In 1934, during the depths of the Depression, Congress passed the National Housing Act to strengthen a deeply troubled housing market. This act created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) which was amended in 1938 to create the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) – an entity designed to help mortgage lenders gain access to capital for mortgage loans. An important element of this legislation was to make mortgage funds available to more Americans by protecting lenders from the risk of default. In its earliest days, Fannie Mae nationalized the mortgage industry by creating the first mechanism in America for selling individual mortgages (backed the U.S. government) into a secondary market.
When the FHA and Fannie Mae were created, the housing industry was flat on its back:
- Two million construction workers had lost their jobs.
- Nearly half of all mortgage loans were in default
- Housing finance was a fragmented, inefficient and illiquid. Mortgage rates varied considerably from region to region. In some economically distressed regions there were simply no funds available.
- Terms were very difficult to meet for homebuyers seeking mortgages.
- Lending institutions would issue a mortgage, collect payments, and file the mortgage away until the principal was paid off. A lack of available, consistently priced capital put a hard ceiling on the number of new mortgages that could be issued
- Mortgage loan terms were limited to 50 percent of the property's market value. Borrower's were faced with a 50% down payment and a repayment schedule spread over three to five years and ending with a large balloon payment.
- America was primarily a nation of renters. Only four in 10 households owned homes.
In the 1940's after WWII, the FHA and the GI Bill helped finance millions of homes for returning veterans and their families. This post war period would mark the peak of American economic dominance. We were still the world's major oil producer AND exporter and due to the devastation of the European manufacturing base, we dominated the world in virtually every industrial and manufacturing sector.
Fueled by cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy, this period would also mark the beginning of an American landscape built around the automobile and the “American (suburban) Dream”. These were “heady” times and the freedom of movement afforded by the automobile combined with affordable housing for millions of returning GI's would prove seductive. We would build cars and homes as if the gasoline, natural gas, fuel oil, and electricity that made driving and comfortable home dwelling possible would be cheap and abundant forever. The big lumbering gas guzzling V8's of the forties and fifties would be driven home to the energy guzzling, thinly insulated, drafty homes of a new suburbia. The cars would last about 5 five years. The homes however would last an average of 75 years.
In 1946, when the American post war housing boom started, the average house was 1100 square feet and housed 5 people. Fifty years latter, in 1996 the average house would grow to 2200 square feet and house 2.6 people and by 2007, fueled by easy credit, the average American home would would become the equivalent of a Hummer, “weighing in” at super-sized 2,400 square feet. The peaking of U.S. oil production in 1971, the formation of OPEC in 1973 and the associated energy crisis' of the 1970's would force much needed improvements in our building codes. However, today's homes are still grossly under-insulated and 1/3 of their energy losses are still the result of air leaks through poorly constructed exterior walls! Our home energy standards are possibly worse than our car and truck CAFE standards (federal mileage requirements). Look underneath the hood of our homes and you'll 500 HP, super charged forced air furnaces lumbering away in our basements and holding the cold at bay with the brute force of natural gas and oil. We are still behaving as if cheap energy sources are forever.
Adding to the problem is the current culture of “homes as investments” and average ownership cycles of only 5 years. We are a culture with a myopic time horizon where granite countertops, super-sized floorplans, and home-equity financed SUV's trump energy efficiency and solar hot water systems. This “housing bubble” culture may soon be going the way of the dinosaur with the fall of the sub-prime loan market, the collapse of Wall Street's sleazy and toxic secondary market for home mortgages, and the first serious decline in home values since the great depression. However, the final death blow will come with the peaking of fossil fuel production, fuel shortages, blackouts, and the obvious and urgent need to transform our housing stock into some semblance of energy efficiency.