Amidst the waves and waves of fraud, it is possible that the root of the housing problem – inequality – has remained buried. To be fair, the fraud was monumental. Enough lawsuits have been filed, legislative reports published, investigative media reports run, for us to know that all kinds of illegal schemes, high and low, were an integral part of the housing bubble and financial crisis. At the top there was the way that funds, banks, and other financial outfits, like Goldman Sachs and General Electric Co., bundled and sold mortgage backed securities. There was also fraud at the bottom, in the forging of income statements, robosigning, and other dishonest and illegal methods for generating mortgages. Fraud that continued even after these mortgages were issued, as mortgage servicers did all that they could to prevent loan modifications, jack up fees, and keep borrowers underwater so that they could collect while the system tanked. The bottom-feeding was linked to the high-tech fraud at the top, insofar as the demand for MBS, CDOs, CDO-squareds, was so immense that the only way for mortgage issuers to generate large enough quantities in such a short time was by throwing due diligence to the wind. Then there is the systematic corruption in the fact that, at least at the top, banks made money both by turning shit into gold, and then by waiting for that gold to turn back into shit.
In the midst of all of this fraud, we have to remember that cheap and easy credit was supposed to solve or at least address the housing problem itself. It was supposed to make access to housing possible for borrowers who otherwise had trouble getting loans. That was one of the justifications for many of the changes in regulations that fraudsters took advantage of. Moreover, so long as cheap credit served its welfare-function of increasing consumption, especially of houses, there was less incentive to look into just how this was all made possible (there were, of course, many other factors contributing to indifference towards systematic fraud, not to mention the perfectly legal ways in which systematic risk was spread around the financial system.) What we can say, first off, is that the tradeoff – of increased homeownership for financial innovation in housing finance – was not worth it. The tradeoff was not even close to worth it. As the graph below shows, there was very marginal increase in home ownership. Even if we arbitrarily choose the year of the lowest rate of ownership (1993), even though it is not the beginning of the housing bubble, and compare it with the peak (2004), we get a 7% rise in homeownership, which can hardly all be attributed to financial innovation itself – and by the time the bubble burst most of the gain was wiped out.
And of course this way of financing access to housing came at the price of an immense credit crunch, doubling of unemployment, years of stagnation or recession, collapse of home values, long-run declining access to homes, declining household formation and, as we noted last week, a massive redistribution of wealth upwards.
But it would be a mistake just to blame those in the financial system who benefited, legally and illegally, from this permissive climate. After all, when it comes to housing, they alone did not create the poverty, and in particular the inability to afford housing, that lies at the root of the housing problem itself. Behind all the fraud is the cold hard fact that many are too poor to be able to securely hold or own a house without fraud. That is the root housing problem.
Looking to innovative credit mechanisms and market ‘incentives’ to make housing available to the poor is one of those neoliberal, post-Cold War ‘solutions’ that ultimately created a bigger problem. It registered, among other things, the fact that there is so little class power at the bottom that direct claims to the social product, in the form of low-income housing, public housing, rent controls and other forms of public provision are supplanted by mechanisms that make claims to housing contingent on becoming subject to the discipline of deeply inegalitarian financial and credit markets. But the inability of poor and middle income workers to control enough social product to meet a basic need like housing is a function not just of the economic power of financiers, but of ownership more widely. It is not just finance capital that keeps workers separate from the means of production. In this sense, the housing problem is wider than and predates the fraud and the legal forms of exploitation that it eventually gave rise to.