Editorial Observer: Sean Hannity’s Guide to Real Estate

Posted May 6, 2018 9:36 p.m. EDT

Sean Hannity pouts that he’s not getting credit for helping to solve the housing crisis. The Fox News “journalist,” using $17.9 million in mortgages subsidized with insurance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, used shell companies to buy distressed properties. All perfectly legal, but it’s the kind of federal aid Hannity so often derides.

“It is ironic that I am being attacked for investing my personal money in communities that badly need such investment and in which, I am sure, those attacking me have not invested their money,” he retorted.

All perfectly correct, since journalists who don’t have to put quotation marks around their job description are unlikely to have millions available for such humanitarian gestures.

Hannity’s all-in exposure to real estate might not be prudent. Piling into a single asset class is risky.

That’s a lesson learned by millions of Americans who spent and borrowed too much buying homes before the market collapsed, devastating so many families in the Great Recession. In the aftermath, Wall Street, whose reckless lending and complex derivatives led to the meltdown, took advantage of the millions of foreclosed homes on the market. Its strategies continue to distort the housing market.

Hedge funds and private equity firms such as Blackstone Group bought up homes by the thousands from banks eager to get them off their books. They were so eager, in fact, that many homeowners were unlawfully bullied into foreclosure.

It’s been sort of a revolving door for the perpetrators of the housing bust. Banks such as IndyMac underwrote mortgages to buyers who could not be expected to keep up with their payments. Those loans were then repackaged by the likes of Goldman Sachs into “highly rated” securities. When it all went sideways, people like Steve “I Take Great Offense to Anybody Who Calls Me the Foreclosure King” Mnuchin picked at the carcasses. Mnuchin, a former Goldman executive and later the chief executive of IndyMac’s successor company, OneWest Bank, is now the Treasury secretary.

Hannity joined this flock of vultures in 2012, buying distressed properties using limited liability corporations — shell companies that are often used to hide the real ownership.

Which brings us back to putting all your chips on a single asset class. Hannity and the hedgies avoid the risks, and seek superior returns on investment, by raising rents. With supplies tight in many areas, they have pricing power.

Rents went up an above-average 50 percent in five years at one of Hannity’s Georgia housing complexes, The Los Angeles Times reported. Not surprisingly, so did evictions — although his company also renovated the properties.

He’s a bit of a trendsetter. Housing Secretary Ben Carson suggested tripling the rent of people getting federal subsidies, an interesting anti-poverty solution. This while the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University reports that 11 million renters are still “severely burdened” by housing costs.

As the hedge funds and the Hannitys have thrived, many others find themselves unable to afford homes. There has been a pickup in construction and sales recently, but demand still outstrips supply. We’ve only recovered two-thirds of the construction needed to catch up with the increase in new households, according to Robert Dietz, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders.

The Republican tax overhaul, which cuts taxes for the wealthy, will make it harder to afford a home. It slashed the number of people who can use mortgage interest deductions and limited to $10,000 the deduction for state and local taxes. Tariffs on Canadian softwood have pushed up lumber prices, adding a Trump Tax of $6,000 to the cost of building a new home, according to Dietz, who notes that “Every $1,000 increase prices out about 150,000 households.”

That is, if there are enough workers to even build homes. Despite adding 257,000 jobs over the last 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry still needs some 200,000 workers, with some of that shortfall no doubt linked to current immigration policy, or the fear of it. The need is so great that the Home Depot Foundation is putting up $50 million to help train and hire skilled workers.

Hannity may be a sideshow. But as investors like him profit off the housing collapse, millennials struggle to find homes they can afford. Once again, average Americans struggle, while guys like Hannity thrive.

Capitol Broadcasting Company's Opinion Section seeks a broad range of comments and letters to the editor. Our Comments beside each opinion column offer the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about this article.

In addition, we invite you to write a letter to the editor about this or any other opinion articles. Here are some tips on submissions >> SUBMIT A LETTER TO THE EDITOR