The following editorial appeared Tuesday in the Miami Herald:
In his first inaugural speech, President Obama acknowledged that the nation was facing an economic crisis that hit many Americans where they live. "Homes have been lost," the president intoned solemnly, a meaningful reference to the collapse of the housing market and the urgent need to fix it.
Millions of homeowners around the country have learned firsthand the meaning of "short sale," "foreclosure" and "loan modification." They also learned about the abuses in mortgage lending that created the crisis.
On Monday, Obama made no reference to housing or lost homes in his second inaugural, signaling that the worst of the crisis is behind us.
But few consumer advocates give the president high marks for devising effective solutions, nor should they. To the extent that the market is recovering, it is due largely to the broader improvement in the economy rather than specific government programs.
However, a series of actions by the federal government have sought to put closure on the housing crisis.
The good. In September, the Fed announced a program to buy large quantities of mortgage bonds each month. This shift in policy has done more than any other initiative to aid housing.
Last week, the administration's new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued new rules for mortgage servicers. It will require them to deal fairly with struggling borrowers and offer clear information about costs. One week earlier, the CFPB issued new mortgage standards that should rid the market of "toxic mortgages" and thus remove a major obstacle keeping banks from making home loans.
These moves will benefit borrowers and home sellers.
Not so good: The government announced an $8.5 billion settlement earlier this month with 10 giant banks for mortgage abuses such as robo-signing and improper foreclosure tactics.
Ostensibly this is a win for consumers - $3.3 billion will go directly to borrowers who faced foreclosure, and $5.2 billion for loan modification and reduced interest payments.
But where's the accountability for all the misdeeds? No one is being punished. And what about making the benefit fit the level of wrongdoing? Borrowers will receive a check based on the type of error the banks made, but many will be undercompensated.
Going forward, consumers and their advocates - and lawmakers - must ensure that the rules are applied fairly.
The federal government will follow up on the $8.5 billion settlement by spelling out enforcement actions, which must benefit consumers. Those who suffered the most wrong deserve to receive the greatest benefit.