Cash crunch traps homeowners
Mortgages may be half of income
MIAMI - Al Ray is so strapped for cash, the only time he eats out is on Wednesday or Sunday, when the local McDonald's sells hamburgers for 49 cents.
Ray lost his engineering job last November, and has been working as high school tutor, scratching out about $1,000 a month - if he's lucky. He struggled to make his $1,400 monthly mortgage payment and $330 monthly homeowners' association fee until May, when he stopped paying.
Ray, 44, is looking for work and renting out a room in his two-bedroom condo in Davie, Fla., for $500, but his monthly income doesn't match his expenses and he's facing foreclosure.
"I barely have money to survive," he said.
Ray is one of more than 7.5 million people - almost 15 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage - who are spending half of their income or more on housing costs, according to 2007 data released today by the Census Bureau. That is up from nearly 7.1 million the year before.
Traditionally, the government and most lenders consider a homeowner spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs to be financially burdened. But that definition now covers almost 38 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage - 19 million of them.
Though home prices have fallen this year, in the most expensive markets where home prices tripled during the boom, many working families still cannot afford to buy a home.
"We had a bubble," said Dean Baker, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. "This is a case where we absolutely want the market to adjust."
The data underscore the serious affordability problems in this country and highlight how the slightest financial problem - from a lost job to higher gas prices or insurance premiums - can put a family behind on their mortgages and into the realm of foreclosure.
When home prices fell in the early 1990s, borrowers had more equity in their homes, and were able to escape foreclosure.
More than 4 million homeowners were at least one month behind on their loans at the end of June, and almost 500,000 had started the foreclosure process, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Cascading foreclosures over the past two years created a domino effect in the lending industry, undermining investor confidence and forcing the Bush administration last weekend to announce the greatest rescue package and market intervention since the Great Depression.
And yet, the deal will not help Dolly Hanna, 51, and her husband, who bought five homes in the San Francisco area over the past 20 years, and were enjoying life during the housing boom by renting them out.
But her husband's overtime at his mechanic's job was cut, and the Hannas now find themselves overextended at a loss of $15,000 per month and trying two sell two of the homes.
With four children, Hanna had been a stay-at-home mom, but yesterday she started a job in real estate. They are seeking a renter for two upstairs bedrooms in their primary residence for $1,200.
Getting a loan during the boom was easy, Hanna knows. Too easy.
"All you had to was massage the information enough to fit it . . ., and they gave us a mortgage," Hanna said.