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Keepin' It Real Estate: A Real Fix for Housing

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Getting to the "bottom" of the housing market.

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While pundits and politicians debate the various aspects of President Obama's $275 billion housing bailout, one piece of data proves just how misguided federal efforts to revitalize the housing market are: $275 billion could buy more than half of all American homes already in foreclosure.

Such an undertaking would remove distressed homes from the market and spur community revitalization efforts throughout areas desperately in need of the hope they were promised in November.

According to real-estate analytics website Realtytrac.com, foreclosures were filed on 2,330,483 homes in 2008, up 83% from the year before. The median home price in the US is $180,100 - which means 1,526,929 of those homes could be bought with $275 billion. And since foreclosures are centered primarily in areas with low home values, the true number of properties the bailout money could be used to buy is likely much higher.

While the logistics for such an outrageously common-sense solution to the nation's housing woes are daunting, they're no less challenging than the massive loan modification efforts already in place. And their results continue to prove underwhelming, at best.

Such a solution also addresses the rapidly mounting discontent over bailing out those homeowners who made bad decisions. Distressed borrowers wouldn't directly receive any taxpayer money - though they would indirectly benefit from the massive government expenditure in their community.

Cash would be funneled down to the local level, where cities and counties could more effectively distribute it. To be sure, local governments can be as bureaucratic and inefficient as Washington -- not to say corrupt -- but by allocating capital to localities, each community would be responsible for its own clean-up efforts.

Private investors, developers, nonprofits and real-estate professionals could compete for business, adding a free-market component to rescue efforts - and even spurring a little sorely-needed economic activity.

Some cities aren't content to wait for federal money to trickle down from the White House. Menlo Park, California, best known for its devotion to the bubble lifestyle, is considering using city money to buy and refurbish foreclosed homes.

The town, like many others in America, is split by a highway that acts as a major dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. While there are just 97 homes in foreclosure in Menlo Park, the vast majority are on "the other side of the tracks," away from the mansions and quiet, tree-lined streets of West Menlo. The proposal will use money from a $2 million fund already seeded by developers who opted not to allocate units for low-income housing.

The city plans to tap Habitat for Humanity to refurbish the homes, using community volunteers and local experts to oversee the improvements. The president of the local Homeowners Association, Ash Vasudeva, said "When rehabilitation is going on, it uplifts the entire community." A simple statement, but true.

And while this is one small city undertaking one small project, it could serve as a model for other communities around the country. Not to mention the fact that the mere announcement of $275 billion in real-estate investments would hasten the price discovery the housing market so sorely needs.

Furthermore, banks stand to gain little from such a use of public funds - which could be why such a plan has yet to be proposed on Capitol Hill. When a bank forecloses on a home, JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Wells Fargo (WFC) or Citigroup (C) is forced to write the asset down to at least the amount of the outstanding loan. But since most properties are worth far less than the loan amount, selling the property at market prices would require further writedowns.

So, as banks soak up billions in bailout money under the auspices of massive loan modification efforts aimed at stemming foreclosures, vacant homes lay in disrepair, vagrants loot the pipes - and communities continue to deteriorate.

But instead of allocating funds for such grassroots efforts, Washington continues to issue broad, vague orders aimed at helping many, but in very small amounts. Such programs have failed before, and they'll fail again.

Maybe it's time for a new approach.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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