Saturday, July 05, 2008

Connolly and Fairfax Supervisors Get It Right - WAPO Doesn't Get It

Just when you think it’s safe to praise the Washington Post, they come up with an editorial criticizing what may be one of the most creative plans in the nation to deal with the mortgage crisis. It’s further proof of something I’ve long suspected about the Post, which is that their editorial page writers don’t read or respect their own reporters’ work. That can be the only explanation for some of the editorial positions they take which appear to contradict their own front page articles. That appears to be the case here, where Amy Gardner wrote an excellent story on Gerry Connolly’s plan to buy outright some abandoned property to resell to first time homebuyers, especially county employees, and to provide subsidized loans for other foreclosed homes.

And what is the main reason for the Washington Post editorial board’s objection?

They are not sure there’s a crisis yet.
A BOLD PLAN to turn foreclosed homes into affordable housing in Fairfax County is a good idea that is based on fuzzy math. Foreclosures are on the rise in Fairfax, as they are throughout the country, but it's unclear whether the problem is severe enough to require government intervention. Some Fairfax officials say that 3,500 homes in the county were foreclosed on in the first three months of 2008; others say that the number is closer to 2,000. There are no data on how long properties in Fairfax that are foreclosed on remain on the market, and it may be that the private sector is taking care of the problem.
It frankly sounds like they are getting ready to drink the same free market Kool Aid that Republican ideologues Michael Frey and Pat Herrity have been known to quaff.

Mortgage foreclosures jumped from 74 in January of 2007 to 1400 in January of 2008 according to a CNN report yesterday (great video at that link). And the Washington Post is questioning whether there’s a problem here?

Further, the Post’s caution, suggesting that county government wait until the crisis of abandoned homes grows even worse, could speed the deterioration of stable middle class neighborhoods, drive property values down even further below market rates, and exacerbate crime and gang problems. Sometimes, being proactive as well as creative can head off major problems. And sometimes waiting on ideology can make small problems gargantuan.

To be sure, some of the Post’s suggestions for implementing this program are correct and are well taken.
The county's housing department will administer these programs, but supervisors will decide which homes to buy. It is unclear how they plan to make this decision. Supervisors said that they would target areas at risk of becoming foreclosure clusters, including neighborhoods in Herndon, Centreville, Vienna and Falls Church. But without precise data on foreclosures, the decision will largely be subjective. This ambiguity could allow politics to enter the equation, particularly for supervisors running for office. It is also unclear whether the purchase of 10 homes would put a dent in the foreclosure rate or arrest falling property values. The housing department will go over many of these details with supervisors in a July 21 meeting.
Yes, the county government should proceed in a sensible and pragmatic manner. And that precaution could have been pointed out in a more favorable editorial that supported the idea and made the same point that even good ideas need to be implemented carefully and wisely. But the whole tone of the editorial was negative at its beginning, seeking to question, not simply the implementation but the very necessity of this program to start with, and that’s where the Post editors showed their usual myopia about any government solution. It’s worth noting, however, that the same free market, anti-government intervention Washington Post did not object to an expensive government bailout for the mortgage industry, which created this mess.

They rightly argued that even though many of the companies did not deserve the help, it would be an economic disaster to simply do nothing. They were right then. And they are wrong now because it would also be an economic disaster, for a different group of people, to simply let abandoned homes destroy the property values of hardworking people who, through no fault of their own, happen to have had the misfortune of living next door to other people who defaulted on their mortgages and had to vacate those homes.

On a separate note, it should be pointed out that the Washington Post editorial writers also have a problem with their own fuzzy numbers. They referred to Gerry Connolly as the candidate from the 10th CD, rather than the 11th. Sure it could be just a typo, as Post defenders will rush to comment. But the Washington Post pays lots of money for proofreaders, copy editors and fact checkers. So somebody should have picked that one up. Were they asleep at the wheel or do they just not know Virginia as much as they think they do at the National desk?


Doug in Mount Vernon said...

Excellent commentary. I am still not sure what I think of this program as I just don't know enough about the details or what the program is actually going to do to help a terrible situation, but I do give credit to Fairfax for being pro-active.

I have to agree with your assessment of the Post's editorial board scribblings though. I rarely even pay attention to them anymore, unlike years ago.

The Post is nothing if not an incredibly inconsistent newspaper. Perhaps that's good? Perhaps not? I don't know. But I find their coverage of Virginia often lacking in an understanding of what's really going on in the communities....

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

I agree Doug. I've seen the Washington Post run beautifully written, sensitive stories on the plight of workers displaced by off shoring of U.S. jobs on their front page, only to turn around and print enthusiastic editorials promoting globalism on their editorial page.

Worse, the editorial writers will dismiss the very problems that were so well described on their own front page. It really sometimes seems as if they just don't read their own reporters.

And this editorial criticizing a program with a lot of promise appears to be one of those times.

politicsandamericanpie said...

The only wood the Post is concerned with is the chips that make their paper- certainly not the 2by4's that make up the housing industry. Ostrichs!! And we wonder how the American public got hoodwinked into a war overseas...