Foreclosures Hit the Unemployed Middle Class

The foreclosure crisis may be coming to a middle-class neighborhood near you. As joblessness continues to rise and as a person'sunemployment lasts on average 6.5 months, roughly 3.4 million homes are expected to go into foreclosure by the end of 2009. That's up from 1.2 million homes in 2007, according to RealtyTrac, a subscription-based site that tracks foreclosures nationwide. "We're not out of the woods yet," says Rick Sharga, RealtyTrac's senior vice president.

Sharga recently spoke to NEWSWEEK's Nancy Cook about the various waves of the foreclosure crisis, the future of homeownership and why the Obama administration's loan-modification program won't stem this latest crop of foreclosures. Excerpts:

What's this new "wave" in the foreclosure crisis?
The first wave was caused by bad loan products, while the second will be driven by unemployment. Right now, we're at the beginning of wave two. There are virtually no more foreclosures that are the result of subprime lending. The demographics of the foreclosure crisis are changing and affecting people who were blue collar and entry to midlevel white collar. We're now seeing foreclosures on properties with higher loan values. Probably the single best predictor of the areas hardest hit in next wave will be where you will see rising unemployment rates. The third wave is going to involve borrowers who had adjustable rate loans, in which they had the option of deciding what payment to make including interest-only payments. These loans are going to default at ridiculous rates, and that wave will go from the middle of next year until 2011.

If more middle-class people are expected to lose their homes, is the geography of the foreclosure crisis also expected to change?
We're already seeing some shifts. Four or five states—California, Nevada, Florida, and Arizona—will always be among the top in the foreclosure parade. They overbuilt and overpriced those homes and sold them with horrific loans. What's happening now is that you're seeing places like Michigan and Ohio that were devastated by unemployment have an increase. Those foreclosures are much harder to salvage because those people have no income.

But even as the numbers of foreclosures rise, the housing market seems to be stabilizing.
We will see a L-shaped recovery in the housing market if this scenario plays out until 2013 and if the financial institutions meticulously manage the disposition of these properties. We won't see a huge dip in home prices, but you also won't have a huge run-up in the building part of the industry that contributed a fair number of jobs to the economy. The housing market will not feel healthy for a few years. This is not a short-lived recession.

What will this mean for the future of homeownership?
We had sort of gotten to an illogical point with the high levels of homeownership. In practice, it turns out that not everyone can afford a house. I think there is more of a realization among potential homeowners that they won't do it until they can afford it.

If more people will rent, what will this mean for the rental market?
People assume that apartment rentals rates will go up, but in many markets in the country, the rental rates are the lowest they've been in years. In Las Vegas, Arizona, Florida, and California, people now rent a whole house instead of an apartment, so these cycles have an affect of lowering apartment rental prices and increasing vacancy rates.

Do you think the Obama administration has done enough to prevent foreclosures?
By sheer volume, the Obama administration's plan is really having a minimal effect. The administration's loan-modification program won't have any success with the types of foreclosure you see now. If you're unemployed, you don't qualify for a loan modification.