By Nicholas Riccardi
HENDERSON, Nev. — This suburb in a battleground state is pockmarked with half-built subdivisions, foreclosed homes and voters such as Leslie Levin.
Levin, who retired from his job as a real estate attorney at 49, is not the sort to pine for big government programs. But he steadily is losing the rental properties he owns, and watching friends and neighbors lose their own nest eggs and homes.
Six out of 10 Nevadans owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
“I’m a hard-core Republican, but this is wrong,” said Levin, 69. “How many families have suffered because of these banks?”
In many parts of the country, the housing market is on the rebound, with home values up, inventory tight and new housing construction rebounding. But here and in hotly contested Florida, the damage to the housing market still painfully is visible. Even though President Barack Obama and rival Mitt Romney have logged dozens of hours campaigning in these states, they rarely delve into the housing issue. Neither candidate has made it a centerpiece of his campaign.
“Housing is not really a winner of an issue for either candidate,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist of the housing website Trulia.com. “Obama doesn’t have big policy successes to point to, which he would need as the incumbent, and Romney doesn’t have bold new policy proposals.”
That’s because housing generally is not a winning issue, especially with the bulk of the damage confined to a few Sun Belt states, including California and Arizona, which are not in play in this election.
“With almost any housing policy, it’s very difficult to separate who is behind on their payments and about to lose their home for reasons beyond their control from those who might be benefiting from a bailout,” Kolko said.
Romney last month released a housing plan, but five of the seven pages are devoted to criticizing Obama and the document contains few concrete recommendations. Obama doesn’t mention housing in the 20-page booklet his campaign circulated last week to outline his second-term agenda.
When Obama took office in 2009, the housing market, like the overall economy, was in free-fall. Home prices had plunged by about a third nationwide.
The Obama campaign said the president can take at least some credit for the rebound.
“The administration has put forward a plan to help more responsible borrowers refinance their mortgages, saving hundreds of dollars per month, while taking concrete steps to help families stay in their homes, revitalize the communities hardest-hit by the housing crisis, and reform the mortgage lending market to better protect both consumers and taxpayers,” said Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher.
Stuart Gabriel, director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA, said Obama’s main achievement in housing was keeping Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — the two government-backed companies that underwrite an increasing number of mortgages — solvent during the downturn. That stopped the mortgage market from seizing up. “The president’s done very well with an extraordinarily difficult situation and a difficult hand of cards,” Gabriel said.
Still, many housing activists have been disappointed with the president’s response. Obama’s programs to let homeowners without equity refinance and to help some avoid foreclosure were lightly used. They represented enough government interference in the marketplace, however, to trigger a February 2009 on-air diatribe from CNBC reporter Rick Santelli that widely is seen as the dawn of the tea party. The president was unable to get Congress to agree to legislation that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to adjust the principle owed on mortgages, known as “cram-down.”
Stephen Brown, an economist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Obama might not have acted aggressively enough in 2009, but that the Bush administration also was too timid on housing.
“More decisive action was necessary in 2009, but maybe even in 2008,” Brown said. “One could fault the Obama administration, but some of the policies were already under way.”
The Romney campaign, naturally, faults Obama. “The Obama record on housing initiatives is abysmal,” spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. “It’s clear President Obama just hasn’t lived up to his own promises, and we can’t afford four more years like the last four.”
Romney himself remains haunted by a statement he made to the Las Vegas Review-Journal last fall, when he said the best housing policy was to let foreclosures “hit bottom.” In campaign appearances, Obama routinely tweaks his Republican opponent over the line, and his surrogates bash the Republican candidate for owning three homes and not sympathizing with regular homeowners.
Analysts think the silence is telling. “They don’t have any ideas they could sell in Washington,” Brown said.
Gabriel added that the candidates’ few statements on the issue show they have similar intentions. The unspoken housing issue for the next four years is how to deal with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which now have an outsized role in underwriting mortgages because of damage from the housing collapse. It’s a knotty problem that can’t easily be discussed in campaign-sized sound bites.
“It’s doubtful the candidates have different positions on this,” Gabriel said of housing. “It’s just not easy to do big, radical things here.”