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Among the D.C. Housing Finance Agency’s many functions is providing long-term mortgages at affordable rates, mostly to first-time homebuyers, funded through city bonds. That came to an abrupt halt last November, when DCHFA’s master servicer Bank of America got out of the servicing business, and the agency hasn’t yet found anybody to replace it.
Still, DCHFA wasn’t issuing many loans even before Bank of America bailed. The number of declined from 208 in 2007 to 31 in 2010 and 40 in 2011. That drop loosely tracks the general slowdown in home purchasing over that period, but the absolute numbers represent a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall market. If DCHFA’s mortgage program was useful at all, shouldn’t it have been more productive?
I wondered about this in the context of other housing finance agencies in the area, specifically Arlington, which is on the hunt for upwardly mobile first-time homebuyers. The Virginia Housing Development Authority hawks their programs all over the state, issuing 2,600 single family loans in 2011 (that’s still better performance than D.C., given the population difference). Right now, interest rates are so low that homebuyers might not even need help from DCHFA, but that won’t be the case forever.
Harry Sewell, DCHFA’s CEO and the guy in charge of crafting a new housing policy for the District, knows that his mortgage program has a P.R. issue. In the past, they’ve used everything from ads on the side of buses to presentations at employee orientations for major businesses, and still not gotten more people to apply. In 2009, they started seeing folks with higher incomes—-in the $70,000 range—-and more white people. The pendulum shifted back in 2010, Sewell says, to more African Americans and people with lower incomes. That might be a symptom of a perception problem.
“Sometimes people automatically excluded themselves, thinking that’s only for low-income people,” Sewell says. “If they’re in their first job, likely they would be income qualified.”
Getting that sorted out, and letting people know about it, would be a pretty important piece of encouraging homeownership—-which everybody says they want.