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Voters with housing woes giving up on politicians

By Jeri Clausing
Associated Press / October 25, 2011

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MESA, Ariz.—Like just about everyone in the Phoenix area, Jen Pollock has lost several neighbors to foreclosure and short sales. And, like hundreds of thousands of others in Arizona, Pollock and her husband are upside down on their mortgage, owing about twice as much as their suburban house is now worth.

They don't want to walk away from it. They just wish someone would let them renegotiate their mortgage.

"The banks keep telling us they won't talk to us unless we miss some payments. But that would ruin our credit," said the 36-year-old mom as her son climbed around a north Phoenix playground.

Asked if she was upset by the lack of solutions being offered by presidential candidates for the housing crisis, she said she doesn't pay much attention to politics.

Across America, despite the hundreds protesting for limited government or more government action, a broad swath of the middle class hit hard by the crash in housing prices is quietly resigned, given up on seeing any relief -- particularly from politicians.

"No one's come up with the answer," said Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who hosted President Barack Obama in 2009 when the president launched his first foreclosure relief plan.

"People are just holding on and thinking that as life generally is, somehow this thing will work its way out. I think they have zero confidence in the politicians' ability to work it out for them," said Smith, a Republican leading a Republican-dominated suburb.

Obama unveiled another relief plan Monday in Las Vegas, the nation's foreclosure capital. The new plan eases eligibility for people like Pollock to qualify for new loan terms. But banks are not required to participate, leaving many questions about whether the plan will be any more effective than the other measures that have been offered up over the past four years.

"Most of the programs have been based on ideas of reducing your monthly payments for a period of time," said Jay Butler, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business who has closely tracked the housing and foreclosure crisis in Arizona. "I think a lot of these ideas started in the Bush administration with the idea that was going to be relatively short-lived, one or two years, and things would get back to great and glorious. And none of that has happened."

And many of those programs, Butler said, are not being used by the people who really need them.

"It's difficult to understand programs," he said. "Who do you contact? The loan servicer? The lender? They might not even have the mortgage anymore. Then you have all these scams going on. ... It's sort of like this snowball running down the crest. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger and sooner or later it just runs you over."

Housing, Butler said, is just part of the issue.

"Food and energy prices went up. People are not getting pay raises. A lot of people who have jobs find health care and pension costs going up, so net take-home pay is going down," he said. "So it's just sort of like you are getting hammered."

And that makes it far too complex for politicians to put their arms around.

At the Republican presidential candidates' debate in Las Vegas last week, a property owner asked the candidates what specifically they would do to fix the housing crisis. The discussion on the stage quickly dissolved into bickering about who supported Obama's economic stimulus package.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has released an Internet ad chastising Obama for the housing crisis in Nevada, said government programs to fix the crisis haven't worked. A day earlier, he told a local newspaper the crisis needs to run its course and hit bottom.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann sympathized with mothers who are in a foreclosure crisis, but none of the candidates offered an answer.

The Democratic National Committee unveiled a television ad Monday, set to run in Arizona, attacking Romney's statements to the Las Vegas newspaper. And Arizona Democratic Chairman Andrei Cherny said that while voters are resigned, he expects Obama to make more announcements on the housing issue in coming months.

But Butler says there is not much more they can do.

"Politicians get too much credit when it's good and too much blame when it's bad," he said.

One of his colleagues, real estate professor Mark Strapp, said that while Obama seems to be trying to fix past wrongs that sent the help to the wrong people, Republicans will probably continue to ignore the issue because they don't want to alienate Wall Street.

"They don't want to deal with it because there is not an easy solution," Strapp said.

When the housing crisis first hit his city, Smith said about 8 percent of the housing stock in Mesa was empty -- about 12,000 homes. While fewer for-sale and foreclosure signs dot the landscape now, he those numbers have held steady for about four years now.

A former builder, Smith says most of his friends from that business have been out of work for three years. Most have lost their homes and spent all their savings. Now they are just scraping by.

Are they even talking about presidential politics?

"Not really. Maybe some are," Smith said. "But they've lost so much hope in what Washington can do. They are so turned off by the posturing, the bickering, the partisanship, that it's not even worth talking about."