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To fix the economy, first fix the housing market

October 3, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

There’s no way the U.S. can get back on track without a cure for what’s killing real estate.

Is this a great country or what? At the start of last year, a friend of mine, the proprietor of a small business that has suffered badly in the recession, entered a trial mortgage-modification program. A few months later the bank told him that his application for a government-assisted refinancing rate had been turned down — his house was too far underwater. He had bought it during the boom for $220,000, putting down $30,000, and then spent another $45,000 doing it up. Now it’s worth about $100,000. Once his monthly payments were set to go back up (his mortgage rate is 6.5%), my friend stopped paying them and waited for the foreclosure and eviction notices to arrive. A year and a half later he is still inhabiting his own home and watching the mail.

Whenever I hear somebody saying that growth is about to pick up, I think about my friend and the roughly 11 million homeowners whose mortgages are worth more than their homes. Some of them are still making their monthly payments. Some, like my pal, are living for nothing. The drip-drip foreclosure crisis shows how, six years after the bursting of the real estate bubble, the U.S. residential real estate market is still a mess. And without a genuine revival in housing, it is hard to think we will ever get a self- sustaining recovery.

Sure, the news that President Obama and the Republicans are talking about enlarging this year’s payroll tax cut and extending unemployment benefits through 2012 is good news. The last thing the economy needs is a $250 billion hit to spending, which is what doing nothing would amount to. But where are the serious proposals to revive the housing market? It’s as if both parties have agreed to drop the issue.

Housing isn’t just another industry: It’s a driving force for the entire economy. Residential investment accounts for up to a quarter of overall capital investment. House prices have a big influence on consumer spending — for every $1,000 the value of his house falls, a homeowner tends to cut his outlays by about $50 or $60. And falling property tax revenues are decimating many towns and cities. How bad is it out there? New-home construction is running at less than a third of its pre-recession level; in August it fell again. Existing-home sales picked up a bit, but that was largely because of bottom-fishing investors who are betting prices can’t go any lower. Let’s hope they are right. Nationwide, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index, prices are down 6% over the past year and down 32% since the first quarter of 2006.

I’m not saying that fixing the housing market is easy. If it were, somebody would have done it. But to begin with, we could make the much-maligned Home Affordable Refinancing Program (HAMP) work better. Generally, anybody who is current on payments and whose home is worth at least 80% of the outstanding loan is eligible to participate. But many homeowners have been put off by the red tape and by additional charges that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which ultimately own or insure many of the mortgages, have imposed on applicants.

Then there are folks whose mortgages are way underwater. One option: Force the banks to foreclose on them and get the whole nightmare over with. But that would dump yet more properties on the market. A better solution, which has never seriously been tried, would be to expand the mortgage-modification program, offering interest rate reductions and principal write-offs in return for options on the upside value of the property. For example, the government and the bank could reduce my friend’s mortgage to $150,000 — 150% of the property’s current value — but demand half of any profit he makes when he eventually sells the property.

The details would need working on — there’s a tradeoff between maximizing uptake and minimizing rewards to irresponsible borrowers — but surely it is worth trying. Three years of fiddling with the housing problem haven’t gotten us very far.

–John Cassidy is a Fortune contributor and a New Yorker staff writer.

This article is from the October 17, 2011 issue of Fortune.