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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Obama’s legacy: Land of the poor, home of the foreclosed

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Barack Obama‘s road to re-election is lined with lots of boarded-up homes.

Though the high unemployment rate dominates talk in Washington, for many 2012 voters the housing crisis may well be a more powerful manifestation of a sick economy. And, in an unfortunate twist for Obama, the problem is at its worst in many of the battleground states that will be decisive in determining whether he gets another term.

Swing states Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Michigan — they all pulse red-hot on a foreclosure rate “heat map.” And by themselves those five add up to 80 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Mortgage default notices surged nationally last month. One in every 118 homes in Nevada received a foreclosure filing in August, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac. One in 248 in Arizona. One in 349 in Michigan. One in 376 in Florida. And so on.

A foreclosure’s impact is visceral and outsized, rippling far beyond one household.

“Entire neighborhoods see what’s going on,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Clinton administration official. “The visibility contributes to the psychology of continued economic troubles.”

There’s the in-your-face eyesore sometimes created by a vacant house next door sprouting weeds on the front lawn.

There’s the downward pressure on housing values that can follow for everyone else in the neighborhood.

There’s the welling frustration felt by neighboring homeowners who may owe more on their own mortgages than their homes are worth.

Nearly a quarter of all U.S. homeowners with mortgages are now underwater, representing nearly 11 million homes, according to CoreLogic, a real estate research firm.

Again, many of the states with the highest underwater mortgage rates also are political battleground states: In Nevada, 60 percent of homeowners are upside down, according to CoreLogic. Arizona is at 49 percent; Florida, 45 percent; Michigan, 36 percent.

Obama will need swing-state voters more than ever in 2012 because of the tougher political climate for Democrats this election season.

Politically, it all adds up to “the thousand-pound gorilla in the room,” says Roy Oppenheim, a Florida foreclosure defense attorney who speaks of “suburban blight” in his home state, of gutted homes, of entire neighborhoods where banks are bulldozing foreclosures.

Obama set high expectations for turning things around, Oppenheim says, and hasn’t been able to deliver, leaving people disillusioned.

“At some point, you don’t judge people by how well they speak, you judge them by their actions,” says the attorney, who backed Obama in the 2008 presidential race. “I continue, I guess, to support him, but I do it very reluctantly.”

None of this has been lost on the president.

When Obama was asked at a forum this summer what mistakes he’d made in handling the recession, and what he’d do differently, he quickly singled out housing. The market didn’t bottom out as quickly as expected, he said, despite multiple administration efforts to help people stay in their homes and to start boosting home values, he said.

The president made only brief mention of the housing problem in his highly anticipated jobs speech this month, but he did promise to expand a government program that helps people refinance their mortgages at lower interest rates. He also proposed a new effort to rehabilitate distressed real estate in areas hard-hit by foreclosures.

The reach of the refinancing program thus far has been a disappointment to many: As of July, more than 838,000 homeowners had managed to refinance through it, but officials had hoped for at least 4 million.

A separate government mortgage modification program hasn’t lived up to expectations either. About 1.7 million Americans have gotten their mortgages modified through it, but it, too, was envisioned to help 4 million.

Brian Deese, deputy director of the National Economic Council, says the figures don’t convey the true benefit of that program because it spurred far more private mortgage modifications. Overall, closer to 5 million modifications have taken place through public and private efforts, according to Deese.

The president has taken a number of other steps in recent months to aid struggling homeowners, including efforts to help the long-term unemployed stay in their homes, to make it easier to obtain mortgage modifications and to turn more vacant properties into rentals.

Deese promises the administration will “stay at it and be as creative and aggressive as we can at taking responsible steps to stabilize the market and help homeowners.”

But private economists caution that there aren’t many tools left.

“There are some things on the margin that they can do, but it’s going to be very difficult for them to make a big difference here quickly,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “These are just really complex problems that don’t lend themselves to a quick policy response.”

The Republican presidential candidates have devoted surprisingly little public comment to the issue. The topic never came up in two recent GOP debates.

But the candidates know the issue is ripe for picking, and it is sure to be used against Obama.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who styles himself as the only presidential candidate with the business savvy to turn around the economy, this spring made a point of visiting a depressed Las Vegas neighborhood in one of the ZIP codes with the worst foreclosure rates in the country. In announcing his candidacy, he equated abandoned houses with abandoned dreams.

The Republican campaign committees are quick to spread the word of new and depressing housing reports.

The public, meanwhile, is running out of patience.

A summertime poll by CBS and The New York Times found that 48 percent of all Americans said they’d been affected by the housing market’s downturn, including 15 percent who said the impact on their family had required major life changes. Nearly as many people felt the government should be doing more about it.

“Most of his efforts have, frankly, failed,” says Orson Aguilar, executive director of the Greenlining Institute, a low-income advocacy group in California. “He needs to really focus more on housing and give it another shot. Everybody has basically given up on the previous proposals.”

Republican strategist Matt McDonald said that while people generally like Obama, there comes a point when they have had enough and say, “‘Listen, it’s nothing personal but I’ve got to get things going in my own personal economy.’ … I would not be banking on the argument of ‘Give me a little more time.'”

Further, McDonald says, because there’s a lag between when economic progress occurs and when people recognize it, “the time they have to practically impact the economy, whether it’s housing or jobs, is probably shorter than people think.”


Associated Press writer Derek Kravitz contributed to this report.


Nancy Benac can be reached at


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4 thoughts on “Obama’s legacy: Land of the poor, home of the foreclosed”

  1. This is not Obama’s fault any more than it is George Bush’s fault, it is a failure of this government in its entirety over generations.

    The myriad problems we Americans face each and every day are the direct result of government policy. Republican or Democrat makes no difference – they are all wholly owned by banking and corporate interests, and presumably always will be.

    We are on the brink of very bad times. The time for believing in the Hill People’s desire or ability to fix this is nearing an end. Greed and corruption, fraud and abuse is the name of the game.

    Our money goes to bombs and imperial death. People are dying, starving, suffering. For what? To preserve our way of life? What life is this? Tax slaves? Slaves to Wall Street? Slaves on the Global Plantation? Frightened, scurrying creatures removing our shoes and bending to the will of our security state overlords? Hanging on every word and action from these self-important, holier-than-thou bastards? Hoping?

    This is America?

  2. Yup.

    Throw in Bloomberg’s warning and we might find out what desparate people will do.

    Maybe … gasp … they’ll throw the dad gum shats out.

  3. The housing market fell apart and people are losing homes they could not pay for. What can the government do? The Democrats blame President Obama and the Republicans seem to be cheering the situation without coming up with a single fix.

    Do we bail out the banks? Do we bail out the home owners? Do we fund corporations to hire people? Do we bring in the Tea Party and sit through prayers and not do anything?

    I bought a home in Arizona for $80K and moved out to return to California. I owe no mortgage so I do this without faulting on payments. I did it to get out of Arizona where bigotry and racism, not to mention homophobia, rules the character of the state. I’m settled in the Coachella Valley just waiting for that AZ home to sell for whatever they can get for it. I’ve never bought a home I couldn’t pay cash for. I can do this because I avoid the high rent districts. I’m in a mobile home park and love it!

    I can’t imagine waiting for the government to get me out of a fix that I walked into.

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