35 metropolitan areas.

Lucy is Lawrence Lewis Jr. Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning in U.Va.’s School of Architecture. Herlitz is a graduate student in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning.

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