Decision 2012: What About Housing?

I just took a stroll through the Obama and Romney campaign Web sites, and neither candidate’s list of “issues” includes “housing,” “mortgage,” or “foreclosure.”  Apparently the housing crisis that brought our national economy to its knees is over, otherwise they would have listed it, right?

How is it possible that the sector of our economy that triggered the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression doesn’t warrant a single mention?   It’s like a national political campaign in Japan that fails to mention the Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis.

This is depressing.

Now, I have to admit that I always get depressed during presidential campaigns, because the issues I’ve fought for my whole career never seem to get mentioned—affordable housing, civil rights, access for people with disabilities, due process for criminal defendants with mental illness.  I guess I specialize in unpopular stuff—doesn’t help me make small talk at parties either.

But for both candidates to fail to mention the millions of homeowners who are going to be under water in their homes for the better part of the next decade—that’s simply stunning.

But it’s not surprising.

We know that candidates will voice support for or opposition to issues they believe will a) mobilize their base, or b) persuade more swing voters to come their way than to go in the other direction.  And we know that candidates avoid issues that a) they don’t have good answers to, or b) will provide ammunition to their opponent.

And viewed through that lens—the housing crisis is simply not going to be an issue in this campaign.  And that is a national tragedy.

Presidential campaigns are our opportunity to have national dialogues every four years about the pressing issues of the day.  Commitments made during campaigns form the basis of presidential agendas for the next four years.

What these two candidates are telling me right now — is that neither has the vision or courage to take on the housing crisis in a forceful, comprehensive manner.  And that we can expect more of the same, largely ineffective response to the crisis that we have seen to date, no matter who wins this election.

And as we know, the solutions to this crisis are not a mystery—and some of them would be enthusiastically supported by a wide majority of Americans if implemented.

For example, what if every underwater homeowner in America were allowed to refinance their home, on a one-time basis, for an amount 5 percent under its current market value—with a 20- or 30-year low-interest fixed-rate mortgage? That would transform our national economy overnight.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that having millions of people way in over their heads in debt is a very bad thing for consumer spending and homeowner mobility—and until people start buying houses, cars and flat-screen TVs again, this economy will remain in trouble.

Call it the National Housing Debt Forgiveness Jubilee Program—that will get the religious right on board, because forgiveness of debt every fifty years is a big part of the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. If God could tell George W. to invade Iran, then God can tell us to forgive some of this national housing debt.

That seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Restart the economy and move things forward—with God on our side—what could be wrong with that?

But there’s no way either candidate is going to come close to supporting something like this.  Obama doesn’t want to take on the bankers and impose big losses on them (and their institutional investors), thereby motivating a gazillion dollars to be thrown into anti-Obama Super PACs.  And he certainly doesn’t want to leave himself open to being accused of supporting an increase in the federal budget deficit (or to increase taxes) to pay for a program like this.

And Romney just believes that the market should be left to its own devices and correct itself—and that people owing more on their homes than they are worth is just their own damn fault.  But he doesn’t want to say that either, because it sounds a kind of cruel (which it is, of course).

So in the absence of action, pain and suffering will continue to be inflicted upon millions of Americans.

Is there something—anything—that affordable housing advocates can do to put the housing crisis on the radar screen for this campaign season?  Because if we don’t make it happen, housing is going to be a non-issue in this campaign.