Ebola And Housing

A handful of Americans have contracted a terrible disease. Tens of thousands of Americans have been prevented from gaining access to homeownership. One story has been the obsessive focus of the mainstream media for the past few weeks, and the other has been all but ignored by the same media outlets.

I’m not saying that the arrival of Ebola on this side of the Atlantic is not newsworthy, but there is a very big difference between mature coverage of a developing story and a manic obsession that becomes numbing for an audience to absorb. There is also a very big difference between underreporting a significant story and refusing to devote any attention to a situation that is beginning to have a damaging impact on the nation’s socio-economic structure.

But this is not just a “blame the media for doing a crummy job” rant. After all, the media – not unlike any audience-seeking entity – plays to the tastes of its target market. If TV news programs, website and newspapers (and, yes, there are still newspapers out there) continue to attract audiences, it is because they are responding to a certain type of coverage and focus, not to mention a distinctive delivery style. Forcing something that is different – let alone complex – into the equation creates a news story that is difficult for many people to accept.

Or, at least that is the accepted opinion of the media industry. In reality, it is a shabby excuse to allow the media to pretend certain stories don’t exist. This is not acceptable.

The Ebola story is a very easy story to present: a weird and obscure disease from a distant continent begins to infect people in this country. Naturally, there is a fear factor attached to this story: since relatively little is known in this country about Ebola, a panic erupts on how it might be transmitted. Throw in a bungling federal health agency that inspires no confidence with its assurances of an under-control situation and this becomes a news item that can be repeated and enhanced infinitely.

The state of housing is a completely different matter. It lacks the neatness of the us-versus-it battle lines of how the public is facing the Ebola situation – in the case of housing, there are too many players in the public and private sectors, along with a large chorus of loud pundits and advocates who are too willing to offer their opinions on who is to blame. There is no clearly defined villain, unless you subscribe to the notion that all bankers or mortgage brokers are in league with the devil.

The housing crisis is not a problem that can be easily disinfected by a team of health workers wearing Hazmat suits. Laws and regulations put into place over the past four years that were designed to ensure the safety and stability of the housing market have created the opposite effect – rather than locking out the sketchy players that drove the economy into shambles in the previous decade, these new mandates have instead locked out creditworthy people from being able to secure a home loan.

Even worse, today’s new classes of college graduates are burdened with extraordinary debt tied to their student loans. This debt cannot be easily whittled away, due in large part to a miserable job market that offers little except for ultra-low-paying opportunities, mostly of the part-time nature.

And for those that are somehow able to jump through the proverbial hoops and emerge with limited or no debt, the ability to access a mortgage is now much more expensive than it was in previous years. That is because lenders are finding themselves financially squeezed by the ridiculously heavy amount of compliance requirements placed on their operations, and the only way they can try to maintain some kind of profit is by passing the extra costs along to their customers. Is anyone surprised that more and more people are opting to rent, even though rental costs are also at new highs?

In a sane world, one might assume that a savvy developer or a vote-seeking politician would make an extra push for new housing developments that stress borrower affordability. But, as a casual glimpse out the window will affirm, this is not a sane world. Indeed, markets where affordable housing is needed the most tend to be the ones where they are least available. It is not surprise that most major American cities are turning into mini-versions of Dubai, with a glut of luxury housing at the expense of the low- and middle-income people that are needed to make the economy function.

Yes, it is depressing, and it will be even more depressing if this situation is not addressed with a new degree of urgency. Perhaps it is time for the members of the housing industry and the mortgage space to start challenging the mainstream media to give this the same degree of urgency as it gives the Ebola story. And the story needs to be told with honesty and maturity, and not in the ridiculous manner of the post-2008 period when blame was dumped indiscriminately on lenders while other parties were immediately absolved of their recklessness.

How do you tell the media to do a better job? Simple: letters to the editor, phone calls, emails, social media postings, op-ed columns, and a proactive effort to get quoted by business reporters on the occasional stories about housing that somehow get aired.

The challenges facing the housing market today have a huge impact on many, many people. It is incumbent upon industry professionals to ensure this story is properly reported.

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