photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

A Million Empty Rooms, but No Room at the Inn

Walk into just about any church this time of year and you will find a crèche, with a manger, Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, sheep and cattle. In the story of Jesus’s birth, as told by Matthew and Luke, there was no room at the inn for a tired pregnant woman and her weary spouse. As a result, the newborn Savior of the World was laid in a bed of straw in a cave.

When I look at these nativity scenes, I think about the thousands of American families who also have no rooms to call their own.  HUD reports that in 2010, nearly 242,000 persons in families were homeless on any given night.  Nearly one million children were homeless at times over the course of the 2009-2010 school year, according to public school officials.

Yet more than a million homes sit empty in cities and suburban lots and rural landscapes. More than 4 million homes have been foreclosed on.

Many foreclosed homes are now filled with mold. Others have been turned into marijuana farms.  A house in Detroit was covered in ice by artists who were making a point about the frozen housing market. Occupy Our Homes movements are springing up in cities around the country, demanding that banks negotiate with homeowners instead of foreclosing on them.

The housing crisis is a human crisis. It is also an economic crisis that perpetuates the human crisis.

Back in May, the New York Times reported that economists were worried that growing inventory of bank-owned homes was further depressing home values, leading to more distressed sales or foreclosures. They estimated it would take three years or longer to sell all of the houses currently owned by the banks.

A few ideas about how to handle this enormous problem have been circulating recently.

In September, Glenn Hubbard, Dean of the Columbia Business School, along with Alan Boyce and Chris Mayer issued Streamlined Refinancings for up to 30 Million Borrowers, proposing a mass refinancing program that could benefit as many as 30 million borrowers who have government-backed mortgages. Unlike the other government programs to date, this plan would permit homeowners who are current on their mortgages to refinance at today’s low rates and with reduced closing costs. Lowering the mortgage payments for these homeowners could generate savings of $70 to $100 billionper year, which would be pumped into the economy, increasing market demand, creating jobs, and stabilizing the housing market.

Tackling the problem of already foreclosed homes, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), HUD, and the Treasury Department has asked private investors, industry stakeholders, and community organizations to propose  ways that homes currently held by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) could be brought back to the market–e.g. through programs for previous homeowners to rent properties or for current renters to become owners through a lease-to-own option.

Will any of these ideas work?  What are the drawbacks? Are there innovative approaches in your community to keep families in their homes that could work on a national or regional basis? What would you do with these empty houses?  Post your ideas here.

We need to keep people in their houses instead of adding to the thousands of families seeking shelter each night.  And open the doors to those that sit empty because of an economic crisis that refuses to resolve. Because while we sing “Away in the Manger” this Christmas season, we know that for too many women, men and children, a night without a home is not that far away.