Failed policies fuel phony housing recovery

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama cited the recovery of the housing market as evidence the economy is getting stronger.

If by “recovery,” the president meant a fabulous bargain-shopping opportunity for flush hedge funds, he was spot on.

If was he was talking about what most people understand by “recovery” – restoring families’ stability, healthy communities and a sense of economic well-being – not so much.

While the president paid lip service to bolstering the middle class, four years of his administration’s failed policies have set the stage for the financial industry’s further plundering of one of our basic needs – housing.

Before the financial crisis the wizards of high finance figured out how to turn our homes into complex investment vehicles that made them billions – before they crashed the economy. Now the financial geniuses how figured out how to make a killing picking over the carcass of the collapsed housing boom.

Certainly housing prices appear to be going up, but a large reason for that is the hedge funds that are swooping in to take advantage of the low, low prices. CNN Money reports that Blackstone Group spent $2.7 billion to buy 17,000 single-family homes. Bloomberg reported that Blackstone was spending $100 million a week to buy distressed homes to rent and hold until prices rise.The buyout firm GTIS Partners said it plans to spend $1 billion through 2016 buying single-family properties and converting them to rentals, while Oaktree Capital Management of Los Angeles started a fund that would buy $450 million worth of single-family homes, the Los Angeles Times reported. Also here in Southern California, G8 Capital of Ladera Ranch bought several portfolios of distressed properties to rent.

The real estate investment firm McKinley Capital Partners of Oakland has purchased hundreds of homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Urban Strategies Council reported that in Oakland, speculators had bought 42 percent of all properties that went through foreclosure.

“This is an outrage,” Oakland Councilwoman Desley Brooks told the nonprofit news site. “People in Oakland typically (buy a home) and put in roots in a neighborhood and stay there and this strategy with investors is doing away with that. It's taking away from our ability to have neighborhoods where people know each other ... we need that in Oakland.”

While interest rates are at record lows, many individual buyers in hard-hit areas don’t have the savings, credit or income to buy.

Is this just the marketplace at work? I don’t think so. The Obama administration insisted that it was implementing policies to ease the foreclosure crisis, putting in place incentives to ensure banks would help homeowners through loan modifications and principal reductions for underwater homes.

But in contrast to the massive, no questions asked shoveling of money to prop up the big banks in the bailout, help for homeowners was late, inadequate and tepid. The incentives were too small and the policies lacked teeth to hold bankers accountable when they didn’t take action or when they foreclosed using fraudulent or forged documents.

A particularly damning admission about these policies came from the mouth of former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, as quoted by Neil Barofsky, former special inspector-general of Troubled Asset Relief Fund, aka the bailout. In his book,”Bailout,” Barfosky contends Geithner acknowledged that the foreclosure relief programs weren’t really intended to help homeowners but instead, to help banks manage their foreclosure portfolios, or in Geithner’s colorful words, to “foam the runway for the banks.”

The president has yet to make any such acknowledgement, and wants us to believe that his policies have helped middle-class Americans regain a foothold. Nothing could be further from the truth. It looks like these policies have facilitated a massive takeover of the affordable U.S. housing market by the same speculators who brought it down.