04/17/2012 07:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Homeowners Can't Afford Another Missed Opportunity

When the housing bubble burst more than four years ago, many banks and federal regulators argued that the impact would be limited and the damage contained to the subprime market.

Famous last words.

Now we know the full story: unregulated finance companies and malfeasant brokers peddled toxic loans designed to earn originators a quick buck at the expense of unsuspecting homeowners, investors, and taxpayers. The damage has spread well beyond the subprime market and helped usher in the worst recession of our generation. The majority of financial trickery was carried out at the hands of lenders that operated outside the scope of federal oversight. The Federal Reserve could have reined them in, but reacted too late. This trend persisted under Bush and Obama when both administrations missed opportunities to get ahead of the market crash and the ensuing tidal wave of foreclosures.

Last week, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) released a report on the treatment of REOs--real estate owned properties, meaning foreclosed properties owned by banks--in nine cities. Their research found that REOs in predominately minority neighborhoods were scarred with the signs of neglect and blight while those in predominately White neighborhoods were well maintained even though they are serviced by the same company. The impact goes beyond the aesthetic. Abandoned properties are estimated to reduce neighboring home values by an average of $7,200 and cost cities millions in maintenance and lost tax revenue. The disparate treatment by servicers comes on the heels of unfair targeting of these same communities by deceptive lenders. Black and Hispanic families were more than twice as likely to be sold subprime loans, even though they had the credit to qualify for regular prime loans. The foreclosures that followed have wiped out 58 percent of Black and 66 percent of Hispanic wealth. Now neglected REOs are threatening to set our neighborhoods and families back even further.

The slide show below shows the contrast between in Miami between two REOs in two different communities. See if you can tell which one is in which community.

When done right, REOs can be a neighborhood asset. Creative reuse of REO properties can fuel community revival and expand housing opportunities for a broad range of families. Because many bank-owned properties are in neighborhoods close to good schools, jobs, transportation, recreation, healthy foods, and other amenities, they provide a unique avenue for expanding access to opportunity for all families while also breaking down barriers of segregation and isolation. Banks should work with mission-driven local partners like Chicanos Por La Causa in Phoenix, which is acquiring REO properties and converting them into ownership opportunities for families who have completed their housing counseling program. Another NCLR Affiliate in Stockton, Calif., Visionary Homebuilders of California, has established a lease-purchase program for reclaimed REO homes where renters partner with a financial coach to work their way toward an opportunity to buy the home. NCLR is exploring ways to expand these kinds of programs to other cities throughout the country.

In a recent speech, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stated that over the next couple of years an additional one million foreclosed properties per year could be added to the REOs held by banks, guarantors, and servicers. Beyond the fact that mortgage servicers are legally required to maintain the properties they own, it would go a long way to healing their relationship with those communities if servicers also participated in and supported those innovative programs to repurpose properties with the community's social goals in mind. To get there, regulators--starting with the Federal Housing Finance Agency--must set and enforce strong standards to make sure that servicers treat all borrowers and all communities fairly, including standards for maintaining and marketing foreclosed homes. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice should fully investigate the disparities uncovered in the NFHA report.

If no action is taken, abandoned and vacant properties will continue to drag down home prices and infect neighborhoods with crime and blight. But with a little creativity and cooperation, REOs can become a driving force in neighborhood stabilization. Homeowners cannot afford for banks and regulators to miss another opportunity like this.