Zeros And Heroes

The mortgage world and the housing industry is more than just a jumble of data and a wash of dollars and cents – it is a whirl of personalities that drive trends, shape perceptions and create both results and disasters. This week, my column takes a look at some of the more interesting individuals that are having an impact, both for better and worse. And to celebrate the joys of gimmicky journalism, I am giving the designation “zero” to those that are creating problems and “hero” to those who have done work deserving praise.

Zero: Julian Castro. We all know why the young and telegenic San Antonio mayor was tapped to become the next HUD chief, and it has absolutely nothing to do with his extraordinary accomplishments in housing or urban development. This is not the first time that HUD is being used to give instant prominence to a rising political player – remember Andrew Cuomo and Mel Martinez? – and Castro’s appointment reaffirms the Obama Administration’s continued refusal to take housing issues seriously.

Hero: Shaun Donovan. In order to accommodate Castro’s ascendancy into the Washington elite, the current HUD head is being kicked aside to run the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. This is a shame because Donovan was the rare HUD leader that actually tried to do his job without falling victim to scandal or using the office for self-promotional purposes. Yes, Donovan’s record was lacking in significant triumphs – but considering the low priority that the administration has given to HUD’s mission, the fault cannot be rested solely at Donovan’s feet.

Zero: Brandon Friedman, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for public affairs. On June 4, Friedman took to Twitter to comment on the controversy surround the recent swap of jailed Taliban leaders for long-missing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Yeah, why is a HUD bureaucrat talking about this? Even worse, Friedman sought to smear Bergdahl’s former comrades after they publicized the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance. Friedman tried to justify Bergdahl’s alleged desertion when he tweeted: “Here’s the thing about Bergdahl and the Jump-to-Conclusion mats: What if his platoon was long on psychopaths and short on leadership?” Another tweet by Friedman suggested that Bergdahl’s platoon mates were liars. Excuse me while I vomit.

Hero: Trey Garrison of HousingWire. Friedman’s disgusting Twitter remarks would have been ignored by the mortgage trade media had it not been for the excellent reporting of HousingWire’s senior financial reporter. At a time when most trade media is either cutting or pasting press releases or rewriting what other media sources are reporting, Garrison caught an astonishing story and forced Friedman to issue a statement clarifying his comments (a non-apology apology, admittedly, but it was better than stony silence).

Zero: President Obama. What did Barry O do wrong now? Well, last week he issued an executive order capping repayments on student loan debt at 10 percent of the borrowers’ monthly income. But talk about too little, too late: the proposal won’t take effect until December 2015, and no economist believes this will make a dent in the more than $1 trillion in federal student loan debt that is now crippling a generation of Americans. Genuine Executive Branch leadership is still lacking here.

Hero: David H. Stevens. The Mortgage Bankers Association leader deserves praise for warning that the student loan debt crisis will wreck the chances for the housing market to enjoy restored stability – not to mention the chances of enjoying a true economic recovery. In a recent CNBC interview, Stevens pointed to the student loan debt situation and stated that “it tells me we still have a ways to go in this recovery.” Stevens also warned CNBC that consumer confidence is still lacking, which is hurting the housing market. “The opportunity to get the market kick-started has to come with increased confidence,” he said. Thank you, Mr. Stevens, for telling CNBC (and the nation) what we need to hear: the truth.

Zero: Redfin Research Center. Earlier this month, the folks at Redfin issued a report that claimed that Bill Gates had enough money to buy all of the housing units in Boston. Why in the world would anyone want to put forth such a stupid report? Says Redfin: “Given that the average American struggles to afford a home, we wanted to illustrate just how many homes the wealthiest among us could buy.” Ah yes, another volley of class warfare in the guise of allegedly calling attention to so-called “income equality.”

Hero: Mayor Martin Walsh of Boston. While the Redfin folks were imagining Bill Gates’ buying up Boston, the city’s mayor has put forth a bold new development initiative designed to bring some much-needed middle-income housing to his city. “Property values are skyrocketing and we need to create more opportunities for home ownership,” Walsh said in a recent interview. “Construction of high-end units have been outpacing those for moderate income, and we have to try to do a better job of balancing that.” Mayor Walsh has the right focus: instead of encouraging envy of prosperous people, he is working to ensure that working people have affordable housing. That makes him a hero in my book!

About The Author

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Phil Hall has been (among other things) a United Nations-based radio journalist, the president of a public relations and marketing agency, a financial magazine editor, the author of six books and a horror movie actor. Also, as you will discover, he is not shy about stating his views.