>“Abolition of private property and the application of all rent to public purpose.”
– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)
Just after the abominable housing bill of this past July, I wrote an article about the very real prospect of the government getting into the property management business, due to the nationalization of the mortgage industry that effectively occurred when the government seized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The scenario was admittedly conjectured, but unfortunately it seems to be playing out even worse than I could have imagined (and I can imagine pretty bad from our government). An article in the New York Times put one more piece of the puzzle in place.
Keep in mind that the real devastation of this economic crisis has not really occurred yet. We still don’t have double digit unemployment (at least using the government’s numbers), but that is inevitably what is coming. Right now, we have unemployment that is setting records for one-month growth, but we do not have tens of millions of Americans out of work. That makes today’s news all the more disturbing.
If you have any experience with rental properties, as either a landlord or a renter, you know that when a rental property goes into foreclosure, the tenants are routinely evicted. It is much easier to sell a foreclosure property without tenants, among other reasons because choosing tenants is one of the skills that separate successful landlords from unsuccessful ones. Good landlords also usually want to do some renovation to the property, which is at least inconvenient and to some extent virtually impossible with the property already occupied. The justification for the eviction is, of course, that the property now lawfully belongs to someone else (the bank), who never consented to the rental agreement and has every right to refuse to honor it.
Or do they? According to the Charles Duhigg of the Times, Fannie Mae announced today that it would “sign new leases with renters living in foreclosed properties owned by the company.” Of course “owned by the company” is an ironic choice of words, because “the company” is none other than the U.S. government. While my previous article envisioned Section 8 as the possible vehicle for converting large percentages of the (former) middle class into government tenants, this new policy today goes one step farther. Section 8 uses public funds to subsidize rent payments to private owners of rental properties. This policy represents renters making rent payments directly to the U.S. government, for the “privilege” of living in government-owned homes. While the numbers for homes owned outright by Fannie Mae are small at the moment, it is no less a watershed moment.
Of course the policies of Fannie Mae are not binding upon the so-called “private sector” (is there still one?), at least not yet. As the Duhigg reports,
““We’re not in the business of managing rental properties, and we’re not in the business of being a landlord,” said Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, which owns about two million loans. “Clearly the renter is caught in the middle in cases like this. When a property is in foreclosure, we follow the law.”
It is somewhat amusing that a representative of J.P. Morgan Chase would speak so reverently about the law, as if it were some bastion of property rights and justice. Having been the beneficiary of the lion’s share of the largesse during the financial sector bailouts, this bank should know better than anyone that the law and justice no longer have much to do with each other. If property rights get in the way of some new government theft, a law is simply passed to eliminate the obstacle. Having eschewed the concept of republican government in exchange for “democracy,” there are now no rights that cannot be violated, as long as a sufficient number of votes can be raised among elected representatives. Indeed, our government does not really recognize “rights,” which transcend government. It grants privileges and erroneously refers to them as rights.
I doubt that private sector banks will retain the privilege of evicting tenants from the properties they acquire in foreclosure for very long, once the new presidential administration and Congress take office. Already, the cries for “fairness” are beginning to be heard. As the Times article reports,
“Some lawmakers and housing advocates say such policies are unjust.
“If your loan is owned by Fannie Mae, you get to stay in your home. If your loan is owned by someone else, you’re on the street,” said Mr. Taylor of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. “These banks need to realize they’re in the property management business now, whether they like it or not.”
Note the use of 21st century coercion-euphemisms. Any statement beginning with “You need to…” is one that could just as well start with “I ORDER you to…” At least the tyrants in centuries past made such statements with swords drawn and pointed at their victims. Today’s authoritarianism with a smile is actually more horrifying.
With all of the travesties of justice taking place during this blackest of years in our history, one might argue that insisting that banks retain the right to put renters out on the street represents confused priorities. Perhaps so. However, one thing is certain. The line was already blurred regarding the right to own property before this, as the government could seize it from you merely for being unable to pay its property taxes. Now that the banks (and soon anyone buying properties in foreclosure) have no say over who lives in the house that they just bought, that line has become a smudge at best. In reality, there really is no such thing as homeownership. Government merely grants the privilege of stewardship over ITS homes. This latest farce merely makes that fact clearer.
So much for the moral considerations on this issue. I seem to have been far less efficient in confronting them than the government, which breezed right on by them. Who says it can’t get things done quickly?
As far as unintended consequences, this latest bit of idiocy is so ripe with them that it is hard to know where to begin. I am not sure who truly manages these properties, now that they are the property of the government but still occupied. Who does the tenant call when the sink starts leaking? If you think you see a program like Medicare or Medicaid coming, you’re not alone. We could always use another network of overpaid providers rendering sub-par service at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars to taxpayers. Worse yet, as more and more average Americans wind up in government-owned or subsidized homes, the program to pay handymen to do repairs could grow into an institution, just like the aforementioned medical programs. Among other negative consequences, this will tend to push the prices for these repairs through the roof for everyone, just as government-provided medical care and student loans push up the cost of healthcare and tuition for everyone. Let’s hope the government doesn’t start providing beer – we can’t afford bubble prices for that in times like these!
Of course, the glaring weakness in this latest move has to do with the central issue – selling the foreclosed properties. The whole reason behind lenders taking possession of a property when the borrower defaults is to sell that property and recover some of the losses on the loan. This new policy of Fannie Mae’s, which will almost certainly become a law sometime during the next Congressional term, will only prolong the time that these properties are on the market. Far less buyers will be willing to acquire properties if they are forced to take their chances on a tenant that they haven’t personally vetted, and on a property where their options are limited in terms of what they can do with it after they acquire it. This fits the FDR pattern of intervening into the markets and preventing a needed correction perfectly. The market is trying to liquidate these properties and allow them to be sold at more reasonable prices to more viable customers. The government policy will arrest that process, causing the crisis to take longer resolve itself, if it is allowed to resolve itself at all.
It also goes without saying that the landlords who will buy the homes are more likely to be poorer landlords, as they are by definition landlords who care less about who they rent to. This tends to manifest itself in the appearance and upkeep of the properties, affecting property values throughout the entire neighborhood. Add to that the poor service and quality of work that comes with the government or banks providing the property management and you have the recipe for some scary neighborhoods. Collateral damage certainly isn’t just a military term, once our federal government gets rolling.
So where does this all lead us? I said at the beginning that one of the most disturbing aspects of this story was that an idea like this has been born before the real crisis gets rolling. We have had a market crash and ensuing credit crunch, but everyone seems to be in denial over what inevitably comes next – massive unemployment. Once that starts really manifesting itself (probably as early as next summer), the “state of emergency” mindset will kick in with our government and things could really deteriorate quickly. Right now, loan defaulters are being evicted from the property that they borrowed against and are finding homes in the abundant rental market. However, when the vast majority of them are unemployed, they will need the government to help them, too. It is certainly not hard to imagine a scenario where unemployed loan defaulters are evicted from their homes in foreclosure, only to be “placed” into rental properties that the government owns (but cannot sell), or even into another property that the same bank that just seized their home acquired in foreclosure on somebody else!
For those properties owned by the government, the renters would pay the government directly (eventually it may even be a standard payroll deduction). For those properties owned by a private bank, the Section 8 program will provide the rent subsidies, which the government is now obligated to pay the bank/landlords because they forced them to get into the property management business in the first place. Alternatively, the government may just start buying the houses from the bank, in order to “stablilize” the housing market and because it now has an incentive to grow its new program. The government will certainly have an incentive to put people into the houses that it already owns and cannot sell. This program could realistically feed itself until tens of millions of Americans are in government housing.
On the brighter side, at least this will further solidify the close relationship between our banking institutions and the federal government. We could always use more tight collusion between government and big business. There is no sense in repeating the worst mistakes of the past century without throwing in a little more fascism.
However, the fascist model is more the Republican brand of socialism, at least in this century. The Democrats seems to favor the Marxist variety, as evidenced by their increasingly Marxist rhetoric and their choice of a presidential candidate. Make no mistake, government-provided housing is right in their proverbial wheel house, and you can expect them to jump on the “opportunity” next year’s emergency will afford them to hit this one out of the stadium. The Carter years might look like an economic golden age before this is over. Let’s hope that it is apparent to most Americans in four years that the medicine is killing the patient. Medicare may not be around to cover the catastrophic care needed by 2016.
 Mark, Karl and Engels, Friedrich Manifesto of the Communist Party (The Communist Manifesto) 1848. (This is Plank One of the famous Ten Planks of the Communist Manifesto)
 I suppose I should be grateful that the patronizing assertion that “the taxpayers” own Fannie Mae was not made in this particular article. That characterization has been an especially insulting aspect of our conversion to socialism. Ownership can only occur when you CHOOSE to own something, and when you have some control over its disposal. Moreover, it should be evident that even in the unlikely event that our government somehow makes money on this travesty, not one dollar will be coming back to taxpayers, nor should we accept it if it did.
 Duhigg, Charles “Fannie Mae Lets Renters Stay Despite Foreclosures” New York Times December 14, 2008
 Sadly, this expression has become ubiquitous in the private sector as well. Americans brought up under the yoke of coercion know no other way to deal with one another.
 Of course, this policy would not by any means be the only factor in houses not selling. Neither will it be the only action government will be taking to block the overall correction and make the depression worse.